Agents & Editors: Ben George

M. Allen Cunningham
From the September/October 2019 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Ben George’s arrival in big publishing was more of a vault than a climb, and it surprised him as much as anybody. “Being a New York editor,” he says, “was never something I was aiming toward.” Remarkably, what brought George’s editorial acumen to the attention of Manhattan publishers was a book with a small initial print run and no commercial hook—a singularly unpresuming volume of short stories by a seventy-four-year-old self-professed “amateur.” That author was Edith Pearlman, and the book was a collection of new and previously published stories titled Binocular Vision (2011), which George had solicited and edited as the inaugural title for Lookout Books, the tiny imprint he cofounded while on faculty at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. 

Ben George, senior editor at Little, Brown. (Credit: Tony Gale)

Pearlman was relatively unknown, but she had been writing for forty years and since the 1990s had quietly published three story collections with small presses. Her work was cherished by a coterie of writers who looked to her as an unheralded master. Among them was Ann Patchett, who, in an introduction for Binocular Vision, called Pearlman a national treasure on par with John Updike and Alice Munro. That, says George, “was like catnip for a certain kind of literary reader: ‘What? A seventy-four-year-old master I’ve never heard of being published by a small press I’ve never heard of?’”

Binocular Vision landed on the cover of the January 4, 2011, edition of the New York Times Book Review, a triumph in itself for a writer whose readership, until then, had numbered in the hundreds. But then Binocular Vision went on to collect the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, and was named a finalist for the National Book Award, the Story Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. 

The year after Binocular Vision appeared, George was wooed from Wilmington to New York City to accept a position with Viking Penguin, where he worked with president and publisher Kathryn Court on a list that included new titles by Chris Abani and Richard Rodriguez. Shortly thereafter Reagan Arthur, publisher of Little, Brown, hired George to develop his own list for the storied imprint, a list that now includes writers such as Leslie Jamison, Adam Haslett, Rick Bass, David Bezmozgis, Lauren Slater, James Hannaham, and Luis Alberto Urrea.

Although he seemed to come out of nowhere in his work with Pearlman, George had been editing some of our most distinguished writers for years in the small press world—first at the University of Idaho’s Fugue literary magazine and later at Tin House magazine and the University of North Carolina’s literary journal Ecotone—working with writers such as W. S. Merwin, Denis Johnson, Annie Proulx, Jonathan Lethem, Charles Baxter, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Ann Beattie, and Terry Tempest Williams. “I loved working at the magazines,” says George. “I would’ve happily done it forever if I could have made a living at it.”

While the writers with whom he has worked know George as an extraordinarily gifted and exacting editor—they often effuse in their acknowledgments pages about his skill and care—George keeps a low profile. A soft-spoken Ohio native (“A lot of people seem to identify me as Midwestern in my temperament and phrasings,” he says), George prefers to view his work in book publishing as a privilege. “For you to be able to edit or publish anything, there has to be someone who has faith and believes in you, and I’ve been lucky to have those mentors along the way,” he says, citing Court and Arthur.

George and I spoke last fall at Little, Brown, in the Manhattan offices of the Hachette Book Group.

What was your earliest relationship to books? Do you remember a formative reading experience? 
I always enjoyed reading and was sometimes very affected by books. I remember, when I was about twelve, weeping at Where the Red Fern Grows. I remember finishing the book and coming out of my bedroom distraught and my mom, very concerned, asking me what was the matter and me explaining that it was this book, and her saying, “Oh, honey, it’s just a book,” and me feeling in a very dramatic way like she didn’t get it. It was a sense, even if it was subconscious, that this was how I was supposed to feel—that this was what the book was meant to do to you.

I had a sort of peripatetic reading experience. I veered wildly between, say, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deer Slayer, imagining myself as Natty Bumppo, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or John Grisham. I just went back and forth indiscriminately, I suppose until I got some guidance later, in college, at a small school called Asbury, tucked away amid the horse farms south of Lexington, Kentucky. I had a professor there named Paul Vincent. Always Dr. Vincent to me. An amazing man who probably has no idea how many students he affected in his long tenure there. I read Moby-Dick in his class. Henry James. He introduced me to Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. He had read seemingly every work of American literature and all the secondary material on each one. He would stand at the front of the class and nervously jingle the change in his pocket and hold forth like an Oxford don, referring to a yellow legal pad of notes whose pages he would flip occasionally. I’ve since realized how he was almost an anachronism in his own time. I’ll never forget his lecture on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It was in his class that I fell in love with what you could find in writing if you could learn to read from someone as brilliant as he was, who could help you see things in the work. 

You earned an MFA in fiction at the University of Idaho, where you ended up editing Fugue. Soon after that you became an editor for Tin House magazine. What brought about your shift from fiction writing to editing?
Somewhere along the way I realized that I was better at editing and that the world was not going to suffer for lack of my fiction. I had always enjoyed revision more than creation anyway—seeing what you have once it’s down on the page. So I just got to skip a step, not have to worry about the creation, and help other writers hone their stories. In the end what I wanted was a literary life. I think Susan Sontag has a phrase about “wanting to be part of the project” of literature. Editing was how I could be part of the project.

In your term at Fugue you spent some time soliciting writers to contribute to the magazine, even pursuing some high-profile people. Is that right?
I did. And I was surprised by the willingness of even really well-regarded writers to engage with you if you took the time to speak to them specifically about why their work had moved you. The correspondence I cherished most was with W. S. Merwin. In my last issue of the magazine I built a special section around Merwin, and then, during the AWP Conference in Vancouver, I went to his hotel and interviewed him. It was a bit overwhelming to be there in his presence and to think, “This guy had John Berryman as his teacher. This guy hung out with Pound and Eliot.” I was touching history. That was a magical experience. “For the Anniversary of My Death” may well be my favorite American poem, and of course it took on a special new meaning when we lost him in March.

What originally brought you to the job at Tin House magazine?
I enjoyed editing so much that I was desperate to continuing doing it in some form. Around the time I finished the MFA program at Idaho, I heard about an opening at Tin House, so I sent them a letter and my issues of Fugue. They ended up interviewing me, and I think because they liked the Merwin feature a lot they offered me the position of assistant editor. I moved to Portland and was there for three years. It was an amazing experience. I was in charge of the slush pile, as we called it, with a whole host of volunteer readers and interns. And I could also solicit writers and bring their stuff to the meeting too. In fact, in a couple of very happy outcomes, there are two writers, Caitlin Horrocks and Stephanie Soileau, whose stories I encountered in the slush pile and was able to get into the magazine whose books I am now lucky enough to edit all these years later at Little, Brown. 

After your stint at Tin House you were hired by the University of North Carolina in Wilmington to edit the literary journal Ecotone and to launch Lookout Books, a new university imprint. I’ve heard a little about your campus interview for that job. The story goes that you shared your own take on what it must have been like to be at the Partisan Review back in the day.
That’s true. During my interview in Wilmington I told the committee how I imagined being at the Partisan Review in the 1950s and one day opening a manila envelope, pulling out a manuscript, and becoming one of the first people in the world to read James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” I get prickly skin just thinking about that. I’ve always felt that if you’re at a literary magazine it’s like being on the frontier of literature—that you get to read the best new work, work that may wind up standing the test of time, before anybody else. 

The first title you published at Lookout Books was Binocular Vision, a big new-and-selected edition of short stories by Edith Pearlman, which was reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and went on to win all kinds of awards. You had sought out Pearlman. How did you first discover her work?
I had read her in Best American Short Stories, and she blew me away in terms of the economy with which she could dispatch someone’s whole life. But even though she had, I think, been in Best American a few times, and had won a couple of O. Henry Prizes and Pushcart Prizes, she never seemed to have gotten her due as the true master that she was. When I was at Tin House I just wrote her a mash letter telling her why I thought the stories in How to Fall, her most recent collection at that time, were completely ingenious and original, and saying how much I’d love to try to get her into the magazine. She wrote back a very warm letter, calling me her ideal reader, and it seems our connection was cemented. I didn’t end up getting her into Tin House, but we stayed in touch.

What was the editing process like with Pearlman, as you assembled the new and selected stories?
In putting that book together we were very conscious that, given how most people were going to be introduced to Edith’s stories for the first time, we didn’t want it to be an omnibus. We had to make some tough decisions as we tried to choose not only the best stories but also ones that showed the range of what she could do. It was pure fun to talk about these things with Edith and to give a sense of the evolution of her career over those prior books.

At what point, if any, did you know or begin to suspect the level of attention Binocular Vision would receive?
Never, until the New York Times called us up and said they were going to put it on the cover of the Book Review. But there was a sense of fate around the book because every person, every writer I sent the book to in advance for a quote, loved Edith Pearlman.

How did Pearlman respond to all the new attention? 
She was very pleased, but she’d never been remotely jaded about her status before that. Even though the sales of her books to that time numbered in the hundreds, she’d always felt that she had readers. And she’s always been a proponent of the idea of the writer as amateur, in the same way that Olympic athletes are amateurs. You do the craft, the art, for the love of it. Edith didn’t publish her first book until she was sixty years old, but she’d been writing stories for decades. Her appearance on the cover of the New York Times Book Review happened when she was seventy-four years old. Now, how you think about that—whether it’s inspiring or discouraging—is up to you. In her own view, she was just at her post doing her work all that time, and doing it for the love of the work.

All this was in 2011, and by the following year you’d moved to New York?
In October 2012, a year later, I accepted a job at Penguin.

One can draw a clear line then from Binocular Vision and what happened with that book to your eventually becoming integrated into New York publishing.
Without a doubt. Because of the various awards that Edith was in the running for, I was up in New York on occasion and meeting more and more people in the community here. One of those people was Kathryn Court, the publisher of Penguin, and we hit it off. She remembered me when a spot came open, and it was thrilling to get a job offer from her. I learned an awful lot from her in the time that I was at Penguin. She’s one of the all-time great people in publishing—all-time great people period—and of her numerous claims to fame, one is that she was the first American editor to publish Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee. She really made his career here with the publication of Waiting for the Barbarians. The thing is, if you get to do something as an editor, it’s only because someone else has faith in you and is willing to give you a chance. Kathryn, who came from the UK to Penguin in the 1970s, had a wealth of knowledge about publishing, and was ceaselessly generous in dispensing to me what she had learned over her years of working with agents and writers, and in allowing me to edit her books, and in supporting me in things that I wanted to acquire. Once in a while, at the end of the day, she might come in and sit with me in my office, or I would go sit in her office, and we might talk for a half hour. Having never been in New York, I didn’t even realize then how astounding it was for someone as busy as she is to give me that time. I remember a moving tribute that Daniel Halpern, the publisher of Ecco, wrote about Paul Bowles, in which Halpern said, “It matters who comes along.” Bowles had seen something in him and believed in him, helping him start Ecco and the magazine Antaeus. There’s this great tradition that goes so far back, in which knowledge continues to get passed down from one generation of publishers and editors to the next generation. It’s endlessly humbling and inspiring to contemplate.

How did you end up making the transition from Penguin to Little, Brown?
Before I ever came to New York I’d met Reagan Arthur at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference and she said, “You should come to New York. We don’t have enough of your ilk.” I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but I took it as a compliment. She thought I would thrive in New York. I wasn’t sure myself. And I remember, when she did hire me, Reagan jokingly saying, “I play the long game.” We had met almost two years earlier by then, and she had been someone who had helped me out, trying to open doors.

How has your editing process developed over the years?
I wasn’t aware of it consciously at the time, but being a student in the MFA workshop was my editing education. The workshop taught me to try to imagine myself into the writer’s mind. But my editing process, to whatever extent I have one, is just an amalgamation of the habits of a lot of really smart people. I would pick up little gnomic pronouncements. I remember Gary Fisketjon, editor of Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, and so many others, saying that he tried to read the text more closely than any sane person ever would. And I felt, Yes, that’s what’s required.

Was your shift to big publishing at all disorienting, having come from the small press world? 
Well, the excitement was that with the muscle of Viking Penguin, and then Little, Brown, you wouldn’t have to miss out on working on a book just because you couldn’t afford the advance. My first acquisition at Little, Brown was also the first bigger auction I was in. And the submission was from Binky Urban. You have to imagine what that was like after all those years of working at small magazines. Everyone in New York knows Binky’s legendary list of writers. For those outside New York, it includes Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami and a ton of others, including three writers who were—and remain—my earliest heroes: Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Tobias Wolff. And the writer she was sending me was David Bezmozgis. David had recently been named one of the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” writers, and I had admired him tremendously for his first two books, one of which, Natasha and Other Stories, contains a story—the title story—that has to be one of the best stories written by anybody in the last couple of decades. I couldn’t have dreamed of a more exciting way to start off at Little, Brown than by acquiring his novel The Betrayers. But what was also different about New York, of course, was the pressure that now, without a nonprofit underwriting the endeavor, it wasn’t only about whether a book was of superb quality. It was about whether you could also make money with it. 

Did you have to get used to pitching to the sales department and so on? 
I figured out pretty quickly that I’d be doing my books a disservice if I didn’t learn how to put them across in a concentrated way. With the sales force you have one opportunity, at each season’s launch meeting, to make your book stand out and help the reps instantly grasp its allure, so they’ll be able to communicate that to booksellers and start the whole chain of finding as many readers as you can.

How many books on average do you edit every year at Little, Brown?
Eight or so. There have been times when it was more, but then it gets harder to publish them all with the verve and energy that you want to.

So your process now at Little, Brown is much the same as it’s always been, except you have more books on your plate?
Yes. I do hope I learn something new from every book I work on, something I can bring into future projects. But yes, the work itself remains the same on the page. It doesn’t change.

And do you, like many editors, do most of your editing after hours?
Almost all of the editing happens in the evenings and on weekends. My time in the office is mainly spent on the business of publishing. It’s sending a boatload of e-mails. It’s going to a jacket design meeting. It’s going to a status meeting to see what our initial print run of a book is set to be and how that matches up with what we expected, seeing what plan we have in the works for marketing and publicity. It’s writing letters to booksellers. Going to the editorial meeting, going to the acquisitions meeting. Having lunch with agents to hear what projects they’re excited about that you hope they’ll submit to you. I love the conviviality of the agent lunch, and by now some agents are actual friends as well, which makes it enjoyable. But I think others will know what I mean when I say it can all get a little exhausting sometimes. I remember being slightly jealous when I heard or read that one of Bob Gottlieb’s conditions for taking the job as editor in chief of Knopf back in the day was that he wouldn’t be required to do agent lunches and could just eat a sandwich at his desk and keep working. And these are not the fabled, and maybe apocryphal, three-martini lunches of old, in any case—it’s practically an event if someone has a glass of wine at lunch these days.

What is the editor-bookseller relationship like? Do you find yourself making phone calls or paying in-person visits to booksellers?
Not really phone calls. But I do love meeting booksellers because I view them as the next person in the chain, the person whose passion is the most similar to the editor’s. When booksellers love a book, they press it on people. A lot of times, booksellers make or break a book’s prospects. I pay attention to what certain booksellers love—the books they respond to—and I try not to go to them with a personal letter unless I truly believe they are going to love a book. I enjoy that part of community building in publishing, and I try to find the right readers for each book that I publish.

With a newly acquired writer, how do you assess the level of editorial involvement the writer will need or want?
It always starts with a conversation with the writer before you acquire the book, whether on the phone or in person. If I love a manuscript enough to try to acquire it, there aren’t usually make-or-break editorial points for me. Maybe on rare occasions there’s something essential that I feel would have to be addressed for the book to succeed, and in that case I might want to suss out the writer’s openness to such a change. But in that first conversation I’m mainly trying to communicate my passion for this manuscript that the writer has spent years of her life making and to articulate what I see the work trying to do—so the writer understands how closely I’ve read it and how much I believe in it. That’s crucial because you’re starting this long relationship which, ideally, will be only the beginning of many books to come. So there’s that initial conversation in which you may get into a bit of editorial, but really I tend not to—because at that acquisition stage I’m reading in a white heat, and honestly, if I start reading something and it’s amazing, one of my first thoughts is, “Oh my God, another editor is going to preempt this book before I can make an offer.”