I had lunch the other day with a couple of writer-friends. They both did the MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, of which I feel an honorary member since I get to sit in on some of the visiting authors' seminars and workshops, and one way and another you might say we're at the academic end of the writing trade: by definition we're writers who like talking and thinking about writing. But did we talk about the death of the novel, or the joys and sorrows of the writing process, or great writers we admire? Not very much: for the most part we talked about agents. And editors. And publishers. And agents again. Actors are just the same, I assume artists are too, and it's all contrary to what the more starry-eyed reader/audience-member/gallery-goer would like to believe. In between negotiating the minefield of talking honestly about my experience of agents and publishers without sounding infuriatingly lucky, I've been wondering why.
It's true that agents and editors are the gatekeepers: if you want more than half a dozen people to read your novel, you need an agent, to get you an editor, to get your work out there. In this, if in nothing else, novelists have it tougher than poets and short fiction and non-fiction writers. And that's not just about making (a little) money: it's about reaching your audience and being heard at all. But it's also about having trusted readers for before your work's ready to go out: as I was elaborating in What's the fitting room mirror telling you, about having a full-length, well-lit mirror which shows every happy combination of colours and disastrous wrinkle or hanging hem. Good editing (and in this I include the work that your agent may do with you on your book) doesn't tell you what to write, or make you re-do some bits of your book to conform to what they think is good or marketable, though a good editor may well be thinking about such things. Good editing helps you to make your book be as good and marketable as it's in its nature to be.
This often means that editors don't say 'It needs to be written in shorter sentences' or 'More scary monsters please!' or 'The demographics of your market mean she needs to be younger,' but rather 'Could this be better?' or 'This doesn't build up quickly enough,' or 'I didn't believe she'd do this'. How do you tackle such comments? It can be very baffling: you may be determined that this is your book, but sometimes it would be much easier to be given the 'right' answer, and write it down and know that teacher will give you a big tick and you'll get a good exam result. But editors aren't teachers, in that sense. They don't have right answers that we writers are trying to learn and put into practice. Quite often they don't know what they want, only that at the moment they're not getting it. But they'll know it when they see it.
Editors aren't teachers, but neither, you could say, are good teachers. One of the most interesting things I learnt in the HE teacher training course I did recently, was that students were most satisfied and felt they learnt most with course and teaching that were quite clear and structured and did what they said on the tin. But actually, apparently, these don't lead to the best results when it comes to assessment. Things that were more open-ended, which made it less obvious exactly what the right kinds of answer were, built in what they call 'desirable difficulties' and generally meant you didn't know quite what to do with the contents of the tin when you'd taken the lid off, seemed more puzzling and less helpful at the time, but actually led to better results, because the students had had to think more wide-rangingly and creatively, and actually ended up knowing and understanding more about their subject.
You don't need me to tell you how that applies to writing, do you? 'Desirable difficulty' rather sums up the whole writing thing, don't you think?