Editing Saul Bellow

Elisabeth Sifton in Slate:

When the Viking Press published Mr. Sammler’s Planet in the fall of 1971, I happened to be the new kid on the Viking editorial block. I guess all of us knew, and I learned quickly, that the great man liked to read proofs in-house when he could, turning up to attend to this or that when he was in New York in the peri-publication period. Since he revised his texts heavily in the late stages (sometimes with up to four sets of proofs), he was around plenty.

The final revisions were astounding. “Look at this,” said a colleague, an editor who greatly admired Bellow’s novels but disliked him personally. He was keeping an eye on the proofs of Mr. Sammler’s Planet during the brief summer absence of Bellow’s then-editor, Aaron Asher. He threw down on my desk a single long sheet from the second chapter, with scrawled lines defacing a paragraph at the top and new phrases and clauses sprouting at the end, all this in a clear, decisive hand and bright black ink. “Just read that,” he repeated. “Read it! He took a perfect sentence, the bastard, and he made it even better.” In the summer of 1973, when I was assigned to be Saul Bellow’s editor for his forthcoming books—the first was Humboldt’s Gift—I had scarcely talked to him, but he nailed me as his co-conspirator in the work to be done, and we plunged in. I kept him company while he pawed through the many drafts, options, and alternatives of a fiction that, I learned, he’d been concocting for years.

More here.

And Michiko Kakutani has a short piece on Bellow in the NYT here.

And Philip Roth had a piece in 2000 on Bellow in the New Yorker here.