Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Book Surgeon and Other Types of Literary Surgery

I stumbled across this website today (strange, since I was looking up corporate clothes at the time) and I fell in love with the pictures.

The artist, Brian Dettmer, reconstructs old encyclopedias, medical journals and dictionaries, using knives and surgical tools and creates intricate pieces of art.

Dettmer says:

"The richness and depth of the book is universally respected yet often undiscovered as the monopoly of the form and relevance of the information fades over time. The book’s intended function has decreased and the form remains linear in a non-linear world. By altering physical forms of information and shifting preconceived functions, new and unexpected roles emerge."

The book surgeon got me thinking about other types of literary surgery.

Editors (structural and copy) are book surgeons themselves and publishers are almost like the GP’s, guiding books to make them as healthy (or good) as they can possibly be.

Here’s how it goes down.

The author presents his/her baby to the publisher for a diagnosis. The publisher, upon inspection, finds some abnormalities and says reassuringly, “We can fix them. It will take time and work, but I predict a very positive outcome. I have a strong, experienced team and all the surgeons have keen eyes for detail. Just sign this contract to consent to the operation and we will sign in agreement of the procedure.” The author, with its baby’s best intentions at heart, signs.

Surgery begins. 

The structural editors look at the baby as a whole. They examine the way the child is held together and they make executive decisions whether or not the form is substantial and stable enough to hold the kid together. Then the copy editors sweep in and look at the finer details: whether the arteries and veins are connected to the right places, whether the baby needs more or less blood cells.

In real surgery, limbs are lost, kidneys are taken in and out and specific parts are made bigger or smaller. In writing and editing, it’s called ‘kill your darlings’ which author William Faulkner advised. This refers to the author having to cut out favorite and most-loved-parts of the story (whether it be individual words, or whole sentences and paragraphs) for the greater good of the work.

In this context, it seems that my pursuit of a career in publishing and editing is genetic. My father is a surgeon (boobs, not books), my big brother is also a doctor, and my littler-big bother is a surgeon of computers. So while I’ve been thinking that I’m the creative dud of the family, turns out I really am following in their footsteps.

I’m going to go and edit the story I’ve been working on this week.
Method: Print out, scribble in red until it’s bleeding, and then sew it back to together, one word at a time. 


  1. I sort of love taking my book apart once the first draft is written. It makes it so much better! That picture is SO awesome! I love your last sentence as well.
    Method: Print out, scribble in red until it’s bleeding, and then sew it back to together, one word at a time.
    So true.
    Great blog by the way! :D New here! *waves!*

  2. You know, I distinctly remember commenting on this post, and I have no idea where it's gone... I'm sure it was a brilliant, witty and insightful comment too ;)

    Holly Lisle talks about revision as triage, too. It's a good analogy :)

  3. That's true... it's a lot like surgery. Very tedious. Love those pics tho! What a weird and very creative idea. Works of art for sure.

    Nice to meet you and your lovely blog! :)