March Dinner Meeting Report: Black & Blue: The Writing Editor, with Glenys Osborne

More than 50 people convened on a rainy Thursday evening to hear Glenys Osborne speak about moving from the 'no' of the editor to the 'yes' of her inner writer, and her experience as a literary fiction writer in an increasingly commercial market. As an editor by trade and a writer by choice, Glenys spent over 12 years writing her first novel, Come Inside, an award-winning literary fiction featuring a 'shattered' narrative. With a background in editing educational texts, Glenys pointed out that on the surface, editing and writing share many commonalities and can even overlap, but they are inherently different.

Separately, she said, writing and editing can be seen as two sides of building a house. The writer designs, builds and furnishes the house. The editor then takes that house and styles it - makes every room shine and prepares it to be a show house. But while the writer and editor can share the overall task, they can also occupy opposite ends of the spectrum: black to white, yes to no. Ultimately, the editor's job is more often than not to say 'no', while the writer is more likely to say 'yes'.

That being said, an editor has to read a text at one remove, especially in audience- and market-driven contexts. An editor needs to be the aggregate reader - constantly asking whether the reader will understand the text or want to keep reading and, if not, why not. This is our overarching task from development through to copyediting. But, as Glenys elaborated, when it comes to literary fiction, we should ideally be putting less emphasis on the reader and the market requirements and more on the author's meaning and intentions.

This may be ideal but it is not always the case, especially as market viability and sales figures encroach more and more on the risks publishers are willing to take. We need to bear in mind that our 'no' - which in our minds might be closer to a 'yes, but' - can have far-reaching effects. It can prevent a book from ever being published or it can alter a work so deeply it bears no resemblance to the original. Ultimately, it has the ability to shape our literary culture.
It's at this stage in editing literary fiction that we need to take our judgements with the proverbial grain of salt. We all have our biases, but we need to be careful that those biases don't influence our 'no' too much. In 1989, the American novelist Jonathan Baumbach wrote in an essay for American Book Review: “The prevailing view in certain establishment quarters is that if a novel can't be read by virtually everyone, it hardly has a reason to be read by anyone.”

But what is literary fiction exactly? Is it a genre, or a form, or neither? While genre fiction - and with it, what Glenys referred to as lit fic - conforms to an understood convention, true literary fiction is something only you as the writer can write. In Glenys's definition, it defies convention and form because it is written from the heart, not from the head. Lit fic combines the popularity of literary fiction for publishers with the form and conventions of genre fiction for readers without pushing any boundaries. It may be the kind of writing that book clubs adore, but it takes no risks. It is safe, while true literary fiction is not. The reader, and by extension the editor, has to be willing to be offended and outraged when literary fiction defies the convention.

Glenys's talk set off a lively round of questions and discussion that made it evident that many of the editors in the room harboured an inner writer. Questions ranged from whether or not self-publishing was the answer (maybe), whether or not one ought write even without an audience (definitely) and how to fit it all in (with difficulty). There were no definitive answers to the question of whether or not literary fiction will ever be safe from market forces.

Publishing has always had to be aware of the market and, ultimately, publishers need to make money to keep us all in red pens. However, when marketing departments and market concerns completely dictate what is published and ergo what we read, then literary fiction as a risk-taking form may be dead in the water. As Glenys so eloquently summed up, as editors, “We need to make a distinction between what is not competent and what is not commercial, what needs to be passed over and what needs to be fought for. We need to think deeply about … what motivates each 'no' we utter or enact.”

Mandy Herbet