A Way With Words

Judith Jones wrote the book on editing, earning through her wise and gentle touch the trust of luminaries such as Anne Tyler and John Updike

February 26, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

NEW YORK - A small, pointed nose and a pair of shining eyes peer out between two towering piles of book, making Judith Jones look for all the world like the City Mouse, eyeing a tempting morsel of cheddar.

Granted, Jones has been asked to pose with her books by a photographer in the Manhattan office of Alfred A. Knopf, where she is a senior editor and vice president - but not until after the shutterbug had listened to her talk for nearly two hours. There is something about her small, neat presence, her blend of modesty, inquisitiveness and boldness, that makes the analogy to Aesop's fable fit.

During her 46 years in the publishing business, Jones has become the mouse that roared. If any single human being possesses unerring taste, it is possible that she is that person. Her publishing "finds" include a manuscript by an unknown teen-ager named Anne Frank, a cookbook by an unknown chef named Julia Child and a book of poetry by an unknown scribe named Sylvia Plath.

Katherine Hourigan, Knopf's managing editor, wishes she knew the secret of Jones' impeccable taste. "It's a certain, wonderful instinct," she says. "She can see how a particular manuscript can be worked into something fabulous, and I'm not talking about appealing to the masses. Her critical judgment is superb.

"It's hard to imagine what the world would have been like without Anne Frank's diary. You can say, `Oh, someone would have published it,' but that's not necessarily the case."

Jones has edited all 16 of Anne Tyler's novels, including The Amateur Marriage, which was published earlier this year. Who but Jones would dare to argue with Tyler about her titles and endings, to tell John Updike that some of his sentences are too complicated, or to discreetly suggest to Arthur Rubinstein that in the rough draft of his autobiography, he came across as pretentious?

Over Jones' busy and interesting life - she will turn 80 in March - she dated a former fighter in the French resistance, briefly ran an unlicensed cafe in Paris and befriended such luminaries as the poet Ted Roethke and the French surrealist painter Balthus.

While fostering the careers of other writers (including Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, for whom she edited the English translations), she also has written three cookbooks with her late husband, Evan Jones.

Authors say that part of Judith Jones' success is that she understands the intimate and fraught relationship between author and editor. Writers have to trust editors to see the secret flaws that lie outside their own field of vision, the bald spots on the back of their heads. But because editors have individual responses to what they read, it can be difficult for writers to sort out which comments are valid, and which arise from that particular editor's world view.

Tyler is struck by Jones' gentleness and diplomacy, her willingness to swallow her ego and become an invisible collaborator. "I can't imagine that there's anyone else out there with anything like her combination of perspicacity and tact," Tyler writes in an e-mail.

"She reads critically and very, very intelligently, but she never forgets that the book is, finally, the author's. Whenever I hear someone say something like: `John Doe is such a good editor; you can always tell a John Doe book,' I shudder and say a little prayer that Judith will never, ever take it into her head to retire.

"That isn't to say that she doesn't voice strong opinions. She and I have disagreed several times about titles, and she once persuaded me that a female character with, I believe, seven consecutive husbands might better be restricted to three. But she has unfailingly been so delicate about it - another word that comes to mind when I think of her. You know how delicate she is physically - like a ballet dancer, I've always thought. That same quality shows up in her editing."

Jones, for her part, says that the very best writers (Tyler and Updike included) are such consummate craftsmen, are so particular about every word and rhythm and shade of meaning, that their first drafts require just minor changes to be ready for publication. For that reason, these writers do not necessarily welcome an editor's suggestions, however light her touch.

"With Anne, it's very small things," Jones said. "I have come to understand that she so creates her characters in a specific world that when she lets them go, it's hard for her to go back in. I've told myself, `She really can't do it, so leave well enough alone.'"

Jones says that Updike is so protective of a fledgling book that he won't even discuss it with his editor. But fortunately, he occasionally drops clues.

"He'll never waste paper," she says, "so he'll write me a note on the back of a manuscript page that he's thrown away, and I'll snatch it up and get a glimpse of what he's working on.' "

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