Agents & Editors: Ben George

M. Allen Cunningham

I’m sure that happens to every book editor. What’s that like?
Sadly it’s a primary part of the job—falling in love with a book and getting your heart broken because someone else acquires it yet managing to keep your heart open for the next great book. There are certain editors and houses I hate losing a book to, but it’s because I have enormous respect for them. There’s a kind of old-school collegiality among editors. And thankfully I’ve been lucky enough to win a few of these bruising auctions too. When you do, you realize how much you stand on the shoulders of those who’ve come before you. After the success of The Empathy Exams, for instance, pretty much everyone in town wanted to publish Leslie Jamison’s next books. And part of the reason I won the auction is that Little, Brown is the house of David Foster Wallace, and the publisher of Infinite Jest, and that meant a lot to Leslie.

Ben George (Credit: Tony Gale)

Once you’ve had the initial editor-author conversation and acquired a book, what’s your next step?
In terms of editing, I try to send a comprehensive letter that says, basically, here are the ways in which the book is bowling me over and the things I see you trying to achieve. And then, within that context, here is where it’s not quite working in the way it appears to want to. 

Is this letter usually big-picture in nature, not necessarily accompanied yet by a manuscript with line-edits?
Usually it’s a big-picture thing first, and later I’ll get a revision, and at that point it’s down to the nitty-gritty and trying to make sure that even if it’s a four- or five-hundred-page book, each line is holding its own. But inevitably the process ends up being slightly different for every book.

What if in the revision the writer doesn’t strengthen the book in the ways you had hoped? Can you maintain your enthusiasm for the book within the company?
I haven’t had an experience where a writer didn’t substantially strengthen the book in the process. A writer wants her book to be as good as it can be before it goes out to what we both hope will be many thousands of readers. But I also don’t think a writer should ever make a change to a book that doesn’t in her gut feel like the right change to make. In an editorial letter from the novelist and New Yorker editor William Maxwell to Eudora Welty, Maxwell once said, simply, “I trust you to be firm about the unhelpful suggestions.” I’ve always remembered that. So I say, “This is my take. Whatever seems useful to you, use. It’s yours, whether it’s a global thing or a line edit. Whatever doesn’t seem useful, well, it’s your book, and I’m going to champion it no matter what.” While an editor can sometimes see something in a manuscript that a writer can’t, the editor is never as smart as the writer about her own book. Often you’ll make a suggestion that the writer doesn’t implement, but the writer says, “Oh, I see what you mean,” and comes up with something better. That’s because the book has been living in the writer’s subconscious for years. I’m a big believer in those intuitions, which I’ve seen lead to remarkable new writing in a book even in the late stages. The editor may just ask a question, or make a ghostly kind of suggestion: “I feel like there’s something about this character that needs to come back around at the end of the novel.” And the writer’s subconscious goes to work on it, and they find the connection that was hidden in plain sight all along.

When it comes down to line edits, what’s the most important consideration for you?
My goal is to sink into the book in the same way that the writer did when writing it. If I’m suggesting edits—and especially line edits—I’m trying to ventriloquize. I want to hear the book’s music and voice. Sometimes that voice is far away from my own, which can be both challenging and fun. A significant chunk of James Hannaham’s novel Delicious Foods, a tour de force in the true sense of that overused descriptor, is narrated by a drug—namely, crack cocaine. Trying to inhabit the voice of a drug in the editorial process was a first! I do my best to take each book on its own terms, and yet I’m aware that I can’t get rid of my biases entirely.

Biases about technical things?
Sure. Dialogue, in particular—demands for how I want it to function, how I think it can be torqued to greatest effect. How a scene should be assembled without losing its tautness. Or the way characters seem to smile or nod or shrug a lot more often during the dialogue of American fiction than they do in the actual living of American life, which was something Margot Livesey once pointed out and I never forgot. And then bigger things, about how storylines or conflicts or questions or mysteries should be…not necessarily answered for the reader, but resolved, according to whatever unique rules the book has established for itself. Basically, if I think something is crucial to a book’s effect, I’ll press my case. But all of these decisions, big and small, are always left up to the writer. Adam Haslett tells me that with his novel Imagine Me Gone, we talked on the phone for nearly an hour about a paragraph. Even I’m not usually that insane, but it was such an important passage that Adam ended up rewriting that section multiple times to get it exactly right.

When you’re having an hour-long conversation about a paragraph, is the writer saying, “Well, how about a line like this” and bouncing things off of you? Or was it, in this case, more broadly philosophical?
It was both philosophical and fine-grained. It was a question about the character’s brother’s death and a turning point for this character—how much he was going to be blamed, or blame himself, for that death. I felt Adam was being too hard on that character. As he has discussed, the novel is based on his family, and that character was the closest, in biography, to Adam. I felt that the writer was judging himself too harshly through this character. I was trying to step in and say, “This is how I, your most sympathetic reader, see this character, and I think he needs to be viewed here with the same empathy and nuance that you’re granting him everywhere else.” It’s probably the most important scene in the novel. And of course the book has to work entirely as fiction, regardless of what may have happened in life.

So the process can get extremely penetrating both personally and artistically.
Yeah. Maybe the stakes aren’t always as high as that example, but in any editing experience you have to make the art the most important consideration, even as you keep the artist’s personal feelings in mind while you’re doing that. This is why I feel so privileged. As the editor, I’m being invited into the workshop, where there’s sawdust on the floor and half-finished things. It’s a delicate space for the writer. You’re being trusted, and you need to acquit yourself well. 

One occasion when I was most nervous about this was with Luis Urrea’s last novel, The House of Broken Angels. That novel poured out of him in the months after his brother died. Some of it was so intense, he said, that he couldn’t write it and instead dictated it to his wife. The whole first draft that I read was amazing, but clearly it also wasn’t yet complete, and he needed to dig deeper and go further. My role was to be a cheerleader, to persuade Luis after this cathartic outpouring that what he’d done was remarkable but that the book had a chance to become one of the all-time great American immigrant novels and that in order to do so it would have to be grander and make full use of all the family lore he was drawing on. I think he probably hated me for a couple of days, but he said, “Okay, yes,” and he rolled up his sleeves and ended up adding another 150 marvelous pages to the draft I first read. 

In addition to Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, your list includes nonfiction by Lauren Slater, Blue Dreams, and Doug Bock Clark, The Last Whalers. Can you talk about the differences between editing fiction and nonfiction? What qualities are you looking for in each?
Even when it’s topical, the writing itself is the most important quality of the work. In that way I think it shares a lot with what you need to accomplish in a novel. When is the right time to deploy certain information? How long should you pause to explain something before you get back to the main story? It’s still sentence by sentence, in the same way that a novel or collection of stories is. 

So you’re always looking for a certain dynamic quality of voice?
Right. A voice and a sensibility. Louis Menand says the definition of great writing is when it’s more painful for the reader to stop reading than to continue. You want to be carried along. But I suppose if there’s one quality a nonfiction writer must have, it’s obsession. Leslie, Lauren, Doug—they all have in common a tireless obsession with their subject that makes it impossible for the reader not to become invested too.

The nonfiction writer’s credentials are important, I’m sure, but can credentials be trumped by supreme narrative control?
I find that a writer’s prose either has authority or doesn’t. He either convinces you or not. Credentials can help get attention during the publication of a book, but they don’t guarantee a good proposal. I published Benjamin Rachlin’s extraordinary book about wrongful conviction, Ghost of the Innocent Man. Benjamin had zero journalism credentials when he started that project but taught himself how to be a reporter along the way. 

And you edited Leslie Jamison’s last book, The Recovering. Can you discuss the process you undertook with Jamison?
The Recovering is a fascinating book because it’s a fusion of a lot of different nonfiction styles. At a reading, someone jokingly referred to it as “the dope method.” (Dope as in slang for “excellent,” I should perhaps clarify, given the subject.) It’s memoir, cultural criticism, literary criticism, and reportage—a remarkable feat that takes Leslie’s own story and blends it together with the narratives of famous addicts whose addiction figured prominently in their work, everyone from Denis Johnson to Billy Holiday. Then Leslie weaves all this together with narratives of “ordinary” addicts, those who did not turn their addiction into art but whose stories are every bit as important for us as we try to understand how addiction affects a life. The book works like an AA meeting, as a chorus of voices, and it’s a story of the recovery movement writ large. The goal that Leslie set herself was to write a book about getting better that’s every bit as electric and gripping as the story of the train wreck itself. I think she succeeded magnificently. Her effort from the beginning was to figure out how to tell her own story of addiction and recovery while acknowledging that it fit into this long canon of addiction and recovery stories, and to figure out what those have meant to us. Mainly I just needed to be in sync with her ambition for the book, which I was, and then to try to keep up with her—easier said than done!

You’ve said that you view acquisition as just the beginning of a long editor-author relationship that will involve, ideally, many books. Do you think this approach is unique in New York?
I think every editor in every house would like for that to be the approach. I do think there’s a lot more pressure now for the first book to be a success sales-wise, and there’s less patience with building a writer over time. But at Little, Brown, anyway, we’ll work really hard to stick with a writer we believe in until wider success happens. Reagan Arthur published Kate Atkinson for many years—and it was especially sweet, after all that time, to see Atkinson’s novel Life After Life, her eighth, land at number one on the New York Times best-seller list. I still remember the moment that list came out, our CEO, Michael Pietsch, walked down the long hallway to Reagan’s office to give her a hug. Editors know how much work it takes to bring a writer to that level. 

One of my greatest joys at Little, Brown was reuniting with Edith Pearlman. Honeydew, Edith’s fifth book, which I got to publish at Little, Brown when she was seventy-eight, was her first ever published by a New York house. That was especially sweet since it was really because of Edith and her success with Binocular Vision that I started meeting people in New York in the first place. Honeydew was another fairy tale. It got reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review again, and was later on the longlist for the National Book Award. But my favorite reaction was from James Wood, who wrote in the New Yorker about Edith’s “uncanny wisdom” and called her “one of God’s spies.” I always think of her that way now, as engaged in some kind of divine espionage.

Can you talk a bit about the challenges inherent in promoting existing titles? Is the landscape of book promotion changing?
I think it’s constantly changing. Social media—whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it—plays a much bigger role than it ever used to, in terms of the way people find out about books. Traditional print advertising seems less and less effective. And meanwhile, although papers like the San Francisco Chronicle and Washington Post and Boston Globe still review books, we’re now down to the New York Times being the only major paper in the country that still has a dedicated book review. One by one all of the others have fallen. But however the marketing and publicity happen, I’m completely in favor of anything that helps readers find the books. And whether it’s a physical book, an e-book, or an audiobook, I’m in favor of any way people can experience the storytelling of the writer.

What’s your perspective on the plight of midlist writers generally? Are they being—or have they already been—driven out of the mainstream publishing world?
New York publishers are first and foremost a business, and there’s pressure to sell a certain number of copies. It’s not only about not losing money on an advance. It’s that you can publish only so many books a year, so you want each book to have a shot at becoming really profitable. We owe our shareholders a certain return on the investment they make. Part of the issue with the midlist is what a writer needs financially, because there are times when a publishing house wants to remain loyal and continue publishing a writer, but the advance is not what that writer feels he needs to sustain his career—and then the writer feels it’s time to start over with someone else. 

So you’re saying writers want to move around laterally sometimes and that complicates our picture of what’s happening with the midlist?
That complicates it, yes. It’s also complicated because sometimes a writer is really believed in and supported by an editor and maybe a bit less so by the house, so if the editor leaves, there is less reason to continue publishing. Sometimes too you may have an exceedingly good novel on submission, but the author’s sales history makes it hard to change her trajectory, if the novel is much like her previous books. This is a reality that publishers face with booksellers. The booksellers see what the last book, or books, sold. And unless you can persuade them that this novel has a different pitch or a more commercial hook, then they will base their orders on that history. So the feeling is not that the book doesn’t deserve to be published, but a poor sales track is a big hurdle for the publisher to overcome. 

Now, there are exceptions. When we feel a book is going to completely alter the writer’s career, then we’ll make a big investment. That happened with Emma Donoghue, who had a declining sales history at the time she came to Little, Brown. Judy Clain, now our editor in chief, got Emma’s novel Room on submission. This was before my time, but the lore is that the whole company was blown away by Room and felt this was the kind of book that Little, Brown exists to publish and to make a big hit. It was acquired expensively, in a preempt, despite the author’s sales history, was published boldly, and has sold more than two million copies. 

So a lackluster sales history can definitely be a roadblock, and yet an author can still break through at any point, if the publisher feels passionately.
Absolutely. Look, every day we hope to read an amazing novel. Editors are first and foremost just readers who are moved and delighted by books. And the editor’s greatest desire is to bring an exquisite book to readers. It’s an unmatched thrill. So despite the impediments, and the unavoidable fact that most books don’t find the readership you hope they will, we still can’t wait to read something astonishing.

I’ll tell you the backstory for a book I published last year, a volume of new and selected stories by Thom Jones, who was a National Book Award finalist back in 1993, for his debut collection, The Pugilist at Rest. We talked earlier about my writing when I was young. Well, when I was twenty-two years old I went to a reading by Chris Offutt, and after the reading, hearing that I was an aspiring writer, Offutt stuck around to talk with me. Again, little did I grasp how lucky I was. Before we were done he told me that if I wanted to be a writer of stories there were two books that I had to read. One of them was Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, and the other was Thom Jones’s The Pugilist at Rest, and we walked over to the bookshelves and he put both of these in my hands. And I still love both of those books. Both are books of misfit, marginal characters. To me they represented a different kind of American literature, and The Pugilist at Rest became a book that—let’s say it opened the door to literature for me. It showed me different kinds of stories than I had been reading. It so happened that Little, Brown was Thom’s publisher, and had published two more collections of his, Cold Snap and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine. But by the time I came to Little, Brown, Thom had not published a book since 1999, and then, unfortunately, he died in 2016. I knew, though, that he had published some stories after Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, and after his death I began working with his agent, Jin Auh at the Wylie Agency, together with his widow, Sally, and his daughter, Jenny, to gather these stories. I’m sad that Thom wasn’t here to see it, but on the second anniversary of his death we published this new and selected volume of stories called Night Train, which has, in addition to the greatest hits, seven phenomenal new stories. One of the most moving parts of the experience, for me, was this lingering feeling that I had somehow paid off a debt to literature.

It was a full-circle experience.
Right, exactly, because Thom was someone who started it for me. 

We’re talking about twenty years ago.
Twenty years. And this is the magic that gets to all of us who work in publishing: the magic of the writer’s heart and brain connecting to the reader’s heart and brain across space and time.

From both sides of the grave, even.
Right. And the power felt from that exchange is the biggest thrill for an editor—to be granted the opportunity to help the writer make that connection.

We all want instant success, of course. We want to see the book having an impact and becoming part of the conversation now. But my own deeply nourished hope is that I’ll get to work on books that, through whatever alchemy, will endure and that people not yet born may one day pick up and read and be moved by. Little, Brown has existed since 1837 and has published many books like that: Catcher in the Rye, Revolutionary Road, you name it, all the way back to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It’s a great privilege to edit and publish a book that you dream may eventually leave that kind of indelible mark in the imaginations of readers. Nothing excites me more. 


M. Allen Cunningham is the author of nine books, most recently the novel Perpetua’s Kin, a reworking of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that spans North America over five generations. His hybrid book Q&A, inspired by the 1950s quiz show scandals, will appear from Regal House Publishing in 2020. Founder of the small literary press Atelier26 Books, Cunningham teaches creative writing at Portland State University and elsewhere.