Update: in response

A perfect pyre

Written in response to:

A perfect pyre

I have just read Kristin Otto’s review of Gardens of Fire by Robert Kenny. I much enjoyed it and am keen now to read Dr Kenny’s book, which sounds fascinating. I found myself pulled up, however, by something Ms Otto said near the beginning of the piece: ‘… multiple strands of narrative are expertly woven, with no more than the currently expected amount of editing shortfall’.

I wonder why she came to this view about this book – no reasons are given. Was it riddled with mistakes or typographical errors? These would certainly be editorial shortfalls. Or did she regard the book as too long, or with unwieldy sentences, or an awkward style, or arguments that were not always well articulated? It did not seem, from her admiration of the book, that these were problems, though.

I suppose I am writing on behalf of the many editors in Australia who work long hours on manuscripts they care deeply about, for not much money and with little credit, even if the book receives wonderful reviews. I should qualify the last bit by emphasising that, of course, good editorial work is invisible, and the credit we most value, anyway, is that given privately by an author who is happy with our work. But it is dispiriting to be blamed by reviewers for problems they perceive to be our fault when, presumably, the reviewer does not know how the edit unfolded. Did the author refuse advice, for example? How did the manuscript read before it was edited? How long was the editor given to do his or her work?

Perhaps there were good reasons for Otto to make this claim, but the editors I know work hard to make every book as good as they can, and with the author’s interests always at heart, so this kind of seemingly dashed-off criticism seems, on the face of it, unfair and to be using us as easy targets.

Catherine Hill
Deputy Managing Editor
Random House

I take Catherine Hill’s points in response to Kristin Otto’s review of Robert Kenny’s Gardens of Fire. I agree, for example, that editors must be driven half bonkers on occasion when they are forced to cop a recalcitrant author’s refusal to cut, explain, re-jig or respond to reasonable suggestions. I have been saved from mortifying errors, unforgivable joke-repeating, clumsy plunging endless ludicrous unpunctuated sentences, and pretendy French by invisible superhero editors including in chronological order Diana Gribble, Lesley Dunt, Nicola Young, Jane Morrow and Ariane Durkin. I owe them. Editors are not paid enough or given enough time or credit for what they do.

But I think Otto was right. When I read Gardens of Fire, which I thought was a marvellous book overall, and beautifully written, I was struck by quite a few passages that seemed repeated. It was odd, and happened often enough to be rather glaring. At first, I thought it might have been a production error but then noticed that the wording was different enough each time to feel like a rewrite.

I once had so much help from an editor on structure that it could be described as a demolition and building project requiring hydraulics and scaffolding. So I hope that Otto’s observation would be taken as a call for editors to have more time, and more bags of emeralds, for example, rather than it being seen as a criticism of their skills. I do sometimes wonder why more editrices (is that a word? Ask Nicola) (where was I?) … (too many parentheses as usual) (somebody should end this sentence). I do sometimes wonder why more editors don’t revolt (clumsy construction here, please advise) and leave us authors to dangle about on our own petards, whatever they are. Dunty would know.

Kaz Cooke 


Congratulations to Kristen Otto for her lucid review of Robert Kenny’s Gardens of Fire. Kenny’s book personalises a cataclysmic event, which remains, for most of us, a hypothetical disaster. We might express sympathy, might feel empathy, might even shed tears, but that stripping of self experienced through severe loss is something few can comprehend. Kenny’s experience reminded me of what my parents went through during the Second World War: a blind stumble through extreme circumstances to an acceptance of sorts and a desire to rebuild. That the trauma remains hidden beneath the necessity for ‘getting on with things’ is seldom an acknowledged part of the story.

Francesca Sasnaitis


Published April 11, 2014