Sometimes this is for reasons of space, more often because in recent years it is so common to read badly or barely edited works that to refer to it is to risk stating the blindingly obvious.
The sort of editing gaps I'm referring to are not typos. Those irritating and increasingly frequent errors in spelling are again too boring to mention unless they cross a threshold and reach plague proportions. A seasoned editor I know says that six typos is an acceptable number to find in any good book. More than that and one begins to stray into measles territory. Some books, however, are so poxed that they are almost unreadable, unless for comic value.
I was struck, though, that in recent notices of Morrissey's autobiography, several reviewers bemoaned the lack of editing. Occasional American spellings, irrelevant discursions and impenetrable sentences so offended these readers that they broke the customary omerta and spoke out. The Sunday Herald's reviewer went so far as to say that Penguin had done Morrissey a disservice by allowing such an ill-kempt manuscript to go into print untouched.
The irony is that since Morrissey insisted his work was published as a Penguin Classic, he has joined the ranks of those whose work is never edited before being included on that list. On this point, if on no other, Penguin was in the right. If that has damaged Morrissey's literary reputation, one's heart finds it hard to bleed. I mention this not to take another pop at this idol, but because it is striking that the writers published under Penguin Classics, and many besides, never had editors. When we read their books, they are in that sense entirely raw. A better word, of course, would be brilliant. Moliere, Montaigne and Milton were all published without amendment by an outside hand, unless that of a compositor correcting a typographical error. Jane Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot wrote, rewrote, and sent in their work, which went to press by and large unchanged, as did most of the immortals of the 19th century and earlier.
Only last century did the editor become one of the most important figures in the publishing world. Behemoths of the industry, they acted not only as finders of new talent, but as authors' pathfinders, helping them think and write more clearly.
Great editors helped make the name of their writers. Perhaps the most famous, Max Perkins, was Hemingway's literary right hand, and that of F Scott Fitzgerald too. Raymond Carver might never have reached the limelight but for the unsentimental and vigorous reshaping his editor Gordon Lish demanded. And those who wrote for the New Yorker will never forget the firm but courteous intervention of an editor such as William Maxwell, himself a fine novelist, who saved many authors from embarrassing themselves with a glitch or a cliche or a tired sentence. One of the New Yorker's regular contributors, John Updike, was rare in admitting he was always delighted to be edited. If someone wanted to suggest improvements, he was more than happy to consider them.
Not all see it that way, though. JK Rowling is only one in a long line of writers who, having become famous, would not allow their work to be changed. Sadly, it's to her, and everyone else's detriment. Indeed, much contemporary fiction is crying out for a shaping hand, someone able to step back and see the book as a whole, to spy its carbuncles and blind alleys, and suggest ways in which a good book could be made even better.
Once one of the most influential posts in any publisher's house, now the editor is seen as a luxury. Copy-editors, who dot i's and cross t's, are a different species entirely. They still flourish, though to the jaundiced eye, many could profitably make a trip to Specsavers. By comparison, the far more difficult, demanding and influential role of editor is fast going the way of the chimney sweep. This is a true definition of shortsighted.