C.S. Lewis and the Oddities of Editors

editors wants

The goal of most writers is to become published writers. In his diary, C.S. Lewis describes a rather peculiar route to publication followed by one of his acquaintances at Oxford.

During his prolific career, Lewis dealt with many different editors. Some experiences were positive, while others were less so.

In the diary entry which follows, Lewis expresses his befuddlement at the criteria some editors use to make their decisions.

“Stead” was William Stead, an American poet who came to England as a diplomat, became an Anglican priest, baptized T.S. Eliot, and returned to the States prior to WWII. Stead also introduced Lewis to W.B. Yeats, a curious encounter I will be writing about quite soon.

Wednesday 5 April: Started revising Greek History today. At first I found my notes etc. in great confusion, but when that was straightened out I worked with more interest and pleasure than I had expected. . . .

I also got the two poems (typed v. accurately for I/-)* and saw Stead in order to get the address of the London Mercury.

He told me with a solemn face and admirable naivety how he had got his accepted. Two or three were sent back by return post, whereupon he went up to London and called on the Editor, saying, “Look here Mr Squire, you haven’t taken these poems of mine and I want to know what’s wrong with them!!”

If the story ended there, it would be merely a side light on Stead, but the joke is that Squire said, “I’m glad you’ve come to talk it over: that’s just what I want people to do” and actually accepted what he’d formerly refused. Truly the ways of editors are past finding out! (All My Road Before Me)

Anyone who has submitted their work for publication consideration can relate to Lewis’ incredulity. Long ago I resigned myself to their arbitrariness and irrationality. They are, after all, simply human beings, and as such, inescapably subjective.

While we could all agree on circular filing** submissions filled with typos or misspellings, they sometimes reject what is excellent and embrace what is maudlin. The stories of best sellers that were repeatedly rejected are common.

It’s true that some publications have pretty exhaustive stylebooks, but when it comes to the content of what they publish, it frequently appears to be based on momentary whim.

After many years of writing, and a handful of years as an editor myself, I have come to believe the decisions are purely subjective. Subjective and arbitrary, depending on the mood, time of day, weather, status of family relations and digestion of the editor.

A Postscript on C.S. Lewis and Stead

After the diary excerpt cited above, Lewis continues with a bit more about the brash American.

Stead gave me the proof of his new book, The Sweet Miracle, wh. I took away. So far it seems rather dull. Worked for the rest of the day, except for a nightcap of Repington.

If you would like to assess for yourself the “dullness” of Stead’s poetry, you can download a copy of The Sweet Miracle and Other Poems via Hathitrust.

The book Lewis refers to as his “nightcap” was a history of the First World War, in which he had personally served. It was written by Lieutenant Colonel Charles à Court Repington, a war correspondent. Both volumes are available for your bedtime reading (volume one, volume two).

* “Typed very accurately for one pound.”

** Also referred to as the “round file.”





12 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis and the Oddities of Editors

  1. I’ve very interested in publishing and would love to have a career in it, but from what I’ve seen from internships and other experiences, I have to agree with you: so much of it comes across as subjective or based on a whim. I see literary agents and editors, etc. annoyed a lot at the frustration of aspiring authors, but it’s simply a fact: One agent wants one thing, a second wants something else, a third wants something else. This is incredibly frustrating for people who are trying to submit their work to agents but finding that they have to do hours of research on each agent and customize every single query letter to the max because one typo might get your manuscript trashed, or one mention of dolls in the book might have them rolling their eyes, or one offhand comment about how you both like cheese can get your manuscript read. That’s not to say there aren’t standards in publishing, but it’s just very true that what’s appealing to one person is going to completely turn someone else off. Some people want you to email them asking about your submission if they haven’t sent you a response within x amount of time; other people are going to be furious you dared to inquire whether they got your manuscript 6 months ago and will put you in the “reject” pile just for irritating them by asking.

    1. Oh, Briana, your familiarity with the publishing world is quite evident in your observations. It’s frustrating enough for people on the “outside,” but your experience with your own writing and your educational background have provided you with even more opportunity to be disappointed by the publishing world.

      As for agents, I’ve vacillated on the question through the years. I now have a project that is probably worth the effort to try to find the right person, but… Actually, I hope to attend the Mt. Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference next year, and that would be the best place. Face to face, as they say. We’ll see.

      Despite the challenges, for most of us I believe writing possesses intrinsic benefit. I really hate to come across as cynical to idealistic young writers… but I do want to help them realize how conscientious, persistent–and lucky–they need to be if they are to become successful authors.

  2. Enjoyed the post (and comments). There’s a lot to right place, right time, right person. Such a tightrope.
    Sadly a great number of decisions with print being endangered comes down to which title can make money. Topic ahead of the curve/trend or a highly recognizable name goes to the head of the line. Always room for a well written solid story with believable characters readers can identify with, but you need an editor truly committed to fighting for your book ( and one who hopefully doesn’t jump ship to another publisher leaving your manuscript in limbo)
    Publishing isn’t for the faint of heart. Writing however is for everyone.

    1. You’re right. It’s an unfortunate truth that in most cases $ becomes the determining factor in what gets published. “How marketable is it?” “What is your media platform for promoting it?”

      POD technology allows people to circumvent the traditional morass, but it lowers the overall quality, without even rudimentary editorial review.

      I love your closing. Writing is indeed for everyone!

  3. Hi Rob,

    Keep on writing and get the help you need. There are so many parts to writing a book. I guess we have the role as author and call on the help of others who know their stuff all too well. I have a great editor, I hope you have one, too.



    1. I meet twice a month with three great editors/writers… and I’m married to one whose advice is always valuable. My daughter’s a great editor too… if only she wasn’t homeschooling her four kids!

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    1. Sadly, I believe there’s far more subjectivity in editorial decisions than editors would like to admit.

      However, what if your work captures their fancy? You may well profit from their whims… if you find the right publisher.

      1. That may be. I wonder at how much of it will be in their hands in the future. Already, the writing market is drowning and it takes more than cream of the crop to rise to the surface.

      2. True. I think the most promising avenue for many is to narrowly identify/define their niche and then work to spread the word through venues visited by people interested in that subject.

        It’s no guarantee of financial success… but then very few writers actually get rich. Some, of course, make a living… but it’s often doing things like writing copy.

        Writing success, in my thinking, is often related to (1) knowing people, or (2) being at the right place at the right time (i.e. connections and luck).

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