“I think ‘taste’ is a social concept and not an artistic one,” explained John Updike in an interview reprinted in his collection Hugging the Shore. “I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves.”
You’d think a book subtitled “An Editor’s Advice to Writers” would be about useful editing techniques, right? Wrong — at least not in Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees, which views the process of writing and and publishing through a literary editor’s lens. This is an insider’s look at the business, with juicy secrets from within the publishing house, from an editor who fearlessly bares her soul and, by way of it, encourages her readers to do the same.
As someone who discovered the world of copy editing only a couple years ago, has made mistakes and learned what the editor-writer relationship means and should be, and has since filled both shoes at once, I expected pages of wisdom about good, hard editing. What Lerner provides is much different: I knew it wasn’t going to be Strunk and White, but I wasn’t prepared for a collection of experiences throughout the years. Lerner reveals the beautiful and the ugly sides of the industry — and the bitterness and optimism that comes and goes for editors, agents, publicists, publishers, and writers alike. These people must all work together for a common goal, but their perspectives and priorities couldn’t be more different from day to day.
First, Lerner tackles the needs and neuroses of the writer, who is simply someone, of any walk of life, who must write. It doesn’t matter whether you’re good or bad, chronically unpublished or successful. A writer is someone who writes against all hardship and commits to whatever amount of work is necessary to improve — even if that means rewriting an entire book from a different character’s perspective or surviving a storm of criticism that never seems to clear.
And as far as the phrase, “Write what you know”? Lerner says it’s redundant — all writers, by fault, write what they know.
Lerner also urges aspiring authors to write like they don’t care if their mother will read it. You’re not going to shock, awe, or inspire any other sort of emotional reaction unless you’re fearless in what you put down on the page.
But to editors, agents, and publicists, writers are like children. So easily can they stray from the well-lit path into any manner of darkness: writer’s block, desperation, jealousy of peers, an insatiable need for attention, and even drugs, alcohol, and mental illness. They’re naive and impatient, and so often the rewards of publication are built on hopes and fantasies that, once shattered, can never be repaired.
Getting published isn’t an instant miracle. Sometimes it makes the struggle harder, Lerner tells us, and she backs up what she says.
She also explores all angles of the book world and shows how the people caught up in it interact with one another. Publicists get little love. The inside of a publishing house is a brutal environment where discouragement and thrill go hand in hand. And the business is always changing — with the growth of social media and the constant yet unpredictable threat of competition. No one ever really know what’s going to sell.
But Lerner shares the little joys, too — those rare, literary wonders that you fight for, and the ones that are runaway hits and a fleeting source of euphoria for everyone who made them happen. What’s even more amazing, though, is how safe the author makes readers — and writers — feel despite the hostility and enormous chance of disappointment. She holds in her hands not a pen, but a little flame of hope that refuses to go out.
Bottom line: Not for practical applications, but contains invaluable insight into the publishing industry that any aspiring writer should take the time to read.
What I liked: The author’s swift use of language and her bravery.
What I wasn’t expecting: No concrete editing tips and advice to speak of.