Israeli book editors are less likely than their American counterparts to demand major manuscript changes of an author. For better or worse-and it’s both-that has been clear to me for a long time. And it was confirmed by four emerging novelists who spoke Wednesday night at Jerusalem’s Tmol Shilshom literary café in the framework of Jerusalem’s International Writers Festival.
As both a writer and an editor, I have mixed feelings about this. Like all writers, I get annoyed when an editor tells me that parts of my pieces are unnecessary or uninteresting and that other things are, in his or her opinion, missing. It’s no surprise that many authors reach out to self publishing companies to publish their own work to avoid the criticism of editors. Like all editors, I almost always see faults in manuscripts that come my way and believe that if my clients will take my advice, the works will be better. I had very productive and pleasant experiences with the editors of my two books, and I think the manuscripts were improved by their suggestions. But from the stories I hear, my experience is not necessarily typical.
I haven’t read the novels of any of the four writers in question (Sami Berdugo, Avirama Golan, Alon Hilu, and Yirmi Pinkus). The main reason is that a huge amount of fiction gets published in Israel every year compared to the country’s size, and there’s no way even a dedicated reader can keep up with it all. From the readings they offered and their presentations of their works, each of the four sounds like a writer worth reading. Notably, each in their own way is an experimentalist-for example, Hilu’s The House of Dajani tells of the Palestinian family that owned a piece of land that is now square in the middle of downtown Tel Aviv, and is written in the Hebrew of the first Zionist immigrants of more than a century ago. They all said that their editors had been extremely helpful but had not sought any fundamental changes in their work.
When I read an Israeli novel I often wish that the publishing house’s editor had leaned on author more. David Grossman’s See Under: Love is a truly great novel, but in my humble opinion would have been even greater without the second of its four parts. Yael Hedaya’s Accidents, which I’m reading now (and which I’ll write a post about when I finish it) has much to recommend it but would be even better with a hundred fewer pages. My editor self would have loved to work on these manuscripts with the authors, helping them to make their books leaner and stronger.
But my writer self is jealous. There’s something to be said for a publishing tradition that allows writers to publish their works intact, without too much interference, in keeping with their original conceptions and their own instincts about their stories’ pace and timing. It allows writers to fulfill their personal visions-and to learn from their mistakes.
My assumption has always been that the reason for this different Israeli tradition is that the Hebrew reading public is small and publishers don’t expect to make a whole lot of money even on a moderately successful book. Golan said that she thinks rather that American editors of fiction are under pressure to mold manuscripts according to the successful formulas of the day.
I don’t know their sales figures; I would suspect that the number of readers these four authors have been able to attract would be considered small by American standards. But the room at the café was filled with fans of their books, so they, and the Israeli publishing industry, must be doing something right.