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What Is an Editor?

Sara Franklin’s new hagiography of Judith Jones, ‘The Editor,’ betrays the code of anonymity and mirroring by which true editorial stars operate

Elroy Rosenberg
May 21, 2024
Judith Jones, whose six-decade career had an ‘outsize influence on American culture’

Mel Haasch

Judith Jones, whose six-decade career had an ‘outsize influence on American culture’

Mel Haasch

“What editors do for writers is mysterious, and does not, contrary to general belief, have much to do with titles and sentences and ‘changes.’ The relationship between an editor and a writer is much subtler and deeper than that, at once so elusive and so radical that it seems almost parental.” Thus spake the venerable Joan Didion in a eulogistic essay about the late Henry Robbins, her editor first at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and then at Simon & Schuster. Didion proceeds to clarify her definition: For her, an editor gives the writer “the idea of himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enable[s] the writer to sit down alone and do it. This is a tricky undertaking, and requires the editor not only to maintain a faith the writer shares only in intermittent flashes but also to like the writer, which is hard to do.”

That’s about as good a description as any writer or editor has been able to muster. Didion might even be giving editors too much credit. Said Robert Gottlieb, legendary editor and publisher, one of the hallowed deities of the 20th-century literary empire: “You never know what other editors do. Most of them do nothing.” That editors edit, which would seem to go without saying, turns out to be a pretty facile summary of a role whose essential ambiguities make it best suited to confidence men or obsessives. The most we can say is that the editor assists the writer in achieving what he or she has set out to achieve. Passive-aggression is almost built into the job.

But what else is built into it? Editor is a job title that feels deliberately obfuscating, like chief financial officer or art dealer. Within it lay multitudes of duties, predilections, sensibilities and manias. An editor can, should, or ideally will be: punctilious and attentive to detail, in grammar and in tone; personable with their authors, wide readers, fast readers; politically savvy, especially in the larger houses; sensitive to cultural shifts but loyal to the text; possessed of some degree of business nous. In other words, the editor is a kind of polymath. That professional managerial culture, in all its departmentalization and political quackery, no longer champions the polymath, renders the editor—a really, truly good editor—rare and invaluable.

It should come as no great shock, then, that one of the other more pernicious aspects of professional managerial culture—ubiquitous recognition for all—has bred a tendency to lionize the work of the editor, while eliminating the editorial function in real life. The latest installment in this trend, which perhaps reached its zenith with the 2022 documentary Turn Every Page about Bob Gottlieb and his relationship with Robert Caro, is a new book titled, forebodingly, The Editor. Its subject is Judith Jones, a “publishing legend” whose six-decade career—first at Doubleday, then at Knopf—had an “outsize influence on American culture,” or so says its author, Sara B. Franklin.

The source of Jones’ fame might change depending on who you ask. Insiders might recognize her as the editor behind a glut of celebrated cookbooks in the second half of the 20th century: everyone from Julia Childs to James Beard, Claudia Roden to Edna Lewis, M.F.K. Fisher to Oprah’s personal chef Rosie Daley. Devotees of midcentury literary history may be familiar with a few names in Jones’ list of editees: Sylvia Plath, Anne Tyler, John Updike, Langston Hughes, Thomas Kinsella. Outsiders, finally, might remember the story of how Jones, editorial assistant at Doubleday’s Paris office in 1949, rescued The Diary of Anne Frank from the slush pile. Jones had moved to Paris the year before, age 24; hobnobbed with the foppish coteries of Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and Christopher Isherwood; and been one of two members of the Doubleday Paris office when it opened in 1949. One day, flipping through a sky-high pile of manuscripts rejected by other publishers, Jones latched onto one of them, marked by the face of a young girl on the cover—a face which, thanks to Jones, continues to this very day to appear on millions of book covers every year.

Attentive readers will undoubtedly notice the “thanks to Jones” I slipped into the last sentence. What credit, after all, can we apportion to an editor? Or, in this case, the much lowlier figure of an editorial assistant?

Franklin’s book gives us a fuller picture of the Anne Frank story. Jones knew right away the book was publishable; it had already come out in Dutch and in French, and with a good translation she had a hunch it would thrive in the Anglophone market. She insisted to her superiors that they reconsider it. Her boss had another look before sending it off to the New York office. Two years of negotiations with Anne’s father, Otto, culminated in a publication agreement in April 1951, and the book’s release in June 1952. When it became a famous success, Jones told the Doubleday higher-ups that she “was entirely responsible” for the book’s publication; Franklin deplores that Jones “received no credit at all for the crucial part she’d played.” This, of course, despite the fact that, besides becoming transfixed by the eyes of a dead 12-year-old girl on the manuscript’s cover, Jones had exercised precisely zero influence over the manuscript’s translation, editing, marketing, or release. Then again, if you’d discovered Anne Frank on the slush pile, you’d probably get the megaphone out, too.

Franklin seems ignorant of the possible hypocrisies in this anecdote, favoring a reading of purer intentions: Jones was spiritually responsible for The Diary of Anne Frank, so why shouldn’t she saddle up to its runaway triumph? Well, for one, it’s not the editor’s job. “The first thing editors have to remember,” remarks Bob Gottlieb in Turn Every Page, “is it’s a service job. It’s not your book.” This seems a reality that Jones, otherwise known for her terseness and interiority, found hard, in certain moments of weakness, to accept.

One defeat was Anne Frank; another was Sylvia Plath. Having edited the American version of The Colossus and Other Poems, Jones eagerly awaited the manuscript for The Bell Jar, which she’d anticipated for some time. When she finally received it in 1961, she was underwhelmed, and decided to pass on it. A matter of months later, Plath suicided, and her literary flame went from candle in the wind to bonfire—at which point Jones expressed heart-rending peals of regret. Knopf would have another chance at The Bell Jar in April 1963, and would again turn it down (despite the anguished pleas of Judith Jones).

Does Jones’ change of heart make her a visionary, or does it make her an opportunist who betrayed the genius of her own author when said author was actually alive? Maybe it just makes her an editor who, in a few unsavory instances, grew frustrated with the limitations of the role. “Though you may not know her name, you know her work”—a sentence written in the introduction to Franklin’s book and which rings out with plaintive protestation all throughout it. True that we’re more familiar with Jones’ authors than with Jones herself. But isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Franklin’s book founders on the accurate but otherwise uninteresting premise that editors labor in the shadows; in a way, the book tries to be a corrective.

Of course, it wasn’t always so. There was a time, in the long ago Empire, when such a thing as the superstar editor actually existed, back when the first edition of the New York Review of Books sold every last copy of its printing, which ran to the tune of—prepare yourself—150,000 copies. There was William Shawn, Bob Gottlieb, Sonny Mehta, Gordon Lish, even Jackie Onassis, members of the Towncar Set who traipsed around Manhattan, taking what was ordained to be theirs and delivering the Word to the masses.

Judith Jones, on the other hand, was decidedly not a superstar editor. How could she be? Her quotes read as if pulled from a freshly cracked fortune cookie. On empathy: “Nobody’s better than the other person. You try to take people for what they are and isolate that quality and encourage it.” On her time at Doubleday: “I loved it. And I thought I was pretty good at it, too.” Through sheer aridity of voice alone, it’s clear she possessed neither the requisite charisma, nor profile, nor relentless will for power to merit her own town car.

Jones was not the editor; she was merely an editor. And with its suggestive title, not to mention a length of 250 pages or so, you’d expect Franklin’s book to help us clarify the parameters of this most perplexing, ambiguous role. Why did John Updike specifically request to work with Jones? What is the substance of the “deft editorial hand” and “keen cultural sensibility” that Franklin attributes to Jones? The Editor, though well intentioned, gives no answers. After finishing this book the reader is liable to sit back, imagine Jones receiving a manuscript at her desk, and have not the faintest idea what she ever did with it.

To take up the mantle of editor, especially of books, is to accept a more or less noble anonymity.

Franklin may or may not have been aware of this caesura while writing. In the place of hard editorial information, the reader is given a kind of byzantine kaleidoscope of possible roles that Judith possibly played in her role as editor. Jones’ acquisition of Plath’s The Colossus came with the caveat that she be able to “weed out some of the more uneven poems.” (Editor as gallerist.) Jones only attempted to buy Plath’s posthumous collection Arial once it had sold 15,000 copies in its first 10 months on the U.K. market. (Editor as pulse-checker.) Jones made apprising phone calls to journalists at The New York Times to drum up enthusiasm ahead of the publication of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (Editor as hype-man.) Jones worked on John Updike’s Couples; its sexual licentiousness she liked; its potential for libel lawsuits she didn’t. (Editor as corporate marketer.) Jones, finally, fraternized with those she called “the foodies”—the food journalism establishment, who, incidentally, she despised—because courting them was “how one sells books.” (Editor as two-way salesman.)

This vague dada assemblage gives The Editor a sheen of superficiality which betrays the very real strain under which editors labor. Franklin, whose background is in culinary history, compensates for the lack of literary rigor with a wealth of detail on Jones’ cookbooks and the authors behind them. These are the most muscular sections of The Editor, and also the most boring. Here, we come back to the premise of the book. The editor, drinking coffee at 2 a.m., adding semicolons to a recipe for beef stroganoff or devising a marketing strategy for a young adult novel, is hardly main-street material for a 250-page book. That Franklin attempts incessantly to make it so gives it the silty texture of anachronism all the way through.

If the strain of Franklin’s attempts are at first somewhat oblique, they turn completely unequivocal upon the introduction of The Editor’s most compelling character: Robert Gottlieb. In the span of 10 pages, Gottlieb manages to weed out the loose threads in Franklin’s premise and pull remorselessly at them, one by one, in a quite breathtaking feat of sabotage—a feat made all the more breathtaking by the fact that Franklin included all of it voluntarily. In 1967 Gottlieb joined Knopf as its vice president and editor-in-chief after an incandescent turn running Simon & Schuster. He brought with him his fastidiousness—“you have to get every detail right,” he would repeat, “because you don’t know what sells a book”—and the glowing aura of his authority. All of a sudden the office doors remained open; the air of the house relaxed into mild détente. Jones saw him as too controlling for her tastes; Gottlieb saw her as “passive aggressive” and too reticent.

Their divide, which in some way seems to stand in for the divide between actual brilliance and mere competence, is illustrated in a number of anecdotes. In 1971 Jones advised Gottlieb not to publish The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. She deemed them “much too fugitive, and too tied to specific shows and fleeting references. A good university press item, perhaps, if O’Hara were Ruskin—or even Roger Fry or Clive Bell. But, as he was not, hopeless.” Gottlieb, ever the obdurate opinionist, ignored her. The next year The Collected Poems won the National Book Award.

Another doozy: Jones went to Gottlieb one day and asked for a raise. “Everybody was always asking me for a raise,” Gottlieb told Franklin. “Judith didn’t say, ‘I’m worth this, and if you don’t give it to me, I’m leaving.’ That’s what a person would say who was assertive. Not everyone can go around wasting their time intuiting your feelings which you’re afraid to express. Judith was at a certain level that other editors were at, and she was paid in relation to that. She made as much as the colleagues who produced as much as she did.” His denial of her request, which Franklin calls Jones’ “humiliation,” is a matter of routine office politics turned, by Franklin, into moral insult. Jones, we’re told (a little too quickly), immediately dropped the matter and “returned to thinking about social change primarily through others’ authorial voices.”

About editing Anne Tyler, one of Jones’ star authors, Gottlieb said: “There wasn’t anything you could do with her except give her nice jackets and publish her books. I don’t think most of [Judith’s literary] writers needed, wanted, or appreciated editorial input.” To Franklin, this is evidence of how Gottlieb “discredited [and] devalued” Jones. To the rest of us it’s common sense. But in its flagrant contradiction of the Jones-as-editorial-magus narrative, it gets closer to the truth of what editors do than anything Franklin has to say about the matter.

The irony is that, in a roundabout way, Jones probably would have agreed with Gottlieb. “The most important quality for an editor, a sensitive editor, is diplomacy,” she told Franklin. “Adapting your style to each situation. I think women,” she added, “have a talent for this.”

Judith Jones, I’m sure, was a perfectly important figure in 20th-century publishing, and probably a sophisticated editor armed with an array of bespoke interpersonal and text-related techniques she could deploy across her stable of writers. The problem is that Franklin gives us no clue what any of them are.

In breaking the solemn bond of anonymity to which most editors hold fast, then reneging on all the crucial details, Franklin sets Jones up to look silly. To take up the mantle of editor, especially of books, is to accept a more or less noble anonymity. It’s the one thing we can all agree is central to the job description. Everything, including the editor’s own vainglory and self-estimation, is sacrificed for the sake of the work.

When he was editing Robert Caro’s 1,500-page omnibus on Robert Moses, The Power Broker, Bob Gottlieb agonized over the more than 300,000 words he cut from the original manuscript. Yet unlike cuts he made from the plethora of books he’d previously edited, these were words he loved just as much as those that remained. “Here the problem was that I didn’t want to get rid of this material either. But,” said Gottlieb, “it had to go.” If writers see editors, with some justification, as a necessary evil, true editors often see themselves, appropriately, in the same way.

Elroy Rosenberg is an arts journalist from Melbourne, Australia, currently based in New York.