"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Fail Better


Langdon Hammer, the chairman of the English Department at Yale, is the author of a new biography on the poet James Merrill. It looks like a formidable book and in the Times, Dwight Garner calls it “nearly flawless.”

I’m sure the book is an achievement and I’m not interested in minimizing that but I really like what Garner says here:

Mr. Hammer’s book is something close to brilliant, but it would have benefitted from committed liposuction. Its “Shoah”-like length will repel many casual readers, and likely even noncasual ones. While this book is not stuffed with sawdust, 800 pages is a lot of James Merrill, and its girth is admission of a certain kind of failure. Knowing what to omit is as important as knowing what to add.

Picture by Giorgio Morandi.


1 rbj   ~  Apr 14, 2015 1:26 pm

Sometimes when reading a book, I think that I could have done a better job of editing, other times i wouldn't know what to cut.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Apr 14, 2015 2:09 pm

It's a real gift to know what to lose. Often, a writer might not be the best judge alone. In film, the great thing about an editor, at least in theory, is that they were not on set and so they come to the material with a fresh perspective.

I'd much rather leave 'me wanting more than leave 'em thinking, "that was good but 15 minutes too long".

3 Shaun P.   ~  Apr 14, 2015 4:33 pm

[2] Yes - in the legal business, they say that it is not great legal writing, but great legal editing. We are usually forced to limit our number of pages/words/characters, not by choice, but because those are the rules.

Sometimes it sucks, but artificially imposed limits help teach one to be a good editor.

4 Alex Belth   ~  Apr 15, 2015 4:00 pm

3) That's a great point.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver