I suppose some editors are failed writers - but so are most writers. – T.S. Eliot
The relationship between writers and editors should not be adversarial. As someone who’s spent a lot of time on both sides of that relationship, I’m certain that there are many good people out there who just don’t have time for more than a form letter. I often consider myself one of those people. I’m also certain there are many editors from whom I should be grateful that the form letter is the only dealings I’ve ever had with them. That assumption is based not on any run-ins I’ve had with editors, but on my general cynicism toward the human condition.
As an editor, presumably the idea is to get the best writing possible from people whose writing you like. As a writer, presumably the idea is to get your work published in the best condition possible. That last phrase is often where writers and editors come into conflict.
As co-editor of two small magazines, Swill and Monday Night, I have suggested quite a few line edits over the last few years. This occurs especially with Swill, which is my baby (although Sean helps me raise it) and has something resembling a specific direction. It’s a genre fiction literary magazine, or some such thing. (Check the excerpts at swillmagazine.com – we have published a wide variety of story “types,” and my favorites among them fall within all the categories, where they can even be categorized.) Regardless of the labels, I want the magazine to be as good as possible, which means suggesting edits. Writers do not agree with all my suggestions, and I’d probably be appalled if they did. The idea, after all, is to improve their story, not take it away from them. And I only make these suggestions if I am interested in publishing the story in the first place. As this suggestion process generally occurs after the story has already been accepted, the writer wins all arguments anyway.
Of course, sometimes the writer must wonder what the hell the editor is thinking, as witnessed by poet Frederick Seidel, who told this story about one of his first major publications, in The Hudson Review, in a recent New York Times Magazine.
“I got back a letter from the editor saying that the poem was brilliant… but wouldn’t I consider a number of changes they wanted to propose to the poem’s advantage? So I took a look at their suggestions, hung onto the poem and three months later sent it back to them – no changes whatsoever. Back came a note saying: ‘Wonderful! That does it! It’s just superb.’”
And yes, I feel fully capable of being that editor.