the sweaty details

In her memoir, Blood Memory, the choreographer Martha Graham writes about Louis Horst, one of her key collaborators. She first encountered Horst in Ruth St. Denis’s dance company. At Denishawn, Graham was a promising young dancer and Horst, the musical accompanist:

[Horst] would give an edge to a dancer—the best criticism but the worst thing to hear. If what I did did not please him, because he thought I could do better, he’d say, “It’s not good enough. Stop it. Begin again.” “But, Louis, you’re breaking me. You’re killing my soul!” I’d say. “Begin again,” he’d say. “But you’re killing my soul,” I’d cry again and finally Louis would dismiss me with “Then let it die now,” and he’d turn from me with disdain.

Clearly, Horst told it like it is. Judging from the fact that Graham later brought Horst into her own company, she was the rare artist who treasured a gimlet eye, however piercing. In contrast to Horst (who expressed his frustration with dancers using nicknames like “Mirthless Martha”), I temper my feedback, having learned to do so the hard way: by pissing people off. That is to say, I didn’t learn for the longest time. It wasn’t until I began my editorial career, at a publishing imprint where every other author was a celebrity, that I finally—and only selfishly—recognized the danger in being insufferable, er, “honest.”

If you work your way up the editorial ladder, you will eventually reach the point where you simply can’t afford to risk alienating the author, even in the name of getting it right. Out of sheer self-preservation, I deliberately softened my stance. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but I slowly built the habit of sanding the rough edges off my comments before sending a manuscript back to its author.

Look, stuff slips through. I ain’t perfect. But I think people who knew me the younger me would agree there’s been considerable improvement, both in my editorial feedback and my general demeanor. Through years of steady effort, I’ve worked my way up to “sufferable.” Measuring my words will never come naturally, but I’m grateful fate led me away from my worst tendencies. At most publishing houses, the power differential between author and editor is stark. When the authors have no recourse to a power agent, when they aren’t household names, when no single book is the tentpole holding up the publisher’s entire year, I imagine it’s easy for editors to keep bad habits, to casually deal out harsh feedback without a second thought.

It’s easy to understand why. It’s difficult and time-consuming enough to criticize writing constructively, to not only identify what isn’t working but also offer clear and useful guidance toward fixing it. Leavening this constructive criticism with warmth and positivity takes even more hard work, more precious time, assuming you even have the necessary emotional intelligence (or, like me, you learn to fake it). Why painstakingly measure every word when you don’t absolutely have to? When you can just say, “Not good enough, begin again“? You’re The Editor. You’re doing the author a favor by publishing them. Or so it would be easy to let yourself believe—at some publishers, anyway.

I’m glad I learned the lesson relatively early and I can only shake my head at my younger self, his impossible ego and self-absorption. Reading Graham, though, I wonder whether I’ve gone too far in the other direction, whether I’ve done a disservice to my authors over the years by withholding the strongest remarks or mellowing the messages that should have been delivered in all their acidic accuracy. Doesn’t every creator deserve “the best criticism but the worst thing to hear”? Blunt feedback may feel like it’s breaking you, like it’s killing your soul, but if a creator walks away from a project based on criticism, it’s clear who’s holding the murder weapon. No editor will ever be as cruel as the reading public.

The real question is, would Martha Graham have become Martha Graham without Horst’s uncompromising standards to meet?

My advice to you. I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful. —Lester Bangs in Almost Famous

Nowadays, economic necessity has changed the editorial process, undeniably for the worse. Most acquiring editors are expected to field so many books that providing even a handful of thoughtlessly harsh comments on a manuscript represents too great an investment of time and energy. Nearly every author I meet reports receiving little to no feedback on their books. (Yes, there are exceptions, but you know what they say about those.)

Too many books. Too many articles. Too many songs. Too many movies. Out of necessity, we lower the bar. Creative compromise: as I get older, the more profoundly it disturbs me. Today, these compromises are most obvious on television, where even our greatest writers, directors, and actors are cutting corners in response to the extraordinary glut of funding for new projects.

Those poor, desperate TV execs! I can just picture them at work, shoveling one expensive, star-studded project after another into the streaming firebox like so much coal: Must…generate…sufficient…content! A year or more to create something like The Queen’s Gambit and then the world hoovers it down in a few days and forgets it by the following week. Who can blame artists for seizing an unprecedented moment, for caving in and making five decent movies instead of one great one? Streaming has turned cinema into a sand mandala.

And yet: a rare handful of creators across mediums work brutally hard to maintain high standards no matter what the timetable or the offer on the table. When I see that extra effort, my eyes well up. Even if I don’t enjoy what I’m reading, watching, or hearing in pure entertainment terms, I want to get on my knees and thank them for keeping the bar where it belongs: just out of reach. For their scrupulous diligence in service of Art. All hail the conscientious creators.

HBO’s Watchmen didn’t have to be so thoughtful, so meticulous, so respectful to both its fanbase and its source material, all while forging new ground and making an undeniable case for its own existence. And to end things properly instead of reaching for an unnecessary second-season cash grab—c’est magnifique! Damon Lindelof has clearly learned something valuable from his many compromises on films like Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness, just as David Lynch learned from Dune. This is rare. Most never learn.

The heart of this is a complete commitment to being with the work when you’re working on it. People always say the same thing about meeting a great leader: “I felt like I was the only person in the room.” When you sit down to work, are you that committed and in-the-moment with your own project-in-progress? Is it the only thing in the room for you? Or do you have somewhere else you really ought to be? If you can think of a single better way to spend your time than what you’re doing, take your hands off the keyboard and back away slowly. Go do that other thing. For everyone’s sake.

If not, if the work in front of you is the most important thing, if not the most urgent: commit yourself completely to it for the time you have available. Sacrifice your full presence and attention. Take pains placing each and every grain of sand before it gets swept away. And if you can do it better next time, by all means, begin again. Your soul is stronger than you think.

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