Yesterday I watched the film Genius, in which Jude Law plays the utterly driven writer Tom Wolfe, and Colin Firth plays the (genius) editor Max Perkins, who also edited Fitzgerald and Hemingway, both portrayed admirably in the film.
I think writers should go watch (or rent) the movie. Here’s why.
Wolfe has been rejected by every publishing house in town, until Max sees something in his work. Most writers, even successful ones, had a rough start, or have not yet even had that ‘lucky break’, which seems lucky when it happens to others, and hard-earned when it finally happens to them. There is a moment when Wolfe realizes he has been accepted for publication, and he practically screams. As a writer, I found this both satisfying and appropriate.
The mechanics of the editing process is both fascinating and funny. Funny when Max is handed the manuscript for the first time, and he says ‘at least tell me it’s double-spaced’ (the answer is that it is not). Funny when Wolfe turns up with book 2, and its 5000 pages long. Fascinating when Max edits a long paragraph, which sounds beautiful the first time you hear it, and then he forces Wolfe to cut it back to the bare bones, a simple two lines, and you think, he’s right, it is better.
One of the points of the film, however, is how destructive writing can be, often for those around the author, as excellently portrayed by Wolfe’s muse Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) as she slowly unravels, then turns stone cold against him. I’ve often wondered if all serious writers should indeed live alone in a garret in Paris or New York, occasionally venturing out for a coffee, but otherwise keeping away from the world and not harming those in it, or those they profess to care about. A bit harsh, but maybe not if you’re like Tom Wolfe.
The counterpoint is given by Fitzgerald, who is the stable and professional writer, still very much in love with his wife and putting her first, and Hemingway, who puts life first.
But the film revolves around Wolfe and Perkins, and reminds us, as Bernstein states, that the people around us writers are not fictional, unlike the characters inside our heads and books.
One thing the film didn’t bring out was the pure joy of writing that most writers experience, rather than the manic obsessional got-to-get-ths-done periods many writers go through, and where Wolfe seemed to live non-stop. This is also because the film largely focuses on editing rather than writing, and one is fun, and the other is hard and sometimes cruel.
Because the film is set circa 1929, it did not deal with that other modern stressor that writers currently have to deal with, namely the jungle that is social marketing, wrestling with Twitter, Facebook, Websites, etc., trying to get their voice heard above millions of others. From that perspective, I sometimes think I might have preferred to have been around back then…
I had just finished a manuscript for publication, and going to see this film was my reward. But I came out in deep reflection. How many thousands of hours have I committed to writing when I could have been interacting with real people?
Of course it didn’t last long, because I’m a writerholic, and this morning I disappeared for a few hours into a Parisian brasserie to write a chapter of the next book. And I really enjoyed myself. But I’m going to go off-grid for a few days and pay attention to the non-fictional world, and the non-fictional characters who really matter.
By the way, the title of the film refers to the editor, not the writer, which I found interesting. I now have an editor for the first time in my writing, and she has certainly helped me raise my game. All the words are mine, but without her insights it would be a lesser novel.
So, here’s to editors everywhere, you help to make our words better.
66 Metres will be Released 25th August by CarinaUK, HarperCollins