Robert Caro, Robert Gottlieb and the Art of the Edit

Making movies about writers is notoriously difficult, though the temptation is clear. After all, filmmakers, like authors, are storytellers, and are drawn to other people who tell them. But as with any other kind of story, clichés often do those movies in: The poet laments via ponderous voice-over narration. Words clack across the screen letter by letter in Smith Corona font. The writer bangs ardently at the keyboard when the muse strikes and stares moodily into a landscape when she fails to show.

Oh, the tortured life of the writer! Onscreen, it’s often a bore.

But a new documentary, “Turn Every Page — The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb,” shows that success here is possible. And unlike most films about writers, it goes one step further, tackling not only the writing process but also the more abstruse art of the edit.

It helps to have two geniuses as subjects. Robert Caro, the author of “The Power Broker” and a multivolume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson — he is currently working on the fifth and final book — is one of the most revered nonfiction writers of our time. Robert Gottlieb is one of the most revered editors. The two Bobs have worked together for five decades; readers and viewers alike are fortunate that the latter Bob’s daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, persuaded them to take part in a documentary about their shared endeavors.

Readers are familiar with Caro’s accomplishments: his mastery of the biography, of history, of the subject of power — and crucially, its impact on the powerless. “The Power Broker,” his biography of Robert Moses, held an almost required pride of place on every talking head’s Zoom bookshelf during lockdown.

Let me use this column, then, to draw attention to the less celebrated art, one that is not cited on the cover of that book but is showcased in the film: the work of the editor.

I’ll admit I’m biased. I’m enormously fortunate to know both Bobs personally and to consider Bob Gottlieb a friend and, occasionally — even though he has never been my actual editor, but because he can’t help doing what he does best — an editor.

I first met Bob Gottlieb a decade ago, at (cliché) a book party. The room was noisy, and I heard neither his name when he was introduced nor half of what he said to me over the next 30 minutes. I was newly installed as the editor of The New York Times Book Review and Bob had a lot to tell me. As I was leaving, a publicist rushed up to me nervously and said, “That was some conversation you had with Bob Gottlieb.”

Bob Gottlieb! Now I was nervous. What had I said to the legendary Gottlieb? I quailed, fleeing the scene. The former editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, the former editor of The New Yorker, the former president, publisher and editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf, a man whose writers included Toni Morrison and Chaim Potok, Michael Crichton and Doris Lessing, Joseph Heller, Nora Ephron, Barbara Tuchman, Sidney Poitier, Salman Rushdie, John Cheever and John le Carré. If I’d only known I’d been talking to Bob Gottlieb.

Several years later, after devouring Gottlieb’s memoir, “Avid Reader,” I wrote him directly and we had the first of many lunches. “When you get back to your desk, send me your manuscript,” he said of a book I’d just finished writing. The next day he emailed me a full editorial note with wise and occasionally stern suggestions. I was gobsmacked.

But that’s just how Gottlieb works. He gets a manuscript, he reads it overnight, he responds to the author right away. “To me, not doing that was cruelty to animals,” he explains in “Turn Every Page.” “But also, I couldn’t wait.” For Gottlieb, editing, like reading, is an obsession. “If you haven’t been a reader, don’t try to be an editor because why would you want to be?” Bob says at Columbia Journalism School in the documentary. “It is making public your own enthusiasm.”

Of course, a good editor does more than that. In order to make “The Power Broker” physically publishable, Gottlieb helped Caro cut roughly 350,000 words from the book. Later he intuited that Caro’s next project should be different from the book he was contracted to write; separately, the two Bobs both landed on Lyndon Johnson as its subject. On the page, words like “loom” can provoke endless debate. “If you are not strong enough to give the writer what he needs, which is your true, strong opinion, if you have to hold back,” Gottlieb says in the film, “it is not going to work.”

But the job requires restraint as much as force. “Editing is intelligent and sympathetic reaction to the text and to what the author is trying to accomplish,” Gottlieb explains. “When you try to change something into something that it isn’t, rather than make it better at what it is, tragedy lurks.” As Gottlieb sees it, editing is a service job. “It’s not your book.”

And yet, despite disputes over semicolons, the two Bobs achieve a rare feat — perhaps the key to a true masterpiece — between author and editor: shared intention.

“When I’m writing a book, on some very deep level, Bob Gottlieb and I are thinking about the same book,” Caro says in the film. “If I say to him, ‘I’m going to do a whole book on the stolen election, Bob, it was just supposed to be one chapter when we thought about it,’ he seldom even asks me why. He just sort of agrees. It’s a priceless thing for a writer to have something like that.”

Until now that work has gone largely unseen. Both Bobs originally refused to participate in the film, according to Lizzie Gottlieb. “They said the work between a writer and an editor is too private for anyone else to see.”

“Turn Every Page” offers a glimpse into that secretive process. And it does so at an apt moment. Book sales were down in 2022, and with ongoing challenges to printing, distributing and promoting books in a country where the publishing and media infrastructure has shifted dramatically over the last two decades, editors are working harder than ever. In a constrained marketplace, they have less time to devote to the painstaking art of what Gottlieb calls “making public your enthusiasm.”

The film “Turn Every Page” took five years to make. Caro says his books take at least seven years each to write. And they can take years more to edit and publish well. That can be the cost and commitment of an exceptional book, one intended to endure beyond a print run or two. When storytellers have the time and support to do what they’re meant to do best, the result is everyone’s enduring good fortune.

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