Sunday, June 26, 2016


Fabled editor vs. star author in fascinating Genius

Maybe it's because my high school mounted a stage production of Look Homeward Angel when I was a senior, and I had a big crush on the guy who played the lead. But I've always had a soft spot for Thomas Wolfe's coming-of-age novel, and the mystique of its author.

Both figure prominently in Michael Grandage's literary biopic Genius, which delves into the relationship between Wolfe and his editor at Charles Scribner's Sons, the legendary Maxwell Perkins.

By the time he met Wolfe, Perkins was already famed as the editor who shepherded both and Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald to publication in the 1920s.

Based on a biography of Perkins, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg, the movie depicts Wolfe as a larger-than-life persona, eager to swallow life whole, and blast it out again in torrents of gorgeous prose.

Firth as Max: choosing words with care
Of course, I'll concede it's a view of the author that perhaps you can only appreciate if you fell in love with Wolfe's great, sprawling verbiage at age seventeen.

Jude Law is way over the top in the role, with his frenzied eyes and Southern-fried drawl, but his performance conveys the essence of a man utterly, passionately besotted by words.

In contrast, the movie gives us stoic, thoughtful, dependable Colin Firth as editor Perkins.

When the movie begins, in 1929, Perkins is a happily married father of five daughters, who takes the commuter train into New York City, usually with a manuscript he's reading in hand.

The real Max Perkins at work.
 Having wrangled with the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, he chooses his words with great care, for maximum impact. Firth plays Max as a man so button-down, he never takes off his fedora, even listening to the radio at night by his own fireside.

Genius is a lit geek's delight, and its backstage look at the business of publishing, as Max and Tom tussle over every line and page, is as fascinating as it is mind-boggling.

Granted, Wolfe was an extreme case; in the movie, he delivers the manuscript for his second novel, Of Time And the River, in multiple crates, totaling five-thousand hand-written pages. (And he keeps adding more.)
The real Tom Wolfe: crates of verbiage.

It takes a fleet of Scribner's typists months to pound it into typed pages before the editing can even begin.

The movie is as in love with words and their power as Tom is. The filmmakers acknowledge Max's point, that a book's primary function is to tell a story, and if excessive verbiage — no matter how gloriously written — gets in the way, out it goes.

But it also sympathizes with Tom's lust for words for their own sake. When Max explains to Tom why one achingly beautiful passage has to go, first he gets to read it out loud, so we can all enjoy it.

Some may argue that editing books isn't a spectator sport, and watching the process is not exactly thrilling (unless you're Tom, fighting for every word, or Max, desperate to streamline the work into something publishable, yet still true to the author's vision).

Okay, I get that. But as a writer who has agonized over ever cut phrase in my own novels, and an editor who has done plenty of cutting on other writers' work, I feel the pain of both of them!
(Read more)

Firth and Law: editing as a spectator sport.

1 comment:

  1. I thought the acting and script were absolutely terrible. Law's and Firth's accents were so far removed from "american" it was laughable. Laura Linney was the only saving grace in this piece of junk. It did however make me realize just how necessary good editors are. I liked Neon Demon much better.