The forthcoming film Genius, writes John Dugdale in The Guardian (November 10th), promises to be something to look forward to, not just because of its attractive casting ‑ Michael Fassbender as the American writer Thomas Wolfe and Colin Firth as his editor, Max Perkins ‑ but because “it promises to be a literary film that is actually about writing”. But will it be entirely about writing? Colin Firth is possibly still most famous for having made a generation of women come over all funny when he played Fitzwilliam Darcy in Andrew Davies’s Pride and Prejudice. Surely he’s not going to have his nose stuck in a manuscript all the time?
Wolfe was quite a major author in his day though he is little read now. He suffered apparently from the opposite of writer’s block and Perkins’s job (he worked for the venerable firm of Scribner’s) was to cut reams of verbiage from his manuscripts and make them publishable and readable. He performed similar services for Fitzgerald and Hemingway among others. Hemingway, it seems, thought Wolfe’s novels “over-bloated” (can work be under-bloated, or just bloated enough?); Faulkner, more charmingly, dubbed him “an elephant doing the hoochie-coochie”.
Perkins had some notable confrontations with Hemingway over obscenity, though he also championed him against more conservative members of the firm. The story is told (which means of course it is not necessarily true) that he brought the writer into his office and told him quite plainly that there were certain words that Scribner’s would in no circumstances publish. What words would they be, Hemingway wanted to know. Perkins, not wishing to speak the offending word, wrote it down on the first piece of paper that came to hand, his one leaf per day desk calendar. The word was the most common four-letter one – let us be equally coy ‑ the one beginning with “f”. Having reached some accommodation over how the word would be rendered in print, the two went out for lunch, over which they spent a long time. In their absence Charles Scribner himself wandered into the office looking for Perkins. Surprised at not finding him, he had a quick glance at the desk calendar to see if there was any clue as to where he might be. A little later Perkins returned and Scribner went back to the office and said kindly to his most cherished editor: “Don’t you want to take the rest of the day off, Max? You must be exhausted.”