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Melva McLean

The Invisible Vocation in Books

Well, our blog post about Colin Firth playing the great Maxwell Perkins in the upcoming film Genius had a one-day reach of 3,000 viewers. We editors are the invisible and unsung celebrities of the publishing world, so it feels great to get some recognition in print or on film. Hell, we’ll even take word of mouth.

So, I thought that this month I’d share some of the books in my library about writers and editors and publishing. One of my all-time fiction favourites is The Novel, by James A. Michener (1991). It’s a sprawling story (as all Michener’s works are) that features the complex relationships between writers, editors, publishers and literary critics, with a great mystery in the middle.

Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada (2003) is a fun read, but it also hits home with its portrayal of a couple of “devils in disguise” — at least, I’ve been told this by colleagues who’ve worked in the magazine world.

A memoir that reads like a novel is Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year (2014), which is about a young writer/editor’s first job at a literary agency. I just got Karl Wiggins’s Self-Publishing! In the Eye of the Storm! (2015) and, from what I’ve read so far, his “cautionary tales” are both funny and informative.

And then there’s the provocative essay collection MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach (2014). Don’t let the “American” throw you; the essays in this book can apply to the rise of program writing everywhere. Writers, editors, publishers and literary agents all weigh in on the move “to consider the fiction writer less as an utterly free artistic being, with responsibilities only to posterity and eternal truth (or whatever), and more as a person constrained by circumstance — a person who needs money” (Introduction, p. 1).

Do you have a favourite book about writing, editing or publishing — fiction or non-fiction? Feel free to tell us in the comments.

Melva McLean’s previous post: It’s Our Turn at the Box Office.

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2 Comments on “The Invisible Vocation in Books”

  • Paul Buckingham


    Thanks for the suggestions, Melva. I’ve just gone and read the opening of MFA vs NYC, and it looks like it would be a fascinating read. My question to anyone who’s been through an MFA is this: Do you agree with Harbach’s observations about the programs? The sense I got while reading was that an MFA is concerned more with the mechanics of writing and with treating aspiring writers as a cohort, rather than with the cultivation of individual writers and individual sparks of inspiration. I may have misinterpreted, however.

  • Elizabeth d'Anjou


    At a conference a few years ago, then-EAC-staff-member Helena Aalto mentioned to me that Barbara Pym’s novel _No Fond Return of Love_ actually opens with the heroine attending an editors’ conference.

    Eager to continue my post-conference high, and never having heard of Pym, I dug up a copy. While it turned out that both “editor” and “conference” meant rather different things in the world of this novel than they do in my own, I still found the opening scenes delightful, and fell utterly for Pym’s style. In a way, her themes are destined to appeal to editors, as she writes about the quiet, overlooked people (mostly women) who take care of the unromantic practicalities of life: they make tea, run fundraising jumble sales, cook meals, file paperwork, and, yes, proofread. But these activities make fascinating reading through Pym’s attention to the little details of character that spark recognition (she’s often compared to Austen for this trait).

    What I found most astonishing and compelling about her books is that they are mostly about single women who DO NOT GET MARRIED at the end of the book. Even if they’ve met intriguing single men! Imagine!

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