Sunday, May 11, 2014

What Makes a Great Editor - Part Four

Perhaps to attain some measure of success as a writer, you have to be blessed with a guardian angel. If that's so, I was blessed beyond all counting. My guardian angel was short, bearded, with a twinkle in his eye, a Jeopardy-champ range of knowledge, a genuine belief in writers, the ability to recognize the best in a writer and develop it. His name was Bob Abel.
In 1963, a magazine called The Realist was starting to reshape the definition of American humor. It was an irreverent, unexpected breath of fresh air. Woody Allen wrote for it. So did Kurt Vonnegut and Lenny Bruce. So did Terry Southern, the screenwriter of Dr. Strangelove. So did Avery Corman, author of Kramer vs. Kramer. The Realist was the brainchild of eccentric comic genius Paul Krassner. The masthead read "Paul Krassner, Editor and Ringleader, Bob Abel, Featherbedder." Paul's was the name everyone knew, but it was but it was Bob who held it together, got it out on time, and read unsolicited manuscripts.
Incuding mine. I was a young college professor in the midwest, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, as stuffy as only a young college professor could be, and as full of himself as only a recent Iowa Workshop graduate could be. But I fell in love with The Realist's iconoclasm, and decided I could write for it.
I was valuing myself much too highly. The first piece I submitted to them took on the televised state funeral for General MacArthur -- an attempt, as I saw it, to cash in on the great ratings garnered by the state funeral for President Kennedy. I expounded on this over seven pages of pompous writing. I thought it was wonderful. It was awful.
I sent it in to The Realist, expecting kudos and congratulation from Paul Krassner. Instead, and fairly promptly,  got a response from someone named Abel, telling me, in essence, that my manuscript was pompous, stuffy and dull...but that there was a funny idea on page seven that could maybe be developed.
Who reads a stuffy, dull manuscript from an obscure midwestern college professor all the way through, is perceptive enough to find one funny idea buried on the seventh page and generous enough to write the author and encourage him to rewrite and resubmit the piece? How did he know I had it in me to write something less stuffy?
The idea that struck Bob's fancy was a TV game show called "Celebrity Funeral." And he was right. Nothing else in the essay was funny at all; that had a chance to be. I rewrote the piece, resubmitted it, and it began my career-of-sorts as a regular contributor to The Realist. You can find it now online at The Realist Archive Project
That all by itself would qualify someone for guardian angelship. But it was just the beginning of Bob's benevolent influence on my career.

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