When I was younger and just starting to review books on a regular basis I went through an emotional ‘spin’ cycle every time I faced the prospect of being edited. It started with the elation of finishing an assignment—I hadn’t learned yet how to put a piece aside before handing it in, to sleep on it for a night and let it grow strange again—and the inevitable letdown that came from attaching it to an email and hitting send. Why couldn’t my editor respond instantly, as soon as my message landed in their in-box? Didn’t they know how many hours I’d spent reading and underlining to prepare for the review, the effort I’d given to writing a piece that analyzed the author’s work, put it in a critical context, and still managed to stay light on its feet? Couldn’t they recognize that it was real writing rather than mere ‘book coverage’? (I had ambitions as a book reviewer: what can I say.)
I handled the inevitable pause before hearing back as well as I could. I left the house and went to the gym. I took the subway into Manhattan and spent some time with my favorite paintings at the old MoMA or the Frick. When I logged onto the internet, using my dial-up connection, and finally got the edit back from whoever I was writing the review for, I would immediately plunge into a fugue state of anger and recrimination—a kind of spell that I have associated with the computer screen ever since. They wanted me to cut what from my review? How could they? Didn’t they know I WROTE IT THAT WAY DELIBERATELY? And who told them they could just go in and muck around with my hard-won sentences?
I hated to be edited at that time in my life—it felt like a much deeper violation than it is—but I also loved to publish. So I seethed, cringed, and fumed away the hours that it took me to finish my rewrite. I haggled smaller points, argued larger ones, and, in general, made a nuisance of myself to editors who had a lot more experience at book reviewing than I did. And when the review was published soon afterwards, it was almost always stronger and more cogent than the piece I had originally handed in—I can think of a few exceptions to this rule, but not many. The reviews of mine I find unreadable now when I dredge them up online all bear the marks of my weaknesses as a writer, the faults of neurological habit and blind-spots of imagination, rather than the telltale signs of bad editing.
This is all prelude to an outtake I’m publishing here from my recent piece for The New Republic, “Teaching the Controversy,” about a class on Richard Wright and James Baldwin that I taught last fall at Bennington College. I was already working on the essay—or trying to work on it, anyway—when President Obama gave his speech in Selma, Alabama commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was a powerful moment, watching the Obama speak that day, John Lewis and the other surviving marchers sitting to his side, the iron bridge looming behind him; from certain camera angles, the name EDMUND PETTUS was hovering right over the President’s head. Pettus, of course, was a former Confederate Army General and Grand Wizard of the Klan in Alabama who was elected to the U.S. Senate twice during Reconstruction. In my essay, I write about how teaching a class on Wright and Baldwin in the post-Ferguson era helped me see, among other things, that it was Wright—with his education in the Jim Crow South and segregated north—who really knew America when it came to race. Baldwin’s doctrine of love is harder to reconcile with the legacy of racism and white supremacy that’s been unmasked all over again by the Obama presidency. Unmasked, that is, for those of us who don’t already have to negotiate it on a regular basis; who can remain, to use a word that Baldwin found so monstrous, “innocent.”
All of this was on my mind when I opened the first draft of my Wright and Baldwin essay with a long passage (about 800 words) on the march on Selma and the Obama presidency. I can see now that this discussion of the Selma speech doesn’t belong in the essay. My editor, Ted Ross, who I’d worked with once before at Harper’s Magazine, was quite right to cut it. When I was younger, I would have trembled with rage. I would have fired off a tortured email and used the only leverage I thought I had by threatening to pull the piece. (To which every editor in history has replied, “Sorry you feel that way. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.”) Now, with the benefit of experience, I wrote Ted: “I figured you would cut the opening. No problem. Let me look at the rest of the edits and get back to you.” It was a classic example of first-draft throat-clearing, and the essay is much stronger without the passage.
All of us write alone, in a vacuum of our own making; being edited, when it’s done well, frees us from the solipsism of self-flattery and the attachments that form so easily at the writing desk.
Here is the Selma opening—in all its discarded glory: