The Art of Ruthlessness

Having had the privilege of working as an editor at Random House and the BBC before embarking on my career as a writer, I am invariably asked what lessons I bring to the authorial desk after serving in such a capacity. The answer is simple: ruthlessness. By this, I don’t allude to the finer points of corporate political chicanery, rather a fundamental – and I believe crucial – awareness of how to realize a novel to its maximum potential that begins, and arguably ends, in a negation of ego on the part of the author and cold-blooded, dispassionate ruthlessness in terms of characterization.

I have, sadly, witnessed many books of great potential fail and, in returning to the reasons why, as all editors must, a familiar cause would present itself: the hero or heroine was often a thinly-disguised, invariably exalted, depiction of the author him or herself; a fantasy airbrushed embodiment of moral fervor, selflessness, derring-do, or gorgeousness on a scale never before seen in ancient Greek mythology, let alone life. How to edit, how to politely phrase any criticism of a central character that was so clearly based on the author, especially when such a lack of objectivity in characterization constituted the weakest – and most damaging – link of the novel? More often than not, it proved an impossible task.

Obviously, not all authors are guilty of this tendency: Happily, there are many highly evolved writers who, if consciously placing themselves in a central role, can take such criticism on the chin in the interest of improving their novel. Unfortunately, there are also those novelists who I witnessed ruin their work by succumbing to authorial preciousness, interpreting the editorial suggestions made to balance the character as a personal attack. The objectivity necessary to remedy the flaws in characterization proved lacking because they could not separate their own personality from the equation. In short, they believed the character and, by extension, themselves, to be flawless, despite idiosyncrasies that would ultimately prove off putting to readers. As a consequence, coming up against this dangerous perception time and again ultimately proved the cautionary lesson I was not to forget. What I took from my experience in the editorial field? Perfection is boring; narcissism is defeatist; ruthlessness is king.

I must, however, credit T.S. Eliot for planting the seed of this idea in my head in the first place. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” (The Sacred Wood, 1922) he asserted that “poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, it is an escape from emotion. It is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality,” and it is to his view that I most closely adhere, in terms of my approach to writing. I do not entirely agree, however, that complete abnegation is possible in the creative process and, as an author, it would be risible for me to suggest that there are not aspects of myself in all of the characters who populate both The Art of Devotion and The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club.

Yet, rather than a deliberate expression of myself, I consider them as offspring of my subconscious; inheritors of the best and worst of me and of others, filtered via osmosis into the work. I am not consciously presenting myself on the page and thereby muddying the psychological waters – these characters, I can tell myself, have simply nothing to do with me. In this way, I view them through a prism of detachment, which enables me to be unutterably ruthless with their respective destinies. I like them and I dislike them; I judge them as a reader might; I wrestle with them; I wonder who they are and what motivates them; I judge them as hard-heartedly as any reader, or as compassionately.

Yet, by far the best aspect to this approach is the great enjoyment I am able to derive from the editorial process, albeit, this time, from the other side of the desk. I do not have to worry that my most private emotions are going to come under the editorial gun, or that my particular flaws or weaknesses are in any way up for debate or criticism. Psychologically, I spare myself the head trauma of self-analysis, of not liking what I hear, of threatening the work by not being able to see past myself in the guise of a certain character.   After all, the author of the species – myself included – is sensitive enough already, why invite the possibility of a personal meltdown to add to all of the other problems writing a book presents? So, for me, I count ruthlessness as a blessing and I do hope, although they are probably far too polite to admit it, that my lovely agent and editor secretly do too!