Friday, November 18, 2005

Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg

I tend to enjoy the history of publishing, and so found this bio of superstar Scribner's editor, Maxwell Perkins, quite interesting. Perkins is most famous for making famous F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. He's also responsible for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and a lot of other authors who were apparently mega-sellers in their day but are no longer known. I've known the facts about Perkins for quite sometime (he's famous in my family for being married to my grandfather's cousin--how's that for useless name-dropping?), but I had never before realized that he favored a certain kind of writing and a certain kind of writer. Apparently he liked larger-than-life people who wrote about their large lives. So while he had a keen eye for finding good stylists, what he was really looking for were writers with built in stories to tell. It was Perkins who pressed Rawlings to write a book about her childhood in the Everglades, a book that became The Yearling.

I myself have never been one for writing overtly autobiographical fiction (probably because I like a life that's smaller than life), and as I read this bio I started to wonder if I discourage (or discourage by omission) autobiographical fiction from my students. One of the factors of creative writing classes is the student-writers are often quite young. And so to suggest they should write autobiographical fiction seems sort of absurd. Yet I've found that the undergraduate workshops I've taught in creative nonfiction have generated some really good material. And the non-autobiographical fiction generated in workshop is often out of this world (I mean literally, not as a description of its qualities). Not that science fiction/fantasy writing is anything to be ashamed of, but it's not typically what I'm trying to teach. So maybe the key is to help students identify what of their autobiography actually makes for good writing. It's often the stuff you wouldn't want to admit to in a room full of near-strangers, so we wouldn't have to get into the details; yet I think it's worth at least talking more openly about using autobiography as source material, and talking too about how to transition it into fiction.


Anonymous said...

This has nothing to do with Max Perkins. I just read your column on the Chronicle's site. Ironically, I had read about the same teen who got a contract for her novel, and I, too, made her my enemy. Her success spurred me into writing three novels this year, one of which is under contract now. Of course, I still hate her because I, too, wrote a novel at 16 but no one wanted to publish mine.

Anonymous said...

I posted too quickly. I don't hate her. I envy her.

rocky lupo said...

An editor has to have a pssion for anonmity. Like Socrates, he is a midwife helping a writer bring forth his offspring. His job is not to do the writer's job for him. I once saw what an academic had done to the writing of a graduate student: he had crossed out every word on the page and substituted his own writing. That's not editing -- that's vanity.