From Our Staff | October 25, 2010


Interesting news from the Telegraph: “Jane Austen’s famous prose may not be hers after all.”

Prof Kathryn Sutherland said analysis of Austen’s handwritten letters and manuscripts reveal that her finished novels owed as much to the intervention of her editor as to the genius of the author.


“The reputation of no other English novelist rests so firmly on the issue of style, on the poise and emphasis of sentence and phrase, captured in precisely weighed punctuation. But in reading the manuscripts it quickly becomes clear that this delicate precision is missing.

“This suggests somebody else was heavily involved in the editing process between manuscript and printed book,” Prof Sutherland said.

Prof. Sutherland proposes that one William Gifford was this very editor, Austen’s own Gordon Lish.

At The Missouri Review, we take literary editing very seriously, and our senior staff have many personal anecdotes of the very forms of magic they’ve seen editors work that transform good stories into great stories. But our conception of authorship still looks askance at the editor. I had a writing professor who was became nearly to apoplectic when describing how he felt Gordon Lish had exerted his editorial tyranny over Raymond Carver — and it is hard not to feel a stab of pain when one reads of Carver’s plea to Lish to stop cutting his drafts by as much as 70%. As yet, it doesn’t appear that Austen’s relationship with Gifford was anything near as fraught, but I expect idea of Gifford’s possible role in shaping the “voice” of Austen is deeply troubling to many Austen fans.

So what do you think about authors and editors? Is an author diminished by being the recipient of an editor’s polishing blue pencil? Are editors the writer’s friend or foe?