Michael Korda's book on publishing stands in desperate need of . . . an editor
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, August 7, 1999)

Michael Korda, as he remembers it, felt serious envy when he looked into the office of his colleague, Robert Gottlieb, at Simon & Schuster. It was 1960 and Gottlieb was editing Catch-22, the soon-to-be-famous novel by his great discovery, Joseph Heller. Gottlieb in those days was a bold, ferocious editor, sometimes rewriting big chunks of a book. Korda recalls that the Catch-22 manuscript, endlessly retyped, looked like a jigsaw puzzle, with "bits and pieces of it taped to every available surface in Gottlieb's cramped office. That, I thought, is editing, and I longed to do it."

And so he did, as he tells us. Korda's autobiography, Another Life: A Memoir of Other People, has received admiring reviews for his anecdotes about the famous, but telling cute stories is only part of his purpose. He wants also to describe in detail the American book business, and especially the role of editors. For this task, he has the right experience. In 40 years at Simon & Schuster, he's worked with Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins on their novels, with Joan Crawford on her memoirs and with Richard Nixon on his self-justifications. He should be able to reveal something about editing, and he does -- though not precisely what he intends.

Editors are by nature arrogant (the few who pretend to be shy are the truly arrogant ones), but Korda abuses the privilege. He informs us that "real editing is a profession, unlike publishing, which is merely a business." He thinks it's an art, too, and a mystery, and he sees no reason for false modesty. "No one teaches it, of course; you're born to it, the way a good surgeon is born with the right hands; it's something you either can or can't do." Korda can do it, Korda implies, and his bestsellers prove him right -- even the Joan Crawford book was a success, though Korda found her lack of self-awareness "scary."

A hostile critic might call Another Life a publicity brochure for Korda, but from that standpoint there's one thing weirdly wrong: It's wretchedly edited. Again and again, it shows signs of hasty composition and hastier editing. Korda often repeats himself, he reworks one theme to the point of outrageous tedium, and he never uses a fresh idiom when something hackneyed is available. He has a weakness for cliffhanger endings of chapters ("We were on the brink of changes so big and dramatic in our small world that they were literally unthinkable") and he uses them so often the reader begins flinching whenever a chapter threatens to end.

His theme is change. It seems publishing has changed a hell of a lot in his time and don't think you're going to get away without hearing about it and hearing about it and hearing about it. His insights on this subject impress him so much that he sometimes makes the same point on two facing pages. On page 44, he says "the era of private ownership was coming to an end," and on page 45, he says "the age of the cottage industry was coming to an end." About 500 pages later, he says "the book-publishing industry seemed at last to have made the transformation from cottage industry to big business."

On page 398, he says "it became apparent that book publishing was in the process of becoming glamorous." Two paragraphs later, right across the page, he writes: "Nothing could be more extraordinary than the way in which book publishing was swiftly transformed into a glamorous occupation." Making our way through the book, waiting for more revelations about the laziness of Harold Robbins or the absurd pretensions of Will and Ariel Durant (authors of The Story of Civilization), we keep running into Korda the Historian and Korda the Shrewd Observer. He can't contain his astonishment that the old ways are passing, revolutions are being made, young editors are about "to change the face of book publishing" and "the ground was shifting beneath us." He wants us to know when publishing became big business, when it became a world marketplace, when business people took control from editors, and when free publicity on television ("the biggest revolution") rescued the business just as its markets were failing. Almost everything he says has been stated before in many, many articles. In Korda's view, that's no reason to refrain from saying it four or five times more.

As a stylist, he runs to phrases such as "the calm before the storm" and "the die was cast." It seems almost a principle with him, some perverse equivalent to consumer-safety campaigns: He will include in his book only those words or phrases that have been tested by at least three generations of use. He brings to mind the cliche expert, a long-ago character invented for The New Yorker by Frank Sullivan. The cliche expert could answer every question with a well-worn phrase, and so can Korda.

How does he describe internal conflict at Simon & Schuster? "A house divided." What phrase best sums up the sharp differences between two executives? "Like cheese and chalk." What was there in the air? "A certain tension." How quickly did the bookstore chains gobble each other up? "At a dizzying rate." When Simon & Schuster published Shirley Conran's Lace, how could we summarize the marketing effort? "No stone was left unturned."

The reviewers who called his stories amusing were right, but the text containing the stories is a monument to incompetence. Korda the editor has left a strange kind of keepsake for posterity: a book about editing that stands in desperate need of an editor.

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