On one of the many torrid afternoons we’ve experienced in southern Ontario this summer, I snuck off to the cool, dark sanctuary of the Westdale Theatre. The vintage theatre itself is a time machine, which suited my mood that day perfectly. I’d been working hard and deserved a matinee, I assured myself. Popcorn, chocolate, and seats you can hunker right down into: a kind of heaven. Cool darkness where bleating sunlight had worn me out. Also, I tend to rise at 5 a.m., so that by 4 in the afternoon, a movie is all I want. And yes, two hours of air conditioning.
Happily, the movie on offer (not that it would have mattered that day, not really) was GENIUS, about the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. If you don’t already know of him, he worked with Thomas Wolfe, Hemingway, Ring Lardner and Fitzgerald, to name a few of his more notorious authors. Some say he invented the intimate editor/author relationship but that’s one of those things that’s fairly hard to confirm or deny. He definitely cared very deeply about artistic process. Genius is not a perfect movie, but it is hardly as weak as many reviewers insisted. Maybe you have to have survived writing a novel to really click with the film? Maybe you have to have worked with dozens of writers—some of whom are nervous as racehorses, others tough and some surprisingly cheery—to see inside Colin Firth’s tender performance as Max. I’m pretty sure that most writers in the audience would connect with Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) ripping scream of grateful exaltation when he learns that Scribner’s will be publishing his first novel. Hard not to leap from your cinema seat and cheer along with him.
Most films about writing life tend to be very Hollywood, probably because the actual act of typing or scribbling (remember that?) is definitely visual but a little dull after a while. Best to show the drinking, shouting matches and angst built into a literary life, it seems. Unless of course you’re showing a female writer, where the drama is likely drawn from her latest battle with her housekeeper, a chronic interruptor. But what Genius offers is the opportunity to leave the cinema and go on to visit or re-visit the excellent biography, Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg.
A word of caution for writers working today who read this mammoth, delicious 1978 tome about long-ago editor/author relations. Some of the initial sales figures cited in relation to Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Wolfe will make the average Canadian fiction author want to poke his or her eyes out with envy. But take heart: books in the Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Wolfe era were not competing with Netflix and Pikachu and all-the-books-you-can-download-for-99-cents websites. People still read, and they still read a lot. They just buy books “differently” now—or so we are told. The powerful book-driven bond between Perkins and his authors will make you ache, rejoice by turns, and it might even cause you to despair in moments, but it’s still a must-read for anyone even thinking of becoming a fiction editor. It’s also a beautifully written, brass tacks glimpse into the ways in which writers can get in the way of their own creative progress. True, the gaze of this book is mostly male, but if you care about high-level literature, the standards of excellence are universal, I find. If you’re feeling down in the dumps about your writing life to begin with, the revelation that The Great Gatsby was a complete commercial flop in its day will either bolster you or elicit angry tears. Admired by fellow authors, definitely, but never embraced by the book buying throng that existed in that era. It wasn’t his last novel, but it might have been, had it not been for the passionate (not to mention patient) faith of Max Perkins.
I cried watching the film and I admit that the biography stirred up some sobs too. Maybe it’s because I know a lot about the effort that goes into creating a book from both sides of the desk? I’m just very grateful, as both a writer and editor, that A. Scott Berg persisted with his carefully considered study of the equally thoughtful Maxwell Perkins. Although Perkins sought anonymity, his legend deserves to live on, if only to inspire the bravehearts who keep writing—and editing—books in the 21st century.
***Also a great read is this New Yorker piece.