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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Friday, February 16, 2007 3:40 pm
“When in doubt, throw in a numbing quantity of pointless arcana.”
Posted by: Keir Graff

In The New Leader (“The Real Pynchon and Mailer Stand Up,” p.15), Brooke Allen writes that, “as we age we become more distinctly ourselves.” In the case of certain literary lions, she asserts, this self-caricature isn’t as amusing as the way your great-grand-uncle starts every sentence with, “Now, when I was young…”:

Two new books this season are prime examples of such late-period self-indulgence: Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (Penguin, 1,085 pp., $35.00) and Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest (Random House, 496 pp., $27.95). Pynchon, at 69, can now be considered as entering into his late period; Mailer, at 83, is already far into his. Both of these books display traits long associated with their authors, and have now been allowed to spiral wholly out of control.

After considering the proposition that these works are “nasty practical joke[s]” on readers, Allen prescribes action of shocking temerity: editing. 

If older writers with a long career of success and fame behind them feel they can get away with anything, they should not be abetted by the craven passivity of the publishing industry. Publishers do, after all, owe their readers the same respect they give their writers, and in the long run they are not doing any good for their authors’ reputations. The act of producing a book has traditionally been a collaboration between writer and editor, and there is no writer so good that he can do without an editor. But until editors once again assume the responsibilities they once took as a matter of course, more and more rogue authors will undoubtedly inflict their ill-considered work on the public.

Discuss amongst yourselves. Personally, I think that cutting almost always improves the work — although, who knows, maybe the first drafts were 2,000 pages long.

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