My Brush with Genius – an Editor Goes to the Movies

by Chris Cameron

Published at 2016-06-22

What does an editor do?


We can be correctors, arbiters, hand-holders. We can correct spelling errors or rearrange whole chapters, fix dangling modifiers or eliminate a subplot. It is said that legendary literary editor Maxwell Perkins once cut 90,000 words from a draft of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel – words which, presumably, sank without a trace and were never missed by anyone (except perhaps Mr. Wolfe).


With a screenplay by John Logan based on the book by A. Scott Berg, the movie Genius tells the story of Max Perkins and his intense, tumultuous relationship with Wolfe. There has been some skepticism about the idea of making a movie about a book editor. I mean, what do we do that is so interesting?


I attended a preview of Genius last week courtesy of Editors Canada, which were partly sponsoring the event. It turns out that book editing is not that fascinating to watch – but the people who are involved in it can be.

Watch the trailer for Genius.


Wearing the Editor’s Hat

Director Michael Grandage does not keep us too long while he tells the story – the movie is a thrifty 104 minutes long. Films about literary editors are not superhero megaflicks and Grandage knows it. He certainly doesn’t dawdle over the climax: the credits had begun to roll before the audience had time to slurp the last of their Cokes. The final episode of The Sopranos finished less abruptly.


As the unflappable Max Perkins, Colin Firth seems to have grown out of the bottom of his fedora, so joined to it is he. He wears it at work, at the dinner table, on the train – I began to wonder if he ever took it off to do anything. Each day after work he takes the train back to the suburbs and dines with his wife and daughters. Perkins has few existential moments in the film, but at one point he wonders whether an editor ever actually makes a book better, or just different. I could sense the heads of other editors in the audience nodding at this.


Jude Law is almost cringingly over the top as Thomas Wolfe, the prototypical eccentric twentieth-century southern-American author. To Law’s boiling-over pot of logorrhea, Firth’s Perkins adds just the right amount of cold water needed to bring everything to a simmer.


Perkins goes about the task of editing Wolfe’s prose effectively and conscientiously, as a good editor should. He leaves the art of living large to his two other famous authors, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, played entertainingly but too briefly by Dominic West and Guy Pearce.


I would like the film to have shown us more of Perkins’s relationships with these two. He is largely responsible for the fact that either of them ever got published at all. He had to battle his employers to get their early works accepted. Now that would have been a great story about a book editor.


Where Are You, Alice B. Toklas?

The film gives the impression that literary publishing was a man’s world back in the 1930s. I wouldn’t have minded seeing someone like Gertrude Stein or Willa Cather make an appearance. There is no sign of a literate female, except for the ranks of typists who have to decipher and transcribe Thomas Wolfe’s handwritten scraps of paper.


The female leads in the cast, like the typists, definitely fill supporting roles. Laura Linney is matronly and (mostly) accommodating as Louise Perkins, Max’s wife. Nicole Kidman epitomizes economy of form, creating a colourful thumbnail sketch of Wolfe’s muse and benefactor, Aline Bernstein, in the small amount of screen real estate she is allotted.


Seeing through the Smoke

Grandage reproduces a blue-grey Depression-era world lit by 40-watt bulbs and suffused with smoke – cigarette smoke, locomotive exhaust, evening fog – as if the whole concept of genius is a smoky, obscured one.


The editor’s role, then, is to make clear that which is not. Whether we are copyediting subject-verb agreements or restructuring plotlines, we help the words of authors mean what the authors want them to, so that the brilliance they convey can be better seen.


The full title of A. Scott Berg’s book is Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. By the end of Genius, we are – or should be – in awe of minds like Wolfe’s, Hemingway’s, and Fitzgerald’s. But both the double-edged book title and the film suggest that there are others in the misty literary firmament equally deserving of the title