An American Editor

November 2, 2016

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

by Carolyn Haley

In Thinking Fiction: What Do Editors Read? (Part I), I described an informal survey I made among editorial colleagues to learn what novels they felt to be Really Good. Thirteen responded. What follows is the balance of the responders’ lists of Really Good novels, along with profile information for context.

Editors’ personal favorites (the final ten)

Editor #4: female, 76, Washington

  • Professional experience: 30 years; retired from staff position, currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction (business communications), doing copy and line editing for business consultancies and professional services firms.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (American studies), post-grad (incomplete, in film). Studied some literature and writing in high school and college.
  • Recreational reading: 2–3 books per month, approximately half novels, always in print. Prefers general fiction and mystery. Favorite fiction author: varies constantly, with Jo Nesbo current favorite.
  • Top 7:

A Little Princess, Francis Hodgson Burnett
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Anne of Green Gables (lead title of the 6-volume series w/prequels and sequels), Lucy Maud Montgomery
Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
The Franchise Affair, Josephine Tey
The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles

Editor #5: female, 79, California

  • Professional experience: 50 years; retired from nonfiction (educational materials, esp. biology and health) doing developmental editing for textbook publishers.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (biology), master’s (human ecology), doctorate (education). Studied some literature and writing in college.
  • Recreational reading: 5 books per month, approximately half novels. Prefers general fiction. Favorite fiction author: Margaret Atwood.
  • Top 10:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Candide, Voltaire
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow
Native Son, Richard Wright
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
Walden Two, B. F. Skinner

Editor #6: male, 69, Connecticut

  • Professional experience: 20+ years; currently full-time self-employed in mainly memoir and family history, some business/technical, doing developmental, line and copy editing, and production services for individual authors and companies.
  • Highest level of schooling: college without degree (math/computer science, English minor). Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 2 books per month, mainly nonfiction, a few non-business-related novels per year, always in print. Prefers an eclectic mix. Favorite fiction author: no opinion.
  • Top 10:

1984, George Orwell
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Chermpf, book 1 The Cats of Nova, William S. Russell III
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton
The Time Machine, H. G. Wells
Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan

Editor #7: female, 36, central Europe

  • Professional experience: 10 years; currently full-time staff in nonfiction and science (medical and physics), doing developmental, line, and copy editing for NGOs.
  • Highest level of schooling: undergrad (German and linguistics), grad (applied linguistics). Studied German literature in school.
  • Recreational reading: 5–10 books per month, mostly novels, always in print. Prefers literary fiction. Favorite fiction author: Anne Tyler.
  • Top 10:

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
Gut gegen Nordwind (trans. Love Virtually), Daniel Glattauer
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell, Susanna Clarke
Larry’s Party, Carol Shields
Of Love and Other Demons, Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
The Eyre Affair (lead title of the Thursday Next series, 7+ volumes ongoing), Jasper Fforde
The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters

Editor #8: female, 52, Jamaica

  • Professional experience: 10 years; currently full-time self-employed in nonfiction, moving into fiction, doing copy editing and indexing for individual authors, publishers, packagers, and businesses.
  • Highest level of schooling: graduate (library and information science). Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 4 books per month, mainly novels, in print and ebook. No category preference or favorite author.
  • Top 10:

1984, George Orwell
A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Naipaul
Green Days by the River, Michael Anthony
Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror (lead title of the 4-volume [plus prequel] Meg series), Steve Alten
Native Son, Richard Wright
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Silas Marner, George Eliot
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Weaveworld, Clive Barker

Editor #9: female, 69, Hawaii

  • Professional experience: 10 years; currently part-time self-employed in environmental sciences (ESL), science fiction and fantasy, doing developmental editing for individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: associate’s (STEM), bachelor’s and incomplete master’s (anthropology). Studied some literature and writing in school.
  • Recreational reading: 30 books per month, mainly novels, in ebook. Prefers science fiction and fantasy, 19th-century novels, and mystery. Favorite fiction author: no opinion.
  • Top 10:

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
Genji Monogatari (trans. The Tale of Genji), Murasaki Shikibu
Heartsease, Charlotte Yonge
Persuasion, Jane Austen
Peter Grant series (lead title Midnight Riot, 6+ volumes ongoing), Ben Aaronovitch
The Curse of Chalion (lead title of the 3-volume Chalion series), Lois McMaster Bujold
The Goblin Emperor, Sara Monette (writing as Katherine Addison)
The Martian, Andy Weir
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (lead title in series of same name, 16+ volumes ongoing), Alexander McCall Smith
Villette, Charlotte Brontë

Editor #10: male, 56, Massachusetts

  • Professional experience: 23 years; currently full-time staff managing editor for a nonprofit periodical.
  • Highest level of schooling: no college degree. Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 4–5 books per month, mainly novels, in ebook. Prefers speculative fiction. Favorite fiction author: Ursula Le Guin.
  • Top 10:

A Door Into Ocean (lead title of the 4-volume Elysium Cycle series), Joan Slonczewski
Ancillary Justice (lead title of the 3-volume Imperial Radch series), Ann Leckie
Doctor Thorne (book 3 of the 6-volume Chronicles of Barsetshire), Anthony Trollope
Little, Big: Or, The Fairies’ Parliament, John Crowley
Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar
O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
The Sparrow (lead title of the 2-volume Sparrow series), Mary Doria Russell
To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

Editor #11: male, 73, Ohio

  • Professional experience: 9 years; currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction and fiction, doing line and copy editing for self-publishing clients.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s and incomplete master’s (music). Studied some literature and writing in school.
  • Recreational reading: 5 books per month, approximately half novels, in print and ebook. Prefers literary fiction. Favorite fiction author: multiple.
  • Top 10:

11/22/63, Stephen King
American Pastoral (lead title of the 3-volume American Trilogy series), Philip Roth
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Rabbit quadrilogy (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest), John Updike
The Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) , Kim Stanley Robinson
Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell

Editor #12: male, 41, Texas

  • Professional experience: 4 years; currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction (academic, ESL), doing mixed editing for individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: Ph.D. (ethnomusicology). Studied some literature and writing in college.
  • Recreational reading: 10 books per month, mainly nonfiction with a few novels, always in print. Prefers literary fiction and fantasy. Favorite fiction author: Dostoevsky.
  • Top 10:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland along with Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll
Aubrey–Maturin series (21 volumes starting with Master and Commander), Patrick O’Brian
Chaos Walking trilogy (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men), Patrick Ness
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Descent into Hell, Charles Williams
Middlemarch, George Eliot
The Chronicles of Narnia (7 volumes starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), C. S. Lewis
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Lord of the Rings together with The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Neverending Story, Michael Ende

Editor #13 (aka An American Editor): male, 68, New York

  • Professional experience: 32 years; currently semi-retired self-employed in nonfiction (medical), doing line and copy editing for publishers and packagers.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (political science), JD (law). Did not study literature or writing in school.
  • Recreational reading: 4–6 books per month, a few novels, in print and ebook. Prefers science fiction and fantasy. Favorite fiction author: David Weber.
  • Top 10:

Age of Myth (lead title of what is planned to be a 5-volume series called The Legends of the First Empire), Michael J. Sullivan
Honor Harrington series (15 volumes ongoing, plus spin-offs, starting with On Basilisk Station) and Safehold series (9 volumes ongoing, starting with Off Armageddon Reef), David Weber
Inspector Lynley series (19 volumes ongoing, starting with A Great Deliverance), Elizabeth George
Inspector Maigret series (75 volumes starting with The Strange Case of Peter the Lett), George Simenon
It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis
Jason Bourne trilogy (The Bourne Identity, The Bource Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum), Robert Ludlum
Saga of Recluce series (lead title The Magic of Recluce, 17 volumes ongoing) and The Imager Portfolio series (10 volumes ongoing, starting with Imager), L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Sentence of Marriage, Shayne Parkinson
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carré
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

As an addendum for those who are curious, here are my own choices and data. I have not counted them in the survey results.

Editor #14: female, 60, Vermont

  • Professional experience: 35 years; currently full-time self-employed primarily fiction, doing line and copy editing for publishers and individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: college without degree (art and animal science), certificate in copyediting. Studied literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 5–10 books per month, almost all novels, in print only. Prefers mystery, hybrid romance, and historical fiction. Favorite fiction author: Dick Francis.
  • Top 10:

Aubrey–Maturin series (21 volumes starting with Master and Commander), Patrick O’Brian
Complete oeuvre, Dick Francis
Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger
Landfalls, Naomi J. Williams
Mike Bowditch series (6 volumes ongoing starting with The Poacher’s Son), Paul Doiron
Mrs. Mike (lead title of the 3-volume Mrs. Mike series), Benedict and Nancy Freedman
Nemesis (12th of the 13-volume Miss Marple series), Agatha Christie
The Eleventh Man, Ivan Doig
The Flicka trilogy (My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, Green Grass of Wyoming), Mary O’Hara
Under the Tonto Rim, Zane Grey

I’m sure you’ll agree that the total collection shows intriguing diversity, creating that book buffet I was hoping for. Among the offerings, you will find many selections that make you nod in agreement, blink in astonishment, and jot down a list of new material you’d like to sample. That’s the goal of the next survey, too, which will focus on dedicated fiction editors’ reading preferences.

Stay tuned!

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 dcma@vermontel.com 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.

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 dcma@vermontel.com 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.

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