Bookselling serves an astonishing role in society (A review of ‘Midwives and Meddlers’)

Midwives and Meddlers, 8 March, 4.45pm, The Embassy

‘Bookselling serves an astonishinmax_porterg role in society’ says editor Max Porter, who has found it a privilege to shop in the standard of independent bookshops that we have here in Wellington. I am certain he would be further impressed if he had a chance to shop throughout the regions, to which the presence of great out-of-town booksellers Carole Beu (Women’s Bookshop, Auckland) and Stella Chrystosomou (Page & Blackmore, Nelson) attests. I also know that Penny Geddis from Otatara Bookshop was somewhere in this audience, showing the love that all of these incredible booksellers have for the written word.

This was a fantastic way to beginning my Writer’s Week proper. Hearing such a talented editor speak with such a talented writer, as Eleanor Catton most certainly is, was a real joy. Porter remarked wryly that the full house must show how much of a fan we all are of editing – of course it was Catton who was the star attraction, and seeing her converse with somebody on equal terms was very enlightening, as well as entertaining.

eleanor_cattonCatton’s first question for Porter centred on a comment that Germaine Greer made to her (loudly, during another person’s session) during the last festival, that ‘There is no such thing as a good editor’. So what is the point of an editor – what role do they play? Porter answered this and more – the types of editing, from proofreading through to what he calls ‘in the trenches’ edits where every line needs work – and commented that due to the ‘unfortunate focus of the economic imperative’, the creative editor (as he is) is an endangered experience.

As you may have guessed from the opening sentences, Porter has a personal tie to bookselling, having been one himself. He believes that booksellers on the whole tend to make good publishers, as they ‘know how to communicate the validity of a writers word’. There are close ties between hand-selling and publishing, in particular.

‘It is a privilege to have a writer on your list who you will follow wherever they need to go’

While Catton made life difficult at times for her publishers, simply because her endeavour in writing The Luminaries was so ambitious, Porter asserted that there was never any doubt within the publishing company (Granta) that she would pull it off – mainly because Catton herself was so confident in the work. Though there was an amusing aside when Catton joined Twitter – two hours later, she had an email from Porter with ‘Twitter?!’ as the subject line, and #murderweapon in the body…

Porter picked this book up halfway (ish) through the process of publication, as Catton’s previous editor Sarah Holloway departed the company. Catton asked him whether there was anything that may have been different if he had begun with the book, which Porter evaded rather neatly by talking about other authors – particularly some poor soul that he had to pack off with a full first draft as it had turned into something they weren’t ready for and that he thought was the wrong direction for their career altogether. Porter was incredibly good at not naming names – disappointingly!

Porter said one of the important things an editor should contribute is not only that a line is wrong, but why it is wrong, and further, what the writer could do to fix it. He describes himself as a generous editor, as his delete sign always has a question mark on it, as the best way for a writer-editor relationship to proceed is to work together through knotty problems.

Catton didn’t speak at great length about The Luminaries, but we did learn that she doesn’t see it as fitting in the genre ‘historical fiction’ – I think rightly, it is more than that; but lovers of this genre may demur. We also learned that she is aware of the danger for her as a creative writing teacher to fit into an editorial role, and how wary she is of being a ‘midwife’ for their work.

This was a fascinating session, on a fascinating topic. I feel certain that everybody who was there from the industry came away intrigued. The quality of the audience questions suggested that many of them were either in the industry, or currently working on their own writing. The people who came to see our Ellie were possibly a bit disappointed as she spent a lot of time interviewing Porter, but there is always The Book Council Lecture to get their fill of the endlessly interesting Eleanor Catton. You’d better book quickly, as I have heard ticket numbers are getting very low.

By Sarah Forster, Web Editor

Eleanor Catton is delivering the inaugural New Zealand Book Council Lecture on Tuesday 11 March at 4.45pm. If you have tickets already, get there early, as it will be a tightly packed audience lining up to hear Eleanor speak. If you don’t have tickets – get some!

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