An American Editor

October 12, 2016

Thinking Fiction: What Do Editors Read? (Part I)

by Carolyn Haley

In thinking about subjectivity in fiction writing and editing, as I so often do, I became curious about my editorial colleagues’ reading preferences. What do they consider good novels?

Their opinions would be diverse, I knew, which led me to wondering just how diverse. If ten different editors walked into a bookstore and each bought ten books, how many would choose the same title(s)?

No better way to find out than to ask, so I turned to Copyediting-L, a long-standing e-mail list group of both self-employed and staff editors; current, retired, and aspiring. Seeking to satisfy my curiosity and maybe write an essay if enough people responded, I posted an informal invitation for anyone to send me a list of ten published novels that “you think are Really Good,” which the editors had read “any time from birth to today.”

Thirteen editors responded, with twelve providing a full list and the thirteenth providing a partial list, for a total of 127 titles. Only eight titles were duplicated, or 6.3%, making a total list of 119 unique titles. None of the eight duplications was selected by more than two editors.

These numbers satisfy my curiosity in general. A broader sampling and more formal questionnaire will show whether or not the baker’s dozen of responders represents the editorial community of many thousands. I will conduct a larger survey in the future and see what arises. For now, the starter sampling is interesting in what it does and does not present.

General results

To frame the list in some sort of context, I asked the responding editors for basic data about themselves, their work, and their recreational reading habits.

The thirteen responders comprised eight women and five men. Beyond that I have data for only twelve, because one did not submit details. The dozen are located around the world, with the majority in the United States. Their ages range from thirty-six to seventy-nine, and their years of professional experience range from four to fifty. Two of the responders edit full time, nine edit part time (a definition that includes “semi-retired”), and one is retired. Of those still editing commercially, ten are self-employed and one holds a staff position. Only four work on fiction at all, and none exclusively. This last point surprised me, as I would have expected fiction-dedicated editors to be the primary responders to my survey.

What did not surprise me is that the majority of responders prefer to read recreationally on paper. Whether this reflects their eyesight or personalities and lifestyles, I did not seek enough information to explain. I’m sure it’s not a matter of age, because the two responders who read exclusively ebooks are fifty-six and sixty-nine, while the two youngest (thirty-six and forty-one) are dedicated to print. Of the ten print devotees, six prefer print books only, while four mix print books with ebooks.

Another element that did not surprise me in the editors’ recreational reading choices was a bias toward literary novels. Most of the selected titles came from literary and general fiction, including the bulk of duplications. As mentioned above, there were eight overlaps in title (same novel mentioned by two different responders) but also eight overlaps in author (separate titles by same author mentioned by two different responders).

Title duplications

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  4. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  5. Pride and Prejudice, also by Austen
  6. The Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis
  7. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Author duplications

  1. Jane Austen
  2. Charles Dickens
  3. Umberto Eco
  4. George Eliot
  5. George Orwell
  6. J. R. R. Tolkien
  7. Anne Tyler
  8. Edith Wharton

Second to literary and general fiction came speculative fiction — “spec fiction” being the collective term for fantasy, science fiction, alternative history, and the like. This was unexpected (I would have guessed mystery), as was the number of series mentioned. Genre romance was conspicuous by its absence (no surprise), but other genres made an appearance, such as historical fiction, suspense, and mystery. It might seem at first that horror was also represented, because titles by well-known horror writers Clive Barker and Stephen King showed up, but both authors write other material, and in this case the responders selected from those authors’ spec-fiction novels.

Most titles were traditionally published. But three self-published novels made the list: Sentence of Marriage by Shayne Parkinson, via CreateSpace; Chermpf by William S. Russell III, via a private press; and The Martian by Andy Weir. The Martian exemplifies many writers’ dream scenario. The author, in his twenties, initially wrote the story as a serial on his website. Reader demand led to a book available via Kindle. When that became a best seller, the author was approached by a literary agent (compared to the usual situation of authors soliciting agent attention). A big-name publisher then acquired the novel, which made the New York Times best-seller list and went on to become a popular movie that received awards and its actors earned Academy Award nominations. It’s amazing to see that story on the same list as one of the oldest stories in the world, The Tale of Genji (ca. 1021, Japan).

The subjectivity factor

As always when I run a survey, there’s a rogue element I didn’t anticipate. This time it was interpretation of the request: “send me a list of 10 published novels you think are Really Good.” I should have emphasized you, because one editor glided past it and focused on the cap emphasis of Really Good, saying, “I’m not sure how far I can get with such a list. I’m not really a fan of Really Good novels. I lean more toward schlock. For example I read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a college freshman, and it left me cold. Never picked it up again, either. Maybe I’d think differently today. OTOH, I’ve read Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair probably three times. That’s not a Really Good novel; it’s well-crafted escape literature.”

That comment bowled me over. Why can’t “well-crafted escape literature” and “schlock” be Really Good for someone? Josephine Tey, as it happens, wrote what the British Crime Writers’ Association deemed to be “the greatest mystery novel of all time” (Daughter of Time) in its 1990 Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. The same association placed The Franchise Affair at number eleven on the list. That kind of ranking suggests a novel that mystery lovers might find Really Good. (This is confirmed on our list of thirteen responders, two of whom selected titles that are on the BCWA’s top one hundred: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.)

The commenting editor goes on to say, “I’m not sure if Dickens can be counted as Really Good. Pretty sure Gone With the Wind doesn’t count. Nor any of my childhood favorites — Burnett’s A Little Princess and Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, for example.”

The obvious subjectivity revealed here is why I asked the survey respondents what they, not their school teachers or other literary authorities, think is Really Good, and why I put Anne of Green Gables, Gone with the Wind, and The Franchise Affair on the results list instead of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. I believe that literature comprises the body of written work produced by the general population, and that it contains something for everyone, and ranges as broadly in quality as it does in diversity. I sought, through this survey, to learn about editors’ different tastes in creative literature, specifically novels, and to assemble a book buffet for all of us to sample from.

A different responder similarly found a distinction between popular fiction and literature, mentioned in an exchange we had about Stephen King. This editor’s title list was predominantly literary fiction, so when commercial giant King’s 11/22/63 appeared on his list, I was startled enough to initiate discussion. King is reviled by some literati as a hack who produces schlock. But this responder felt that 11/22/63 “stands apart” and “may come to be recognized as his best book. The story is absolutely extraordinary…and the writing is really top-notch.”

That sounds Really Good to me!

You can see for yourself what the responding editors enjoyed reading in the break-out that follows. Although the list of editor’s favorites begins in this essay, owing to length, the list will conclude in the next Thinking Fiction column. Each editor’s list is accompanied by a brief profile.

Editors’ personal favorites (the first three)

Editor #1: female, 51, non-U.S.

  • Professional experience: 9 years; currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction (library and information studies) doing copy editing, proofreading, some developmental editing, plus teaching and consulting, for individuals (esp. students) and publishers.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (English literature and history), master’s (library and information studies), doctorate in process (information science).
  • Recreational reading: 6–8 nonfiction and 1–3 novels per month, also poetry and essays, always in print. Prefers general fiction with special interest in fantasy and historical fiction. Favorite author: Terry Pratchett.
  • Top 10:

Foundation trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation), Isaac Asimov
Interesting Times (17th of the 40+ volume Discworld series), Terry Pratchett
People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
The Chronicles of Narnia (7 volumes starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), C. S. Lewis
The Emperor’s Winding Sheet, Jill Paton Walsh
The Evolution Man: Or, How I Ate My Father, Roy Lewis
The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
The Night Watch (29th of the 40+ volume Discworld series), Terry Pratchett
The Third Policeman, Brian O’Nolan (writing as Flann O’Brien)

Editor #2: female, no other data provided.

  • Top 10:

Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Star-gazer, Sena Jeter Naslund
Atonement, Ian McKewan
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler
Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden
Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
The World According to Garp, John Irving

Editor #3: female, 60, California

  • Professional experience: 12 years; currently part-time self-employed in memoir and occasional fiction, doing line and developmental editing for individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (biology). Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 2 books per month, mixed nonfiction and novels, always in print. Prefers romantic adventure, classics, and mystery. Favorite fiction author: Edith Wharton.
  • Top 10:

A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen
City of Thieves, David Benioff
Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Richard Bach
Mrs. Mike (lead title of the 3-volume Mrs. Mike series), Benedict and Nancy Freedman
Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton
The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde
The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy

You can catch the trend of the list from just these first samples. Most of the titles have been around for years — decades, generations! — and can be considered classics; indeed, some have been standards for study in advanced English/literature classes in schools. They prove that good stories stand the test of time, and suggest that editors take their fiction seriously.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.


  1. The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban
    Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban
    Little, Big, by John Crowley
    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig
    The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham
    The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald
    The Princess and Curdie, by George MacDonald
    The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis
    There Are Doors, by Gene Wolfe
    A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
    The Sword in the Stone, by T. H. White
    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
    Ubik, by Philip K. Dick
    The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Cary


    Comment by Jack Lyon — October 12, 2016 @ 11:28 am | Reply

  2. And yes, I’ve edited many a novel.


    Comment by Jack Lyon — October 12, 2016 @ 11:34 am | Reply

  3. I find this fascinating. Thank you for your research and analysis!


    Comment by Rachel Skinner — October 18, 2016 @ 12:51 pm | Reply

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