The death of the editor Robert Giroux, whose distinguished career at the leading American publishers Harcourt and Farrar, Straus & Giroux led to the first appearance in print of writers such as Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor, Susan Sontag and Robert Lowell, provides an opportunity to reflect on the pivotal importance of publishing’s back-room alchemists.

Obituaries may have reported Giroux’s most celebrated near misses – Kerouac’s On The Road, which caused consternation when it was delivered on a 120-foot scroll, and The Catcher in the Rye, by J D Salinger – but, of course, his successful commissions vastly outweighed such momentary mishaps (and, to be fair, most editors would raise their eyebrows at a writer who, like Kerouac, insisted that their novel had been dictated by the Holy Ghost and was thus beyond editorial suggestion).

Giroux’s lasting contribution, though, beyond the nurturing of any one writer or book, was perhaps to personify the joys of a life spent with a red pen in one hand and a stack of promising, but unpolished, manuscripts under the other. Unlike his more outgoing partner, Roger Straus, Giroux was keener on sticking closer to the sentences on the page.

At a recent party in London to launch a Random House imprint, Square Peg, its publisher likened the business of getting books into print with that of appearing on the television programme Dragons’ Den – complete with rather amusing parallels between various publishing industry high-ups and the hard-nosed characters from the business world who make or break the desperate entrepreneurs paraded before them.

There were probably few editors in the room who didn’t experience a pang of recognition – the commercial demands and the ferocity of publishing houses’ sales and marketing departments are commonplace nowadays.

The books business, of course, couldn’t thrive without both its creative and more financially minded talents – there’s no point in perfecting the metaphors if there’s not enough money to pay the printer.

But there is something special about the peculiar skill of editing – which requires the patience to pore over a succession of drafts and redrafts until no further improvement seems possible, plus the tact integral to encouraging and containing writers (rumoured, occasionally, to be highly strung creatures) and, finally, the self-effacement to bring to fruition someone else’s work without much public recognition.

Much is made, in the age of online democracy, about the probable demise of the editor – about letting the work speak for itself without mediation or hindrance. Whether the unexpurgated internet can ever produce a Kerouac or a Lowell won’t, one suspects, be known for a long time yet; and maybe editors and cyberspace aren’t incompatible.

But if the life of a dedicated and sensitive editor shows us anything, it must be that even books by the most brilliant of writers are far more collaborative than we allow. As Giroux recollected saying to the not entirely easy-going writer Djuna Barnes, “You have to trust someone, Miss Barnes. Why not trust me?”

Alex Clarke
The Guardian