The current issue of the New Yorker
discusses Raymond Carver's relationship with his editor, the infamous Gordon Lish. Online, they present one of his famous short stories with all the edits made by Lish. It's astounding
Lish's edits look like the work of a writer working him or herself over severely with a sharp bunch of hemlock branches. The kind of thing an author does early in the drafting process when that kind of extensive "killing of one's children" is inevitable, and is followed by a stiff drink or several. (I remember waking up one morning with the realization that I had to delete the first 75 pages of my book.)
Lish not only removed up to 40% of the original text, he added plenty of his own. He changed the title from Beginners to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He changed "Honey" to "Sweetie." He changed one of the four main characters name from "Herb" to "Mel."
But by today's standard what is astounding isn't that Lish took so much liberty, it was that he took any at all. I've got several friends who are authors, and what we usually get from our "editors" is about the same as a college student gets from an enthusiastic professor. We're lucky if they manage to catch most of our grammatical errors, much less rechristen our characters.
This isn't the editor's fault. The game of publishing has changed. More people write books for fewer readers. There isn't the money or time to spend going over multiple drafts and tuning sentences or themes. If the writer can't get it right on their own, nobody is going to fix it.
A publisher shepherding a writer from rough manuscript to final book today is as much myth as WMDs in Iraq.
For my book, I hired two separate editors costing me over $2,000. I inundated friends and writing groups with drafts. I very nearly skewered a relationship with my now-girlfriend over her honest comments about my ultimately deleted opening. One friend was generous enough to sit through five major drafts ? helping me work down 120 chapters to fourteen. I sent the book out during all these drafts and it was roundly rejected. Until I had finished my final edit, no publisher could see the potential in the book ? they simply have too many manuscripts on their desk.
Publishing has gone from being a collaborative effort that produced a product with the author's name on the binding to one where the author really is chief cook and bottle washer.
My publisher did give me an editorial pass, and because they are an independent, I know it was more thorough than my friends who have been published by the major houses. He improved the manuscript dramatically, but accepted it mostly for what it was. (There are plenty of errors, left because of the lack of resources for full editing. However, I also know that I'm actually below the industry average for, ahem, typos.)
In the end, Raymond Carver may have been happy to get out from under the thumb of Gordon Lish later in his career, but that there was any career at all was due to that full editorial relationship ? one which no author, or reader, will ever benefit from again.