The film Genius, as you can see in my review elsewhere on this website, impressed me a great deal. It brings out of the shadowy background the unsung editor. Max Perkins tells author Thomas Wolfe that he is not making his book better, but “different.” Wolfe had submitted the hugely long manuscript to all the other major publishers in New York, but everyone had turned him down. Perhaps intimidated by the size of the project, they failed to see the gem of a book that Perkins saw embedded in the unruly pile of pages. He tells Wolfe that his role as editor is not to make the book “better, but different.” Different because the editor guides the writer (and with Wolfe almost forces at times) into freeing the essence of the work from the hundreds of extraneous words (or paragraphs, or, again in Wolfe’s works, thousands of words) that obscure the author’s meaning.
As an author, the film made me think back to my first book. An editor at Abingdon Press, Richard Loller saw my Christian Century article “The Gospel According to Edith Bunker,” and called me up about doing a book on “All in the Family.” Unfortunately when I contacted Norman Lear’s office I discovered that another Presbyterian pastor had just started on such a book. Richard Loller switched gears and suggested that the book be on television in general, and thus came about my first book Television: A Guide for Christians. Once it was written he also made it a better one (sorry, Max).
The work was a theological guide for approaching TV and analyzing the various genres or types of programs–soap operas, sitcoms, adventure dramas, children’s programs, the TV commercial, and news broadcasts. I laced my comments and discussion questions with a good deal of humor, even writing two sample TV episodes as a model for groups using the book to create their own. Mine were, for the soap opera, “The Loves of David,” subtitled “The Torrid Affair That Threatened an Empire.” No need to tell you what episode in King David’s that was based on. For the sitcom chapter I based the skit on Jesus’ parable in Luke about the Tax Collector and the Pharisee in the Temple, the updated version being an Archie Bunker spoof featuring Arnie and Enid Clunker from “A Fall in the Family.”
Editor Loller carried the humor over even onto the book’s content page by transforming the divisions into Channels, rather than Chapters, and coming up with call letters appropriate to the genre–WSAD for soap opera; WLIE for the exploration of TV commercials, and so on–as you can see below. Richard Loller stood out from the other editors, and no doubt could have become a writer had he felt called.
Over the course of writing my 14 books I have benefited from the advice and blue/red pencil of many different editors, and so am grateful to them all. The other outstanding incident illustrates the trust that an editor puts in her writer.
For about 10 years I was media critic for the Catholic family magazine Marriage & Family Living, which in itself was an exhibition of a great deal of trust by hiring a Presbyterian to review films for their Catholic readers! In early 1980 I wrote a glowing review of Bob Fosse’s masterpiece, All That Jazz. I found it rich in theological themes and insights as well as in drama. Jessica Lange played a figure called in the credits Angelique, who mysteriously appears at various times to warn the overly busy Broadway director Joe Gideon to stop his whoring, drinking, and let up on his frenetic schedule, lest disaster fall. There is a wonderfully staged dance review in which the dancers wear clinging body suits onto which are printed the body’s arteries and veins–and which reveal all the natural endowments of the women dancers. This scene ends with all the lights going out, and then each dancer holding a flashlight that lights her face so that it looks like a death mask. The Catholic bishops who rated films gave the film their Condemned rating, meaning that no Catholic, adult or youth, should see the film. They were highly offended by the scene that I found so creatively expressing the warning that Angelique had given to Joe–who does indeed fall victim to a heart attack, brought on by his profligate ways. As the apostle Paul put it, “The wages of sin is death,” unforgettably stated by the dance. The bishops missed the intention of the dance sequence, interpreting it as just an injection of lewd, gratuitous sex .
The magazine ran my review anyway. Editor Ira Marie Stabile told me later that she had not seen the film so she talked with the staff at the monastery where her office was located. Based on their experience with my past writing, they agreed to trust my judgment and print the review. This took some gumption, going against the leaders of her church.