Great Book Editors Are Not an Endangered Species

The retirement of legendary editor Robert Loomis, who worked with Maya Angelou and William Styron, doesn't signal the end of a publishing era

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Random House


After 54 years at Random House Robert Loomis, soon to turn 85, is preparing to retire, although he's assured his writers that he will keep working on their books that are under contract. Reports of Loomis's plans highlighted his truly illustrious authors, including William Styron (a college friend at Duke), Maya Angelou, Neil Sheehan, Seymour Hersh, Daniel Boorstin, Jonathan Harr, Jim Lehrer, Edmund Morris, Calvin Trillin, Shelby Foote, and John Toland, among others. "Nurturer of Authors Is Closing the Book" was the New York Times headline. Loomis's esteem is long-standing. Random House founder Bennett Cerf described him in a memoir published after his death in 1971 as "one of those painstaking editors in the old tradition ... helpful to a great variety of writers of both fiction and non-fiction." In her comments, Gina Centrello, president of the Random House Publishing Group (and, by my count, the tenth publisher at the company that Loomis had worked for), echoed Cerf's praise: "Creative publishing begins with the author-editor relationship," she told the Times. "Bob epitomizes the editor's role at its best."

For a decade in the 1980s and early 1990s, I had an office down the hall from Loomis, so I can attest to his extraordinary skill at guiding authors through the immensely complex process that writing a book can be—and I mean a real book, like Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Shortly after I arrived at Random House in 1984, I noticed two large shopping bags in a corner of Loomis's office, which, he explained, were the drafts of Sheehan's book. In all, it took 16 years for Sheehan to write Vann's biography, which was much more than a life story. It was the definitive account of America's failed but peculiarly well-intentioned imperial adventure to curb communism in Vietnam.

Don't succumb to the canard that, with Loomis and his contemporaries departing, the era of great editing is over.

In 1972, Vann, a former army officer, was serving as a senior civilian official in Vietnam. He was killed in a helicopter crash, and Sheehan decided to write a book about him. Correspondents covering the war (I was one) and other Vietnam specialists predicted that Sheehan's book would turn out to be the epic retelling of the conflict, because of Vann's persona and Sheehan's skill. And so it turned out to be, after all those years of work by Sheehan, and Loomis's prodigious editing and patience. When A Bright Shining Lie finally was published in 1988 and won the National Book Award, another book edited by Loomis, a novel by Pete Dexter calle Paris Trout, was that year's fiction winner, a combination that remains a unique editorial achievement.

Loomis's stature among the Random House sales force was such that, in our presentations to them, we could pretty much summarize a book's potential by describing it as "a Loomis book." By no means did all of Loomis's books succeed, but he understood and even appreciated the unpredictable dynamics of the publishing process. A former colleague quoted him in the New York Times as saying, "Every day when I wake up in the morning and come to work, I have no idea what's going to happen. All the books that I think are going to sell don't work, and all the books I don't think are going to work sell a lot and win awards. That's why I love this business so much." In the coverage of his retirement, the undertone was that he was among the last editors of his caliber—meticulous "pencil" editors whose gift was enabling authors to find the book they set out to write among the words that tumbled out on paper (and now on screens). Another great editor with that ability was Maxwell Perkins, editor of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, who died at the age of 63 in 1947. Perkins's counsel to writers captured the essence of classic editing: "Just get it down on paper and then we'll see what to do with it." The simple eloquence of that insight—so similar to what I imagine was Loomis's strategy—was such that I framed the aphorism and keep it on my wall.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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