A Poem Turned into a Sword

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Possibly because we wish we were creative, but aren’t, publishing editors like me tend to be proprietary about the books we publish. You’ll frequently hear an editor speak of ‘my’ book, meaning not that he or she has written it, or seriously edited it, or in fact done much more than read it. Still, it’s ‘my’ book.

I’ve always regarded this as a fairly innocent practice. It doesn’t hurt anyone and it makes the editor feel better, something that – given his hours and rate of pay – he roundly deserves. And it contributes a powerful incentive to the publishing operation itself. A book is often successful exactly to the degree that everybody involved in publishing it is personally enthusiastic about it, and this enthusiasm generally starts with a possessive editor.

The Woman Warrior was my book. I say this not to avoid accusations of parti pris – after all, everybody who writes about a book for Slightly Foxed can by definition be accused of that – but simply to make clear where I come from. In the winter of 1975 an agent sent the manuscript to Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in New York, where I was a senior editor. It ended up in my hands, because I was supposed to be the house China expert. (I had picked up some Mandarin when I was in the army.) I remember reading it in a bleak, smoke-filled room in the Criminal Court Building on Centre Street while waiting for jury duty, and being stunned. I had never read anything like it before. I convinced my boss to take it on for publication.

Maxine Ting Ting Hong Kingston, I learned, was a young Chinese-American woman; this was her first book, in fact her first publication of any kind, apart from a story for which she received a prize when she was (I think) 8 years old. Yet there was in the clarity and control she displayed, as well as her narrative precision, real mastery. Beyond that, far beyond that, there was the terrible richness of the stories she had to tell. If t

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About the contributor

Charles Elliott is a retired editor and author of several books of essays, the latest of which is Why Every Man Needs a Tractor.

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