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As a former editor, I feel compelled to speak up in defense of the editorial process. It is not an editor’s job to “find fault” with the text, but to see the potential on the page and to help the writer bring the work to the next level. I think Proust would have benefited from a skilled edit, with a little assistance separating the wheat from the chaff. You ask, “In art, why should we constrain ourselves at all?” That’s what we call craft. The skill is in the constraint, in knowing what to include in the frame--and what to leave out--to create the most powerful image.

Tom, I reject your ridiculous binary that we either critique things or accept them as-is. To be stimulated by a work of art is to be engaged by it and to analyze and interact with it, not to either find fault with it or passively accept it. The same applies to people (since that is the analogy you used). We can love and accept people while recognizing that they are not perfect. In Object Relations, this is called Object Constancy: being able to accept that people have the capacity to be both good and bad at once; not splitting them into the Good Object or the Bad Object, but embracing the Whole Object.

Tom C.

I guess you could say I embrace the novel as a Whole Object, taking it as it is, with all its qualities, without thinking about how to fix it. When we walk through the Louvre gazing at paintings we don't say "That one needs a little more red in the corner..." or "Oh, that baby Jesus is too plump!" Which isn't to say that we are not engaged!

Tom C.

On the question of an artist's constraint I would suggest that the artist should do his or her own constraining -- that is, decide what to include or leave out. Of course the artist's craft depends on this. And no doubt sometimes an editor or friend or producer or teacher or child may have a useful contribution as to what else should be constrained (or embellished or altered in some way). But the default should be with the artist and exactly the way he or she wants it. This is what I mean when I insist that an artist should not be constrained; he or she gets to say exactly how the work is, in fact, to be constrained.


On the contrary, if you walk through an art museum with a painter, they will often say, "This painting would be better if [insert criticism]." You may not think that way when walking through an art museum because you are not a visual artist, just as many people who are not writers can read novels without feeling compelled to edit them. I made a comment once to a musician that listening was a more passive act than reading, and he said, "For you. Not for me."


I agree that artists should constrain themselves. Your original statement was that the only reason an artist would constrain himself would be "to meet the demands of editors... publishers... readers... the market," and not for the sake of craft, of making better art, of making art that more fully realizes the artist's vision...

Tom C.

The need for self-constraint is implicit in my mind when making art, so I didn't make that explicit. So it's good that this exchange clarifies that. Do you really think that the artist needs more than his or her own judgment? Occasionally, yes. Arguably, Carver. Certainly, Wolfe (to use Don's examples). But Mozart? Kafka? I am happy to stand my ground and say that the default, if you will, should be for artists to feel unconstrained by anyone else's preferences and tastes and judgments.

On the museum question, that's very interesting, I simply don't have that urge to "improve" art, whether visual or writing, unless I am tasked with doing that. As I say, I may be extreme in this. I look closely, I read closely, I listen closely, and I either respond to it or not (and may reflect on why), but this doesn't take the form of how the artist might have made it better. Admittedly, it's a subtle difference, but interesting.


I never said that the artist "needs more than his or her own judgment" (although I think it's a fallacy to assume that any artist can escape the preferences, tastes, and judgments of others. No one lives in a vacuum. The anxiety of influence, and all that).

You are contradicting yourself like crazy, Tom. First you wrote, "There seem to be two modes available to us when we encounter the world... Either I embrace something as it is, without aiming to change it, or I go in aggressively and find criticisms everywhere." You didn't say anything about criticizing things only when you are tasked with doing that. You said that you react to art in one of those two ways, and I said that was silly, that there were more than two ways to react to art.

Tom C.

I agree that everyone's preferences, judgments, etc. are never private in their ultimate origin, and always influenced, shaped, made comprehensible by their ties to society. Even language itself -- every word we speak -- is built on social understandings (and has no fixed meanings). So on that point I think we agree.

Also, I recognize that everyone will have a different way of perceiving and responding to a work of art, for example, you, and Don, clearly, and for that matter, every member of our group. I was sharing how for me it feels as if there is switch that gets flipped when I go into critical mode (whether someone else tasked me or I tasked myself). So I think our only disagreement is that you find my way ridiculous! To which I can only say: sorry about that. I do kind of like it though, since it is a way for me to suspend critical judgment (that is, thinking about an artistic work's faults and possible "fixes" as opposed to its qualities) and dive into a work in a more direct and passionate way. I'm sure you and Don and everyone else have other ways to achieve this.


I was thinking about this concept of Proust needing an editor. I read once that Proust remarked to Jean Cocteau: "My book is a painting." Which raises an interesting question: does a painting need an editor?

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