On the first day I met my agent, Victoria Sanders, she recommended two books. One was about Max Perkins. Since then I've written and sold a book The Last Woman Standing: A Novel of Mrs. Wyatt Earp and started the next proposal. Even though I am not a biography reader (my bad), I sat down to read A. Scott Berg's massive biography of the Scribner's editor Maxwell Perkins, the man behind writers as famous yet as diverse as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. It is not a spoiler to say that they are all dead.
While there are many valuable lessons in this book, one of the keys for a fiction writer is the many ways that Perkins tended to his flock of needy, brilliant, sporadically blocked writers. He tended to their literary woes but often their financial and emotional woes as well. Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby has been forced on generations of high school students, lived above his means and was constantly interrupting his novel writing to borrow money, go to Hollywood, and write short stories suited to the glossies of his time. Perkins lent him money, both in the form of advances against work that may never arrive and out of his own pocket, during their long relationship.
Wolfe arrived, young and blustery and in a tangled relationship with a much older woman and benefactor, with a massive box of manuscript pages that Perkins helped him shape (sometimes the equivalent of wielding a machete of a red pen) into Look Homeward, Angel. In an era where fancy Manhattan publishers often acquire books and don't have that deep emotional investment in their writers, it was a great reminder that an editor, like my beloved editorial coach, can be a branch for the writer to hold onto during the storm that is the writing of a novel.
Also, reading this book, I realized that each writer has their own challenges -- drink, blocks, a love of physical danger if you're Hemingway, romantic entanglements, doubts about talent and legacy -- and that a good editor cannot protect the writer but can help them deliver a manuscript that sings. Reading the book allowed me to get a birds' eye view on multiple writers and their varying needs -- plotting, overwriting, difficulty finding the meat of the story, starting too early or too late in the story, relying on false endings.
A great sadness permeates the second half of the book -- Fitzgerald dithered and was finally writing a genius book when he died suddenly of a heart attack, the work, The Love of the Last Tycoon unfinished. Wolfe is a hurricane of a Southerner, whose first book burned many of his bridges in his native Asheville, North Carolina, with his first book but became an international literary star. Having had Perkins help him create that book out of a mass of manuscript pages, he later turned on the editor he looked upon as friend and father figure. And then dropped dead, suddenly, at 38, at the height of his powers. In some ways, it is the very beginning of the end, as Perkins works harder -- a truly brilliant editor -- and ultimately drinks more.
There are many mysteries that remain about the man -- does his being in a loveless (or so the author says) or mismatched marriage account for his sadness. Does the betrayal of authors? The senseless death of Fitzgerald, who frittered away so much talent and was on the verge of being considered simply a chronicler of the Jazz Age and not much more. The depression and mental illness that plagues so many of the authors close to Perkins and his own Yankee stoicism that kept him chained to his desk.
Reading the book from a female perspective, I recognized how closed this world really was. The editors are men. The agents often women. Perkins had a number of female authors but it was the men -- Wolfe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald -- that owned most of the real estate of his heart. And, yet, gender bias aside, I agree with my agent, this book is a must for novelists both to understand how publishing works and how many roads there are (and roadblocks) to getting a novel finished (an achievement in itself) and transformed into the best that it can be. RIP Maxwell Perkins. Long live the editors who, in the current often hostile climate, continue to nurture novelists whose needs aren't just on the page.