Where was the editor?

In the last few weeks I had the opportunity to listen to recorded versions of mysteries by two best-selling authors. Both are well into their series (more than a dozen novels each) so have established characters and, presumably, established readers. But more important to my point, both are untouchable in terms of their success. These two are big, big names in the mystery genre.

What is it about successful authors that causes everyone around them to swoon at their prose, even if it is not good? Even editors, it seems, don’t care to change a word of their writing.

The first author whose story I listened to has to be the queen of mixed metaphors. It seemed like every few minutes of the audio the narrator was mixing it up. I can understand this when a character does it since it might be the author’s intent to depict the character as someone sloppy with words. But when the omniscient narrator mixes metaphors, someone is just not trying.

The second author was worse in her way. When I taught college composition, many of my students would resort to big words and convoluted sentence structure, thinking that this was how good writing was done. (Generally, I’d ask them what they were trying to say, and they’d tell me in some straightforward way, which was always better than how they had first phrased it.) This second author wrote the way those college freshmen wrote. Unnecessarily large words, hackneyed phrases, slogans. It really sounded amateurish, yet this author has more than two dozen best sellers to her name.

This leads to my point. I think the editors just don’t want to mess with a proven success. Or, and perhaps this is even more to the point, they know that the author’s name will sell millions of copies, so why put any effort into editing the writing? Could it be that these authors are such prima donnas that they won’t tolerate any tinkering with their words?

Yet these kinds of grating word choices and sentences are, literally, freshman mistakes. I don’t know if an editor would want to work with an unknown writer who wrote in this way. If an unknown writer submitted a draft like these, it would come back covered in red ink. Or should.

And I don’t mean that these writers aren’t following the rules of grammar (which I consider a list of suggestions rather than dogmatic rules). They are just displaying careless, sloppy writing. I think they have been cranking out their stories so long (and so successfully) that they don’t do more than a first draft effort. I don’t know this to be true, of course, but it sure reads that way.

I read once that Norman Mailer submitted a short story to a mid-level magazine, and it was rejected. “What are you doing?” screamed everyone to the editor. “That was Norman Mailer!” And the editor responded, “But the writing was no good.”

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