Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Review of "Good Prose" by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd (Random House, 2013)

To be honest, the initial emotion I felt reading this book was jealousy. This primarily a book about writing and a very good one; ranking with Stephen King’s “On Writing” and Anne Lamont’s “Bird by Bird”. But the book isn’t just about writing. It’s about a relationship, a friendship; but an unlikely one. The friendship is between a writer and an editor.
“Friend” is not the first word many writers think of when they think of their editors. “Boss” might be one of the kinder words that comes to mind. “Vandal”, “philistine” or “nemesis” is might be the less kind words other writers when they are avoiding obscenities.

For some writers an editor is the wall keeping her away from the public. For other writers, an editor isn’t a person but rather a red pen that desecrates his work. For most writers, an editor is an anonymous name on the letter of a masthead. An editor is not someone that can be known, but an unseen, perhaps sinister force.

As for me, I’ve had a good relationship for the most part with my editors. I’ve had a number of books published with a certain publisher. I’ve never seen an editor in person. The relationship with the first editor took place by phone, but communications with succeeding editors has chiefly been via e-mail. They’ve always been polite and helpful. But the editors have never had time for extensive revisions of my work, usually just tucks and tweaks.

But Richard Todd as an editor at the Atlantic took Tracy Kidder under his tutelage and helped him become a best-selling author. Kidder has written some of my favorite nonfiction works and this book made me thankful for Richard Todd’s part in bringing those works into the world.

Most of us think of editors as people that critic a writing product after most of the work is done. But Todd was in on most of Kidder’s project from beginning, a couple of times providing the ideas for the projects.

Kidder acknowledges the patience Todd has had through the long process of creating articles and books. And Kidder salutes the wisdom that Todd has provided through the years that enabled him to find not just the structure and facts for a book, but also the tone and texture.

And Todd expresses his appreciation for Kidder’s hard work in taking suggestions (and on occasion, orders) and making them work. Not many publishers can afford to give writers the time and attention that Todd has given Kidder through the years. But the book is a good reminder that editors share with writers the common goal of good prose.

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