Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers has a bit of an identity issue. On the one hand, it claims to be advice to writers which, in places, it actually is. On the other, it reads like an insider’s exposé of what editors and agents really think of we writer types. I couldn’t help but wonder if Lerner’s audience wasn’t actually intended to be other editors who would get the inside jokes and find the stereotypical caricatures of authors funny.
Lerner recently posted on her blog that: “My writing book is about publishing from an editor’s perspective, but the part that people seem more interested in is the inner life of writers. The wicked child and all that jazz.” Well. I can see why.
Because this book is intended to be “advice to writers,” Lerner’s readers are, most likely, writers themselves and would, therefore, be pretty interested in what she has to say about them (us). I’m the kind of girl who wears several hats: the writer, the critic, the editor. Since I was reading a book with a stated intention of being for “writers,” I wore my “writer” hat when reading it.
The book is divided into two parts: Part I: Writing and Part II: Publishing. In Part I, (the part in which she says everyone is mostly interested) Lerner breaks writers down into six categories:
- The Ambivalent Writer – This chapter opens like an infomercial for a new drug: “Do you have a new idea almost every day…Do you either start them all and don’t see them to fruition or think about starting but never actually get going? Are you a short-story writer one day and a novelist the next?…Do you begin sentences in your head…Do you blab about your project…Have you ever accidentally…Have you ever been diagnosed…” and on it goes. This writer, in Lerner’s estimation, is a waffler, someone who’s too insecure or too afraid or too distracted to put in the hard work of being a writer. That’s writer #1 – the wimp.
- The Natural – Here we read about those people we all love to hate who come out with a first book that tops the charts, wins the big awards, and proudly announces that the author never took a writing class and is, in fact, an eighth grade drop out from the middle of nowhere. Lerner argues that there is no such thing as “natural talent” and that writing is hard work for everyone. So, essentially, writer #2 doesn’t really exist. Okay.
- The Wicked Child – these writers, according to Lerner, have no compunction against letting it all hang out. She uses Philip Roth as a prime example of a writer who, perhaps unwittingly in the beginning, spent his career ostracizing himself from his community. These are the writers who write tell-all memoirs and go into detail about their sexual exploits/encounters/violations – holding nothing back. The confessionalist, so to speak = writer #3.
- The Self-Promoter – In this chapter, Lerner justifies (sort of) the use of media to promote one’s writing career – whether it be facebook or twitter or book trailers or endorsements of really cool gadgets. The self-promoter, she argues, has been around since Whitman used Emerson’s words oh-so-freely and continues today as the only modesty left amongst writers: false modesty. Almost a compliment – but sort of a backhanded one. The sellout narcissist – writer #4.
- The Neurotic – Lerner opens this chapter with these words: “Writers love to worry. By their very nature they are neurotic. And they tend to exhibit the gamut of phobic behaviors from nervous tics and insomnia to full-fledged paranoia and delusional episodes.” “Most writers,” she says, “appear neurotic; the truth is, we don’t know the half of it.” Wow. The crazy person – writer #5.
- Touching Fire – And here we go. As if the aforementioned stereotypical picture of “the writer” weren’t fully fleshed out before, Lerner gives us the drug addicted, alcoholic, completely self-destructive type. At one point in the chapter, when relaying a story about an author with whom Lerner had worked, she writes: “Long before her shrink came on the scene, I had made my own diagnosis.” Writer #6 – The Drunk. Of course.
And this is perhaps the most annoying thing (speaking as a writer) about Part I of The Forest for the Trees: Lerner makes her “own diagnosis” on virtually every cartoon character writer she’s created. I don’t know if I should feel sorry for Lerner or outraged. I mean, if these are truly the people with which she is regularly coming into contact, then god help her. Poor thing. But I happen to know quite a few writers, and while there are a few heavy drinkers in the mix and one or two slightly neurotic folks, for the most part – they’re all pretty normal people and no more fucked up (excuse the language) than anyone else I know in a whole variety of professions. I happen to know writers who don’t question their vocation, who work hard at their craft, who are aware of the impact of their words and temper that with what they see as truth, who promote their work reasonably and professionally, who are balanced and do not feel the need to shoot up heroin or drink a shot of whiskey upon waking each morning.
And they’re writers, you say? Imagine that! (They must not be any good…)
Part II, Publishing, the part that contains what Lerner claims the book is really “about” offers some good advice about finding an agent, what agents and editors do, the publishing process a book goes through from initial submission to hitting the shelves. This is the information the book title promises, is it not? But I’m less enthusiastic about it by the time I get to it because I’ve had to wade through Lerner’s Taxonomy of Writers and am now, well, irritated.
The book is peppered (heavily) with anecdotes and second-hand stories of famous writers who behaved badly – some of them named, some, mercifully, not. It also gives, in bits and pieces, the history of Lerner’s trajectory from poet to editor to agent. And this is also interesting information – information that would be, I believe, helpful to writers who don’t want to teach for a living or work at Starbucks.
But in the end, the actual “editor’s advice to writers” is buried under Lerner’s diagnosis of the numerous ailments from which she believes all writers suffer and the stories of writers illustrating her point. Had the book been subtitled “An Editor’s Advice to Young Editors,” then I believe it would be what Lerner intended: a funny, snarky, slightly cynical but mostly hopeful look at a career spent working with writers. And that’s a book worth reading. As a writer who also works as an editor, I’d recommend it to those in or wanting to enter the publishing industry.
Writers, on the other hand, beware. Betsy Lerner’s got a crazy hat picked out just for you.
2.5 Stars on the Gabriel Scale