Ironically, there are few books that aspiring editors and publishers can look to for inspiration and guidance on their journeys. It seems that editors are excellent advocates for other people’s work, and for the most part prefer to remain in the background themselves. That’s why A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins is such a treasure.
Maxwell Perkins isn’t a well-known figure, generally speaking. But among acquisitions editors and publishers, he’s practically a deity. And if you love literature, I promise that Max Perkins has impacted your life—he’s the genius behind F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe.
It’s not just that he discovered and published (in spite of his company’s serious reservations) some of the most influential American authors of all time; Max Perkins changed the very role of editors. Editors are no longer confined to copyediting; as Berg writes, now editors must “know what to publish, how to get it, and what to do to help it achieve the largest readership. At all this… Max Perkins was unsurpassed.” In many ways, he was an eccentric: quiet, reserved, known for wearing his hat indoors and taking tea at exactly the same time every day. He was a stark contrast from his authors, the free-spirited Fitzgeralds, hypermasculine Ernest Hemingway, and proud Thomas Wolfe. But they—and all of his authors—absolutely loved and adored him. They credited Max with shaping their work and believing in them before anyone else did.
There’s no doubt about it: Editors have much to learn from Max. I think his unique contributions to the world of editing boil down to five key characteristics.
He “consciously influenced” literature of the time.
Max Perkins wasn’t content publishing just the “classic” authors of his day; he was hungry for new voices in the field—authors who said things that hadn’t been said before. Scribner’s was a very highly regarded and conservative publishing house (still very highly regarded). They weren’t known for taking risks; they were known for publishing an elite group of high literary types. Then Max Perkins came on board with his relentless pursuit of new voices—voices unafraid to talk about the effects of World War I, the Jazz Age (a term coined by Fitzgerald), and the Great Depression.
“He sought out authors who were not just ‘safe,’ conventional in style and bland in content, but who spoke in a new voice about the new values of the postwar world. In this way, as an editor he did more than reflect the standards of his age; he consciously influenced and changed them by the new talents he published.”
He tirelessly advocated for his authors, and therefore won their loyalty.
Believe it or not, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first book was rejected by Scribners—twice. As a young editor, it was pretty risky and daring for Perkins to bring Fitzgerald’s work before the editorial board a third time. Here’s what he said to them:
“My feeling… is that a publisher’s first allegiance is to talent. And if we aren’t going to publish a talent like this, it is a very serious thing. …If we’re going to turn down the likes of Fitzgerald, I will lose all interest in publishing books.” The board’s vote was tied, but eventually Charles Scribner decided to give in to Perkins’s request, and was well rewarded for it.
That’s the kind of defining moment an editor waits for—the chance to publish that one author whose career takes off, bringing you up with him. Fitzgerald never forgot how Perkins had kept trying on his behalf.
(Sidenote: Even The Great Gatsby was considered a disappointment at the time. Fitzgerald’s writing didn’t achieve the high acclaim it has today until well after his death. This article from Melville House gives more details of Fitzgerald’s journey.) There’s always hope for authors!
He believed in his authors when no one else did—even the authors themselves.
Fitzgerald famously struggled for motivation to write. He was frequently depressed, drunk, and in debt. When his books didn’t perform as well as expected, he became anxious and doubtful. But Max wouldn’t let Fitzgerald give up—and it wasn’t until after a few relatively average novels that Fitzgerald produced The Great Gatsby.
“Perkins could not help recalling Fitzgerald’s once telling him he was not a ‘natural writer.’ ‘My God!’ Max now exclaimed. ‘You have plainly mastered the craft, of course, but you needed far more than craftsmanship for this.’
‘Your wire and your letters made me feel like a million dollars,’ Scott replied from Rome. Fitzgerald said that he would rather have Max like his book than anyone he knew; and he thought that all the editor’s criticisms were valid.”
Even great writers often doubt themselves—but a great editor won’t give up on them, and won’t let them give up on themselves.
He believed that “The book belongs to the author.”
Max was a more involved editor than many of his predecessors. He saw potential in many rough manuscripts, and he worked hard with authors to help them develop the work into something not just publishable, but an excellent work of art. He and Thomas Wolfe famously spent days editing down Wolfe’s tomes into something readers could actually get through. Max never forced Wolfe to make a cut, though eventually Wolfe always came to agree with Max. Later, unfortunately, Wolfe became paranoid about making a name for himself without Max’s help, and severed his close relationship with Max—which broke the editor’s heart.
Max also famously tempered Ernest Hemingway’s writing, which was originally littered with four-letter words. Scribner’s would not publish them, to protect their reputation. Max wrote to Ernest, “I think some words should be avoided so that we shall not divert people from the qualities of this book to the discussion of an utterly unpertinent and extrinsic matter.” Max knew that if the book was published as it was, readers would be in an uproar, and be distracted from the outstanding literary qualities of the work. Thankfully, Ernest agreed.
He was a friend to his authors.
I doubt that many other editors went fishing and boating with their authors, but Ernest Hemingway insisted that Max come visit him in Key West—one of the few vacations Max ever took. Thomas Wolfe also became more than just a professional fixture in Perkins’s life; Wolfe became “the son Perkins never had.” Perkins’s four daughters remembered Wolfe coming over for dinner nearly every day, and he and Perkins having loud arguments at the dinner table.
Perkins’s love and care for his authors was well known, and through Max they became friends themselves.
Now close friendships with authors is one of the most rewarding parts of being an editor. It’s also, sometimes, the hardest—as evidenced by his relationship with Wolfe. But we know that not for a moment would Max regret his involvement with his authors. He wouldn’t do a single thing differently if he could do it again.
There’s so much more to the story—the way he played the middleman between Wolfe and his bereft mistress, how he sent Fitzgerald advances even when Fitzgerald was several thousands of dollars in debt to them, his over twenty-year friendship with Elizabeth Lemmon. I do highly recommend reading this rich book if you’re interested in the world of publishing, or simply interested in learning more about Max Perkins’s life.
Many people asked Max why he didn’t write himself. His answer was simple: “Because I’m an editor.” He undoubtedly knew what would sell, and he knew what fresh writing looked like. Van Wyck Brooks, another Perkins author, said it best: “He was in his way a novelist born, but instead of developing this bent in himself, he devoted his intuitive powers to the development of others.”
Editors serve two masters: their publisher, and their authors. It’s an inherently tense position, but Perkins handled it on all sides with grace and tact, winning respect everywhere he went. It’s a challenge for me and all editors. But I’m up for the challenge.