In my oh-so-very-pleasant work room upstairs, where I spend so much time hacking away at this machine whose letters on keys are disappearing fast from overuse, and my wife Diana leaves me alone to bleed and brood when the thinking and writing aren’t going well and to be stricken with ecstasy when they are, I am surrounded by books–many volumes about the arts and the immensely gifted people in them.
This morning I had a busy schedule of things to do that I’ve wanted to do for weeks but haven’t. I’m Chicago born and bred, Spartan tough, so I told myself that today was “time to get serious, buster. Enough of this uncharacteristic self-indulgence.” Today would be different; I’d “dig in,” “put a dent in things,” “make progress,” “do my thing.” I checked over my list of current projects, every single one of which oddly is “top priority.”
I was eager to start, but then I made the mistake of looking over my left shoulder and having my eye caught by an old “Advance Uncorrected Proofs–Not for Sale” copy of a biography of William Golding. “Who?” you say. Golding was a prolific English novelist, essayist, and playwright, author of Lord of the Flies, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature who was knighted for his achievements.
I ask literate people, “Who was William Golding?” and they don’t know. I ask, “Have you read Lord of the Flies, and they say, “Three times.” Far, far more people have read or heard about Lord of the Flies than remember the name of its author. I see Golding as representative of a breed of artists and writers who were once acclaimed and now are forgotten.
The biography I’m looking at has an attractive, cheap light green paper cover, and I like the print. So I think of what I know about Golding, and the impression I come up with is that he was an odd bird, though I don’t know where I got that impression, and that his Nobel Prize was controversial.
Obviously, I had no choice but to ditch everything else immediately and start reading the book to try to understand Golding’s story as told in John Carey’s William Golding: A Life.
Golding was a strange, shy, private, reclusive depressive who didn’t want publicity or a biography written in his lifetime, and a virtuoso pianist in his early years. He was a victim of many fears and phobias, a World War II Royal Navy officer who participated in the D-Day invasion and other famous battles. During the war he discovered that the only way he could control his fear was by grinning. The men who served with him misinterpreted that as a love of violence. For many years he was a bored school teacher who was so inept and uninterested that he had no business teaching. He said he never knew what education was about.
He had trouble getting published. He wrote three books during his lunch hours, breaks, and holidays. No publisher was interested in them. Then he started the one that would change his life and enter the lives of millions of us: Lord of the Flies. The books he and his wife Ann read to their little son and daughter, such as Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson, were often about islands. One night when Golding and Ann were resting after putting the children to bed, he had a brainchild. He said, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if I wrote a book about children who behave in the way children really would behave?” Ann was a formidable person, strong-willed, forceful, tough, and determined. So it made sense that she said, “Get on with it.” Golding said once he began working on the book, “It came very easily.”
He felt as if his three unsuccessful books that were circulating in the English publishing world and regularly being returned to him with rejection letters were “written by other people.” But he saw right away that the book about boys on an island was his book.
The manuscript of the book that eventually was given the title Lord of the Flies by an editor was originally panned by publisher Faber and Faber, Britain’s leading publisher, a reader calling it “absurd and uninteresting.” But it was rescued by a Faber editor who had been with the publisher for less than a month–Charles Monteith. Golding was Monteith’s first catch. Monteith would have many more. He was handsome, refined, polished, and sophisticated–qualities that were not true of Golding. That was the start of a lifelong association, with Monteith his editor, adviser, confidant, and friend.
The manuscript had made the rounds and been submitted to many publishers unsuccessfully. It was dog-eared, shop worn, and had pages yellowed at their edges, showing that it had been read and rejected countless times.
The book started out strangely, but Monteith was gripped as he continued reading. He took it home to finish. He couldn’t get it out of his mind. It had many flaws, some of them serious, but at the next meeting of the Faber Book Committee he said he thought the book was “odd and imperfect, but potentially very powerful,” and that he would like to discuss it with the author.” But the Sales Director, W.J. Crawley, whose judgment about if a book would sell was considered infallible, said the book was unpublishable. An argument ensued. When things calmed down, it was decided that since Monteith was very junior, others in the firm should read the manuscript before anything was decided.
Monteith then wrote to Golding, apologizing for keeping the manuscript for “rather a long time,” explaining that while they were interested, they had not made a decision. That was the most encouraging letter Golding had ever received from a publisher. He wrote back, saying he was glad they were interested and hoped they would publish the book. Other Faber editors read the book, agreed with Monteith, and shared his enthusiasm.
The Faber chairman Geoffrey Faber read the book and liked it, but had doubts. But he didn’t wish to dampen a new young editor’s enthusiasm, and it was decided that Monteith would meet Golding and discuss possible changes but make no promises about publishing the book. At the meeting over lunch at a restaurant, both men were nervous. Because of the book’s religious content Monteith thought the author would be a clergyman, but then thought, “a teacher of children! Of course!” Changes were discussed. Golding would go home and consider them.
The changes Golding made quickly and sent to Monteith were even better than Monteith had hoped for. What Monteith had wanted shortened, Golding had completely eliminated, improving the book. The two men worked hand in hand on the book. On January 10, 1954, Golding submitted a complete draft. He had pieced together all the separate sections the now-friends had sweated over. Golding said now that the book was finished, he could hardly bear to look at it mainly because of the effort of “patching, so much more wearing than bashing straight ahead at a story.”
On February 11 Faber announced that it was prepared to publish the novel. The book went into production in March. Golding read the proofs and could see that Monteith’s “patching” had improved the book considerably. Golding wrote to Monteith, “I think you have done a very clever and helpful piece of work…The novel is swift now, with a measure of subtlety and tautness. If it achieves any measure of success now it will be due to your severe but healthy pruning.”
On the 17h of September, 1954, Lord of the Flies was published, one year and three days after Golding had sent it to Faber. The tone of reviews that would follow was set by the first review that appeared that same day in the Daily Mail: “Most compelling–I fell under the spell of this book and so will many others,” The following day was even better. The Evening News called it “vivid and enthralling.” To the Times it was “most absorbing.” Time and Tide said, “A work of universal significance;” its author was “a truly imaginative writer who is also a deep thinker.” In the Observer poet Stevie Smith wrote, “This beautiful and desperate book, something quite out of the ordinary.”
Biographer Carey writes, “Faber and Faber were to remain Golding’s agent as well as his publisher for the rest of his life, an arrangement” of great profit to both of them, “and the achievement of this goal was entirely the result of Monteith’s understanding, patience and literary judgment. He spotted Golding’s potential when no one else did, and his faith in his extraordinary gifts did not waver.”
Many Golding books followed. The Golding-Monteith symbiotic relationship between author and editor, the author with the genius and the editor with the judgment, cannot help but remind one of that same special and rare type of association between American novelist Thomas Wolfe, a physically immense man with an equally immense talent from which a torrent of gorgeous language flowed, and the editor who discovered him, Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s. (Perkins was also the editor of greats Ernest Hemingway, author of The Sun Also Rises, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby.) The Wolfe-Perkins combination is considered the greatest author-editor relationship in the history of literature.
No writer, painter, or performer in any age was ever given a blank check. They all had to accept certain conditions imposed from the powerful gatekeepers in the field. But the conditions imposed on the creative center of everything in the arts–the artist himself–are harsher and more brutal today than they once were, and something has gone out of publishing, enough that it’s legitimate to ask if the publisher is the author’s friend–as the theory goes. The author now has to supply all the this-and-thats that once were the responsibility of the publisher. That was the deal. When did the changes start and how did they happen? Were they justified and in any way equitable?
Given publishing as it is today, such a relationship is now unheard of: two supremely talented people as Golding and Monteith, experts in their own specialties, but one on the payroll of the publisher, working together with one goal of textual perfection. Most all publisher’s editors today are acquisition “editors,” not textual editors. Authors must find their own editors, and that is an expense that authors did not have when publishers were expected to provide editors.
Most writers with one ear tuned to the stories they’ve heard of the-once-upon-a–time legendary author-editor combinations consider the loss of publisher’s textual editors and that kind of relationship unfortunate. When I was writing Waging Business Warfare for Scribner’s thirty years ago, not one, not two, but three editors at the same time in the employ of the publisher were editing my work for different things.
Where are today’s writers to go to find someone good and capable, trustworthy and encouraging, who will give them valuable feedback and expert guidance that will refine, hone, and perfect the finished, remarkable products–the novels, the plays, the poems people will stop to admire and will never forget? Where are the Charles Monteiths to find the most talented writers to share their expertise with?
Many new gifted authors with tremendous talents are waiting to be discovered and set on the right track by someone with the solid, unwavering faith in them, the expertise, and the vision of a Charles Monteith, without whom, quite possibly, we never would have heard of William Golding.
© 2017 David J. Rogers
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