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“Where was the editor?”

This week’s Horn Book podcast is devoted to–well, if you can ever say the podcast is devoted to one thing in particular beyond Siân and me yammering for half an hour–Lane Smith’s new book There Is a Tribe of Kids. At one point I opine that the publisher knew or should have known, anyway, about the loaded nature of the word tribe. I assume they pressed on regardless, as is their right and–I need to add–perhaps their obligation.

In thirty-five years of professional book discussion, I’ve noticed that in debate about a perceived flaw in a book, someone invariably asks, “where was the editor?” (Two sentences you are guaranteed to hear at a Notables discussion: Where was the editor? and This book is lovely.) I understand this question when it relates to factual errors or internal inconsistency, but there’s a reason why, in acknowledgments, authors (especially of nonfiction) will thank their helpers but will end with some variation on “all mistakes are my own.” Because they are, even when an editor missed something. And even when–especially when–something is perceived as not so much incorrect as it is wrong-headed (the criticism of Tribe of Kids is of this nature), the responsibility for the wrong-headedness belongs with a book’s creator(s), not its editor(s). The author gets the credit and the author takes the blame. Editors don’t generally tell authors what to do unless that’s how the author likes it. Their task–among many, of course–is to help the author create the book he or she wants to make in a way that makes that book resonate with its implied reader. An editor is there to reconcile the difference between what the author is trying to do, what the author has actually done, and what the author could do to make those two first two conditions align.

I know that this formula is simplified and idealized and I would be interested to hear whatever brutal takedown of it any editor might want to offer. But don’t blame the editor for when a book (by your lights) goes off course. (A corollary discussion could be had here about the claim that “editors don’t edit anymore” but we will save that for another time. It’s bullshit, though.)

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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  1. I tweeted about this in a series, but basically, yes, I agree, but the editor also has some responsibility: to ask the author questions to make the book better. In the case of cultural authenticity, that means that editors need to create structures that make sure they’re asking the author questions that the author might not know to ask, especially if the editor and the author are both working cross-culturally.

    Here at Lee & Low, we make sure to run manuscripts past cultural experts when writers are working cross-culturally. We expect writers to do their research and write the best book possible, of course, but we’ve put a system into place that helps to catch mistakes before the book is ever published.

    That requires making time in the schedule, sure. But I’d much rather allow more time for an expert to comment than to ask for a blurb from someone and be turned down because they’re offended by the book, or to have critics tear it to shreds because we missed something obvious to cultural insiders.

    So while ultimately the book is the author’s, not mine, it is my responsibility as an editor to ask the right questions, and when dealing with cultural issues, that includes figuring out what I don’t personally know.

    So no, I don’t tell the author what to do. But my job *is* to ask questions that elicit a better book, and if I don’t know what questions to ask, I need to become a better editor.

  2. Missed this when you posted it a few days ago, Roger. Thanks, Stacey for your response to Roger.

    I generally view a book as the product of a lot of people who work together to help an author get the book itself into a child’s hands, but the think of the book as ultimately the author’s because, as you noted, Roger, the author (not the editor) gets the credit.

    Last year, however, in the discussions of A FINE DESSERT, there were many people talking about the role of the art editor’s role. It seemed that people felt that Blackall was taking hits for what she was told to do by the art director.

    I hope other editors weigh in on Roger’s invitation about what editors do/do not do.

  3. Anne Ursu says:

    I’m no editor, but I want to respond to this as a writer and a teacher. First, I desperately hope every person who puts their eyes on my manuscript will tell me if there’s something hurtful in there before it goes to print. I would not want to work with people who believed otherwise.

    More, I don’t think we can separate harmful content from a writer’s vision. We can hope that few writers have the vision of perpetuating racist ideas–isn’t that what we always hear in these cases? That the creators’ intentions were good? But there these ideas/stereotypes/tropes come, bleeding into our work, because we live in a racist society–one that skews our vision, one that desperately resists anyone asking these kinds of questions. We will make mistakes. But if those get to print we’ve detracted from our vision; we’ve detracted from the reading experience. An editor points out times we’ve unknowingly done things that will detract–if I wrote something that could read, say, as a big sex allegory, or I write a character that’s way too much like Dumbledore, someone would tell me and I would be really embarrassed and rewrite it, because the reader would be thrown out of the book and it would detract. Why is this any different?

    I believe from the bottom of my soul that a book’s relationship with its readers matters, dearly, that attention to that relationship is essential to craft. We are, after all, writing for children–writing FOR someone is right there in the job title. So if I do something to hurt my readers–either reaching up from the pages and slapping them in the face, or contributing more drops to the poisons that course through our whole society and point of view, I have failed spectacularly at this craft. These ideas cannot be separated out.

    On a broader note, anti-racist work is everyone’s job. Here in this industry we’ve been all-too-happy to leave it to women of color, who are thanked for this emotional and intellectual labor by being ignored and maligned. And so we go on churning out books that are failing our readers. Don’t we want to do everything we can to stop? In which case, I think, we need all hands on deck–most especially the people from inside the industry.

    I am new to these conversations and am not up on a lot of the theory, but it seems to me as if the enemy of anti-racism isn’t racism–the enemy is apathy. Brushing off racist content in favor of some warped notion of the purity of the author’s vision seems awfully apathetic to me, and seems to give publishers a pass for what is a massive systemic failure.

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