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On Editing the Novel (a Primer): Laura Warholic by Alexander Theroux

This an essay that my friend Mark Burstein, a book editor, wrote a while back on the much anticipated Fantagraphics release of Alexander Theroux’s notorious (unedited) work, Laura Warholic.

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” —Michelangelo

I cannot overstate with what excitement I saw, at the end of a Fantagraphics catalog last year, an announcement for Laura Warholic, or The Sexual Intellectual, the first novel by the inordinately talented Alexander Theroux in two decades, although I confess to a bit of bewilderment at the time as to why it was coming out from a publisher known exclusively for comics and graphic novels, rather than one of the Big Guns in New York. As you will see, there are no mysteries.

Theroux’s preternaturally grandiloquent, prolix masterpiece, Darconville’s Cat (1981), stands for me as one of five most significant and thoroughly enjoyable word-drunk novels of the twentieth century (for the record, the others are Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Nabokov’s Ada, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet), and Theroux’s Three Wogs contains three extraordinarily enjoyable novellas. Having now read Laura, I weep for the masterwork so obviously contained therein, had Theroux the courage to allow the conventional editorial process to shape it. Instead, in a self-defeating act of extraordinary hubris, he contracted with the one publisher who was, as he stated, “willing to publish the full manuscript without carping or cozy abridgements,” in other words, any editing at all (save for a mediocre copyedit).

But why? Laura’s character Ratnaster self-referentially laments that he had “written a masterpiece of novel, later published to high acclaim, that had been notoriously mishandled for years by several perfectly stupid literary agents, trollops of Gothic ignorance, and then a series of bird-witted editors.” Is that so?

There are three stages to the editorial process (I am abridging significantly). First, what is conventionally thought of as the editor (also known as the structural, substantive, or literary editor) suggests where fat can be trimmed, sections expanded or taken away, and how the novel can flow better; in other words, becoming that “ideal reader,” and working alongside the author and the manuscript to reveal the “lovely apparition” Michelangelo spoke of within. In this case, dozens of pages of mind-numbing redundancy of near-identical descriptions of Laura’s personality flaws could easily go; in fact, many portrayals of the bizarre nature of his characters, rather than inducing gales of laughter as did Darconville’s mad eunuch, Crucifer, become gratuitous, ugly, and simply boring. Furthermore:

Lewis Carroll, explaining in the introduction to Sylvie and Bruno (1889) how the book came to be written, says, “As the years went on, I jotted down, at odd moments, all sorts of odd ideas, and fragments of dialogue, that occurred to me—who knows how?—with a transitory suddenness that left me no choice but either to record them then and there, or to abandon them to oblivion…And thus it came to pass that I found myself at last in possession of a huge unwieldy mass of litter-ature—if the reader will kindly excuse the spelling—which only needed stringing together, upon the thread of a consecutive story, to constitute the book I had hoped to write.” Theroux’s execrable habit of taking his own “little darlings”—fragments of dialog from movies, jokes passed along the Internet (for goodness sake!), passages from books, lists, half-remembered witty remarks, apocryphal lore, etc.—and inserting them into the dialog in this case often justifies Carroll’s spelling. This indolent and self-indulgent practice of the author’s very much marred his The Primary Colors (1994) and The Secondary Colors (1996), making them sound like student research rather than writing, and resulting in his being busted for several instances of outright plagiarism. It’s all so unnecessary. And in Laura, a distraction and a complete waste of space.

In the second editorial stage, once the manuscript is ready, a competent copyeditor takes it and corrects spelling, grammar, unreadable sentence structure, infelicitous phrases, and so on. Here, for a few quick examples out of hundreds, the copyeditor didn’t seem to be able to distinguish “complement” from “compliment,” “principle” from “principal,” nor realize how many “o”s are in “Virginia Wolf,” as she is referred to in the novel. Irritating, at best, and a plethora of such errors exist between Laura’s covers.

Finally, once it has been set in type, a proofreader notices things like “widows” (a short last line from a previous page appearing at the top of the next), orphans (a single line at the bottom of a page), bad breaks (words improperly hyphenated), extraneous paragraph breaks, wrong fonts, and other layout problems. Obviously, this stage was not deemed necessary by the oh-so-wise heads at Fantagraphics, doing their first text novel. Many such ugly blemishes are sighted herein. Pfui.

Even the cover of the book betrays the fragility of Theroux’s ego. Portraying the unutterably gorgeous Evelyn Nesbit, but never identified as to either subject or photographer—it only says “Cover design: Alexander Theroux”—it makes one wonder what she is doing there (yes, there is an internal reference to her, but her beauty is as far from the cartoon grotesqueries of the novel as one can possibly get). Not to mention that the subtitle, The Sexual Intellectual, refers to an unfortunate newspaper column the male protagonist writes, not to Ms. Nesbit nor, more significantly, to the novel’s titular character. Misleading at best.

Laura stands at a weighty 878 pages. A sympathetic editor is an author’s best friend, not adversary. Had Theroux only allowed one to “to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition,” readers would be treated to the taut, elegant, exuberant, exhilarating 700-page beauty lying within. Ah, but nay.

Such a shame.

You authors out there: be not afraid of your allies.


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