Robert Gottlieb is a man of eclectic tastes, and it is difficult to make generalizations about the authors he has worked with or the hundreds of books he has edited. In his years at Simon & Schuster, where he became editor in chief, and as publisher and editor in chief of Knopf, he edited a number of big best-sellers, such as Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, Robert Crichton’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Thomas Tryon’s The Other, and Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. He worked on several personal histories, such as Brooke Hayward’s Haywire, Barbara Goldsmith’s Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last, Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s Edie: An American Biography, and the autobiographies of Diana Vreeland, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Irene Selznick. He has edited historians and biographers including Barbara Tuchman, Antonia Fraser, Robert K. Massie, and Antony Lukas; dance books by Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, Paul Taylor, and Lincoln Kirstein; fiction writers such as John Cheever, Salman Rushdie, John Gardner, Len Deighton, Sybille Bedford, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Ray Bradbury, Elia Kazan, Margaret Drabble, Richard Adams, V. S. Naipaul, and Edna O’Brien; Hollywood figures Lauren Bacall, Liv Ullmann, Sidney Poitier, and Myrna Loy; musicians John Lennon, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan; and thinkers such as Bruno Bettelheim, B. F. Skinner, Janet Malcolm, and Carl Schorske. He has helped to shape some of the most influential books of the last fifty years, but nonetheless finds it difficult to understand why anyone would be interested in the nitpicky complaints, the fights over punctuation, the informal therapy, and the reading and re-reading of manuscripts that make up his professional life.
Gottlieb was born in New York City in 1931 and grew up in Manhattan. He read “Henry James, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Proust—the great moralists of the novel. Of course,” he says, “I admired the Russians tremendously, but I didn’t feel that I’d learned anything from them personally. I learned how to behave from Emma—not from The Brothers Karamazov.” He graduated from Columbia in 1952, the year his first son was born. (He has since had two more children with his second wife, actress Maria Tucci.) He spent two years studying at Cambridge and then in 1955 got a job at Simon & Schuster as editorial assistant to Jack Goodman, the editor in chief.
Publishing was a very different business in the fifties. Many of the big houses were still owned by their founders—Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer owned Random House; Alfred Knopf owned Knopf; Dick Simon and Max Schuster were still at Simon & Schuster. As a result, publishers were frequently willing and able to lose money publishing books they liked, and tended to foster a sense that theirs were houses with missions more lofty than profit. “It is not a happy business now,” says Gottlieb, “and it once was. It was smaller. The stakes were lower. It was a less sophisticated world.”
In 1957, Jack Goodman unexpectedly died, and at about the same time, Simon & Schuster was sold back by the Marshall Field estate to two of its original owners, Max Schuster and Leon Shimkin. Schuster and Shimkin didn’t get along, things became strained, and within a few months most of the senior staff had left the company. The owners neglected to hire anybody new, and so suddenly, as Gottlieb puts it, “the kids were running the store.” Within a few years Gottlieb became managing editor, and a few years after that, editor in chief. Then, in 1968, he left Simon & Schuster to become editor in chief and publisher of Knopf.
Next to reading, Gottlieb’s grand passion is ballet, and from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, while at Knopf, Gottlieb served on the New York City Ballet’s board of directors, in which capacity he organized ballets from the company’s repertoire into programs for each season and oversaw its advertising and subscription campaigns. (A third, lesser, passion of Gottlieb’s is acquiring odd objects—including vintage plastic handbags, of which he has a notorious collection.)
In 1987, at the invitation of its new owner, S. I. Newhouse (who also owns Knopf), Gottlieb left Knopf to take over The New Yorker. The announcement of his appointment was received with undisguised hostility by the magazine’s staff, who suspected Newhouse had ousted Gottlieb’s predecessor, the venerated William Shawn, editor since 1952, against his will. Dozens of the magazine’s staff members signed a petition requesting that Gottlieb refuse Newhouse’s offer. He didn’t. “I never took it personally,” Gottlieb explains. “I knew that the same thing would have happened to anyone. I didn’t even read the names of the people who signed the letter, many of whom were good friends of mine. I knew that I felt a lot of goodwill toward the magazine, and I assumed that it would prevail. And, indeed, once I got there, everyone was wonderful, couldn’t have been nicer. I just got to work, and everybody got to work with me.”
In 1992, Gottlieb agreed to retire from The New Yorker to make way for former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown. (He says he told Newhouse when he was hired that he would be a curator rather than a revolutionary, and that if Newhouse wanted radical change he should find someone else.) Then sixty-one, Gottlieb decided he didn’t want to begin running something else, and offered his services to Sonny Mehta, who had taken over Knopf when Gottlieb left. Since then, Gottlieb has been working gratis for Knopf (he received a large settlement from Newhouse when he left The New Yorker) on books like John le Carré’s The Night Manager, Katharine Graham’s autobiography, Mordecai Richler’s forthcoming book on Israel, Arlene Croce’s study of Balanchine, David Thomson’s biographical dictionary of the cinema, Eve Arnold’s retrospective and various New Yorker cartoon books.
My interviews with Gottlieb, who looks something like a taller and less rufous version of Woody Allen, took place in the living room of his townhouse on East Forty-eighth Street—two blocks from the Knopf offices on Fiftieth, and half a mile from The New Yorker on West Forty-third. His living room overlooks the Turtle Bay Gardens—a rather formal private park that combines what would be the backyards of the houses on that block between Forty-eighth and Forty-ninth Streets. From the window Gottlieb pointed out Katharine Hepburn’s house across the way (he was her editor at Knopf) and the garden patio where Janet Malcolm had one of her famous lunches with Jeffrey Masson.
The interviewees in this piece were suggested by Gottlieb himself. Their comments and Gottlieb’s responses were combined afterwards—there was no direct conversation. Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, John le Carré, Cynthia Ozick, Michael Crichton, Chaim Potok, Toni Morrison, Robert Caro, and Mordecai Richler are all authors Gottlieb has edited. Charles McGrath worked with Gottlieb at The New Yorker, where McGrath is deputy editor. Lynn Nesbit is a literary agent who has worked with Gottlieb on a number of books.
When I finally completed my second novel, Something Happened, The New York Times interviewed me about having finished the book, and I talked to them about Bob’s value to me as an editor. The day the interview ran, Bob called me and said he didn’t think it was a good idea to talk about editing and the contributions of editors, since the public likes to think everything in the book comes right from the author. That’s true, and so from that time on, I haven’t.
Of course, if anybody says nice things about me in print it’s pleasant. But the fact is, this glorification of editors, of which I have been an extreme example, is not a wholesome thing. The editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one. The last thing anyone reading Jane Eyre would want to know, for example, is that I had convinced Charlotte Brontë that the first Mrs. Rochester should go up in flames. The most famous case of editorial intervention in English literature has always bothered me—you know, that Dickens’s friend Bulwer-Lytton advised him to change the end of Great Expectations: I don’t want to know that! As a critic, of course, as a literary historian, I’m interested, but as a reader, I find it very disconcerting. Nobody should know what I told Joe Heller and how grateful he is, if he is. It’s unkind to the reader and just out of place.
Some of Bob’s suggestions for Catch-22 involved a lot of work. There was a chapter that came on page two hundred or three hundred of the manuscript—I believe it was the one with Colonel Cathcart; it was either that or the Major Major chapter—and he said he liked this chapter, and it was a shame we didn’t get to it earlier. I agreed with him, and I cut about fifty or sixty pages from the opening just to get there more quickly.
Joe Heller and I have always been on exactly the same wavelength editorially, and the most extraordinary proof of this came up when we were working on Something Happened. It’s a deeply disturbing book about a very conflicted man—a man who is consumed with anxiety and all kinds of serious moral problems—and his name was Bill Slocum. Well, we went through the whole book, and divided it up into chapters and all the rest of it, and at the end of the process I said, Joe, this is going to sound crazy to you but this guy is not a Bill. He said, Oh really, what do you think he is? I said, He’s a Bob. And Joe looked at me and said, He was a Bob, and I changed his name to Bill because I thought you would be offended if I made him a Bob. I said, Oh no, I don’t think he’s anything like me, it’s just that this character is a Bob. So we changed it back. It was absolutely amazing. How did it happen? I don’t know. I suppose our convoluted, neurotic, New York Jewish minds work the same way.
What makes Bob a great editor, probably the best of his time, is that he has read everything, is soaked in the best that has been said and thought and brings this weight of experience into use when he judges the work of his authors. You may think that this kind of background should be taken for granted. Well, once upon a time one could assume that an editor in a serious publishing house had read, could make comparisons. But these days this is not what you find in publishing houses.
A lot of things one doesn’t usually think about can affect the reading experience. The way you structure the book, for example—whether you divide it into chapters or let it run uninterrupted, whether you give the chapters titles . . . Years ago I edited a wonderful novel that later became a successful movie, Lilith, by J. R. Salamanca. It was a powerful and affecting book, and the character who dominated it, who sparked it, was the character named Lilith, but she didn’t turn up at all in the first sixty or eighty pages. I don’t remember what the original title was, but I suggested to Jack that he change it to Lilith, because that way through all the opening pages of the book when Lilith hadn’t yet appeared, the reader would be expecting her. So just by changing the title one created a tension that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
JOHN LE CARRÉ
Bob will tell me how he understands a story, and where he feels slightly disappointed, perhaps; where the satisfactions are not what he expected, or something of that kind—it remains very loose. He will say to me, I’m going to draw a wavy line down these pages; for me, they’re too lyrical, too self-conscious, too over-the-top. And I will say, OK, for the moment I disagree because I’m in love with every word I’ve written, but I’ll rake it over and lick my wounds, and we’ll see what happens. Or he’ll say something like, Actually you didn’t need this beautiful passage of description here . . . in fact I think it’s really a pain. As a rule, he has no quarrel with my characters, though he has always felt I am weaker on girls than on boys, and I think that’s true. Occasionally I’ll say I disagree, in which case we will leave the matter in suspense until I recognize that he is right. In no case have I ever regretted taking Bob’s advice. In all the large things, he’s always been right.
For a while I was editing the two best writers of quality who were writing spy novels, John le Carré and Len Deighton, and you couldn’t find a more perfect pair of opposites in the editorial process. Le Carré is unbelievably sensitive to editorial suggestion because his ear is so good and because his imagination is so fertile—he’ll take the slightest hint and come back with thirty extraordinary new pages. Deighton, on the other hand—who is totally willing, couldn’t be more eager for suggestions—is one of those writers for whom, once a sentence is down on paper, it takes on a reality that no amount of good will or effort can change. So you can say to him, Len, this is a terrific story but there is a serious problem. He’ll say, What is it? What is it? And you say, Well, on page thirty-seven this character is killed, but on page a hundred and eighteen he appears at a party. Oh my God, Len says, this is terrible, but I’ll fix it, don’t worry. Then you get the manuscript back, and you turn to page thirty-seven, and he’ll have changed it to, He was almost killed.
A Perfect Spy is the novel of mine that is closest to my heart. It is also my most autobiographical novel, and it skates along the edge of a great deal of childhood pain and stuff. It’s always a queasy business when a writer starts moaning about his childhood, so the only way I could redeem the situation was by making the son much less pleasant in many ways. Bob pointed out the places where he felt that the fiction became so autobiographical that it became embarrassing—where he felt that I had really spilled into private experience and had thrown away the mask. He was terribly good at that. What we left on the cutting room floor still makes me blush.
Bob became my editor when David Segal, who had been my editor and heart’s friend at Knopf, died at the age of forty-two of a heart attack just before Christmas 1970. On that same day, or within a week, Bob and Maria’s little daughter Elizabeth was born. Bob called me from the hospital right after her birth and said, Don’t worry, you’re not abandoned, your editor is gone, but I am here, and I will be your editor and publish you. Don’t feel that you’re deserted or lost. It was one of the most astounding acts of generosity I’ve encountered in my life. It occurred in the middle of birth, death, bewilderment, grief. Now, very often when I am writing, I have something like a bird sitting on my right shoulder, a watchful bird looking over my shoulder at what I am doing. I want that bird’s approval—I have to get it. It is a very critical bird, who is in a way a burden, but also grants me permission. This bird is the mind of Bob Gottlieb. It is to him I present what I am working on when I am finished, and it is him I want to satisfy, and more than satisfy—gratify.
I never write with Bob in mind; that would be very bad for me. He isn’t the ideal reader for the product, but he is the ideal editor for it.
The first thing writers want—and this sounds so basic, but you’d be surprised how unbasic it is in the publishing world—is a quick response. Once they’ve finished a new manuscript and put it in the mail, they exist in a state of suspended emotional and psychic animation until they hear from their editor, and it’s cruelty to animals to keep them waiting. I’m lucky, because I happen to be a very quick reader, so I can almost always read a new manuscript overnight. Besides, when I receive a manuscript from a writer I’ve been working with I’m consumed by curiosity to know what he or she has written. But easy or not, one’s first job is a swift and honest response—tempered, of course, by tact.
It took me some time, when I was a very young man, to grasp that a writer—even a mature, experienced one—could have made an emotional transference to me. But of course it makes sense: the editor gives or withholds approval, and even to a certain extent controls the purse strings. It’s a relationship fraught with difficulty, because it can lead to infantilizing and then to resentment. Somehow, to be helpful, an editor has to embody authority yet not become possessive or controlling.
Bob became my editor just after he had moved to Knopf from Simon & Schuster in 1968. Lynn Nesbit was my agent. She recommended Bob partly because she thought I’d like him and partly because he was an overnight person. I was being driven mad by the usual publishing business of waiting a month for manuscripts to be read, because in those days I was in medical school and medicine is so fast. To send a manuscript to New York and wait a month—well, you might as well wait for your next reincarnation.
When I sent Bob a draft of The Andromeda Strain—the first book I did for him—in 1968 he said he would publish it if I would agree to completely rewrite it. I gulped and said OK. He gave me his feelings about what had to happen on the phone, in about twenty minutes. He was very quick. Anyway, I rewrote it completely. He called me up and said, Well, this is good, now you only have to rewrite half of it. Again, he told me what needed to happen—for the book to begin in what was then the middle, and fill in the material from the beginning sometime later on.
Finally we had the manuscript in some kind of shape. I was just completely exhausted. He said to me, Dear boy, you’ve got this ending backwards. (He’s married to an actress, and he has a very theatrical manner. He calls me “dear boy,” like an English actor might do.) I don’t remember exactly the way it was, but I had it so that one of the characters was supposed to turn on a nuclear device, and there was suspense about whether or not that would happen. Bob said, No, no, the switch has to turn itself on automatically, and the character has to turn it off. He was absolutely right. That was the first time I understood that when there is something wrong in writing, the chances are that there is either too much of it, too little of it, or that it is in some way backwards.
When Michael wrote The Andromeda Strain he assumed he had to fill out the characters of all those scientists and make them real people, as in a conventional novel. But that wasn’t where his interest lay, and so he had only done it at the surface level. Somehow it occurred to me that instead of trying to flesh the characters out further and make the novel more conventional, we ought to strip that stuff out completely and make it a documentary, only a fictional one.
What Bob actually said to me was that he thought the manuscript should be factually persuasive, like a New Yorker piece. I thought that was a very interesting idea, but I couldn’t see how to do it. I couldn’t take his suggestion literally, because in those days the signature of New Yorker writers like Lillian Ross was that they were using fictional storytelling techniques in their nonfiction, and my problem was that I had to get away from fictional techniques. Finally, I began to think about what I would do if the story were real. Suppose this had actually happened and I were a reporter, what would my book look like? There was a book on my shelf at the time by Walter Sullivan called We Are Not Alone. I started thumbing through it, noticing the vocabulary, the cadences of nonfiction and how the structure of the sentences conveys a sense of reality that is not found in fiction.
As soon as I began to do that, it became clear to me that the author of a nonfiction account would not have the access to the characters’ innermost thoughts in the way that you assume for fiction. So I began to take all that stuff out and make the book colder and more impersonal—but I didn’t do it completely. Bob read it and said, Look, this book can either go this way or that way, and you’ll have to decide what you want to do. Ultimately he thought I should just take all the novelistic passages out. He thought the characters shouldn’t have any relationships with each other, and that all the dialogue should advance the plot.
He took a much more radical step than I would have dared. It was never again as it was with The Andromeda Strain, mostly because I think in the process of working on it Bob taught me a tremendous amount about editing. I never again sent him a manuscript in such a mess. A part of me became Bob, or acted like Bob, and as I was writing I would sit there and think, This is what he’s going to say, and I’d go fix it. Before The Andromeda Strain I didn’t really know the extent to which you could write a draft and not accept it but rather tear it all apart, move things around, rework them, and then put it all back together. I had never gone through that process in my previous writing, and Bob put me through it. Occasionally Bob has said to me, The new book doesn’t work. Forget it. Which I have done. That has happened a few times. But it was in part a result of my method of working, which is to go off and tell nobody what I’m doing and write something; sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t. I guess because of my youth it didn’t seem so devastating. I just thought, Oh well, that didn’t work, I’ll go do something else. I don’t work that way anymore—I’m too old.
Even now, when Bob first calls me back about a manuscript, I panic. But I’ll tell you, I think every writer should have tattooed backwards on his forehead, like ambulance on ambulances, the words everybody needs an editor.
It’s often the case that the most strained moments in books are the very beginning and the very end—the getting in and the getting out. The ending especially: it’s awkward, as if the writer doesn’t know when the book is over and nervously says it all again. Sometimes the most useful thing you can tell a writer is, Here’s where the book ends—in these next two and a half pages you’re just clearing your throat. When I first read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, to use an extreme example, I recognized that the book had come to an end, and that Chaim had written three hundred more pages. The material that was the motor of the book had worked itself out, and he had gone on to write the sequel. So I called up Chaim’s agent and said, I love the book and would like to talk to him about it, but please explain to him it’s only on the condition that he drop the last three hundred pages that I want to publish it; if he wants to leave it as it is, it’s a different book. Chaim immediately saw the point, so there was no problem.
Endings I always know, because that’s always what the book is about. The problem is getting there. I used to have these really awful beginnings—never really beginnings, they were starts—and Bob always caught them. He would say, This is not a beginning, the book is not grounded yet. I originally began Sula, for example, with what is now chapter two. Bob told me he felt the first words of the manuscript—“National Suicide Day”—were not the beginning of the book. So I spent a summer trying to write a beginning. And I did it to my satisfaction and, I think, to his.
I will tell you two stories, one about somebody else and one about myself. The somebody else is a close friend, also edited by Bob, who when writing a novel tends to find herself writing episodes or short stories. He said to her, Maybe that’s just how you write a novel: you have to write short stories, and then you put them together and that’s the novel. I, on the other hand, have begun novels and then abandoned them and they have become short stories. He said to me just the opposite: Maybe this is how you write short stories. You have to think you’re doing a novel, and then it turns out to be a short story.
Writing my first two books, The Bluest Eye and Sula, I had the anxiety of a new writer who needs to make sure every sentence is exactly the right one. Sometimes that produces a kind of precious, jeweled quality—a tightness, which I particularly wanted in Sula. Then after I finished Sula and was working on the third book, Song of Solomon, Bob said to me, You can loosen, open up. Your writing doesn’t have to be so contained; it can be wider. I’m not sure these were his exact words, but I know that the consequence of the remarks was that I did relax and begin to open up to possibilities. It was because I was able to open up to those possibilities that I began to think things like, What would happen if indeed I followed this strange notion or image or picture I had in my mind of this woman who had no navel . . . whereas normally I would have dismissed such an idea as recklessness. It was as if he had said, Be reckless in your imagination.
I remember the discussion with Toni as she was beginning Song of Solomon, because although we always did some marginal cosmetic work on her manuscripts, obviously a writer of her powers and discrimination doesn’t need a lot of help with her prose. I think I served Toni best by encouraging her—helping to free her to be herself. The only other real help I gave to her was noneditorial: I encouraged her to stop editing and to write full-time, something I knew she wanted to do. As I remember it, I reassured her about her finances—but what I was really saying was, You’re not an editor who does some writing, you’re a writer—acknowledge it; there’s nothing to be scared of. We always understood each other—two editors, two lovers of reading, and exactly the same age.
When I first handed in the manuscript of The Power Broker it was over a million words. With the technology of that time there was a limited number of words you could fit between two covers and have what they call a manageable trade book—something like seven hundred thousand words, around thirteen-hundred pages. Bob didn’t want to do the thing in volumes. He told me, I can get people interested in Robert Moses once, but not twice. So we had to cut three hundred thousand words. That’s like cutting a five-hundred-page book out of a book. It’s not easy. I would come into Knopf in the morning, day after day, and Bob was running the company, but he would shut the door of his office and we would work on the manuscript all day. Late in the afternoon when I left, there would be a line of people outside his office, waiting for him. I remember there was a point near the end when we thought we were done, but it turned out someone had miscounted. Bob called the next week and said, Bob, I have some bad news. We have to cut fifty thousand more words. It was a terrible thing.
It took a year. The Power Broker was Caro’s first book, and he had worked on it for eight years in isolation, just him and his wife. It was agony for him to cut it. It was painful for me, too, because I loved the material. I could have read twice as much, but I couldn’t print twice as much.
In order to get enough money to finish The Power Broker I had signed a two-book contract with Knopf. After The Power Broker I was supposed to do a biography of Fiorello LaGuardia. But I realized after I had signed the contract that I didn’t really want to do it. I had seen Robert Moses’s life as a way to study how power works in the cities, and I wanted to study the same thing on a national level through the life of Lyndon Johnson, since I thought he understood power better than any other American president. I also wanted to do it in more than one volume, because there were things cut out of The Power Broker that I thought should not have been cut.
I expected a big fight over this, because back then nobody was doing multivolume biographies except academics. So I went in to see Bob about it. Before I had said anything, he said to me, Bob, I’ve been thinking about you and what you ought to do. I know you’ve been planning to do the LaGuardia book, but I think what you should really do is a biography of Lyndon Johnson. And he said, I think you should do it in several volumes. It was really quite startling.
That’s something an editor can do—come up with an idea for a book. I’ve done this with happy results a few times. Potok’s Wanderings, for instance, was originally my idea. I thought, I am a Jew who knows nothing about Jewishness. I grew up in an atheist household; I never attended anything. I thought that Chaim could write a very popular and useful book that might instruct someone like me. Years later, I suggested Henry VIII’s six wives to Antonia Fraser, and she pounced on it and did a superb job. The most important instance was when I convinced John Cheever to let me put together his collected stories. He kept saying, Why do you want to do this? These stories have all appeared in collections already. I told him it was going to be an immensely important book, and that he should let me read everything, make a selection and see if he liked it—which is what happened. Eventually, after his death, I was asked by his family to edit his journals, for both The New Yorker and Knopf. It was the hardest job I’ve ever done—it involved wrestling a hundred and twenty-five thousand words out of several million. The material was very dark, and most of all, with no author to work with, I was out there alone—with all the responsibility of presenting not only John’s words, but his life. But it was also the most gratifying job I’ve ever done, and one of the very few times in my working life when I’ve felt I’d actually achieved something.
What I find most useful are the moments when Bob is disturbed by something in a book. He is a marvelous reader, and surrenders completely to a text, so when he finds something invalid or unpersuasive, or if something leaves him disoriented, I know it is important for me to go back to it. I pay a very rigorous attention especially to that level of comfort a reader needs in order to accept the kind of gestures of fantasy I include. I know and he knows I need to create a sense of absolute stability in order to be able to transport the reader into a realm that is not “realistic.”
You have to surrender to a book. If you do, when something in it seems to be going askew, you are wounded. The more you have surrendered to a book, the more jarring its errors appear. I read a manuscript very quickly, the moment I get it. I usually won’t use a pencil the first time through because I’m just reading for impressions. When I reach the end, I’ll call the writer and say, I think it’s very fine (or whatever), but I think there are problems here and here. At that point I don’t know why I think that—I just think it. Then I go back and read the manuscript again, more slowly, and I find and mark the places where I had negative reactions to try to figure out what’s wrong. The second time through I think about solutions—maybe this needs expanding, maybe there’s too much of this so it’s blurring that.
Editing requires you to be always open, always responding. It is very important, for example, not to allow yourself to want the writer to write a certain kind of book. Sometimes that’s hard. My favorite of Heller’s books is Something Happened. When we are working on a manuscript, Joe is always telling me (rightly) that I want him to write Something Happened again, and that he could only write it once. Inevitably you will like some of a writer’s books better than others. But when you’re working on a manuscript, that can’t matter. You have to be inside that book and do your best to make it as good as it can be. And if you can’t approach it in that spirit, you shouldn’t be working on it.
Bob always zeroes in on those aspects of a manuscript I also have some questions about. He reads the entire book through, and then we talk about it. He is so tuned in to what I’m doing that we can talk in shorthand—someone listening to the conversation probably wouldn’t be able to understand what was being said.
Bob has an uncanny knack for putting his finger on that one sentence, or that one paragraph, that somewhere in the back of your mind you knew wasn’t quite right but was close enough so that you decided to worry about it later. Then you forgot about it, or you convinced yourself that it was okay, because it was too much trouble to change. He always goes right to those places. It’s an instinct. He and I share a belief that if you take care of all the tiny problems in a piece, all that small attention will somehow make a big difference. Sometimes I think that’s just a touching faith of ours, and that, in fact, nobody ever notices whether, say, you use the same word twice in a paragraph. At other times, I’m convinced that the details are all that matter.
Editing is simply the application of the common sense of any good reader. That’s why, to be an editor, you have to be a reader. It’s the number one qualification. Because you could have all the editorial tools, but if you’re not a responsive reader you won’t sense where the problems lie. I am a reader. My life is reading. In fact, I was about forty years old when I had an amazing revelation—this is going to sound dumb—it suddenly came to me that not every person in the world assumed, without thinking about it, that reading was the most important thing in life. I hadn’t known that. I hadn’t even known that I had thought it, it was so basic to me.
Oddly enough, I find that reading noneditorially is a very different experience for me. When I’m reading for pleasure I don’t tend to think as an editor, even with books I’ve edited. I remember, for instance, that when the finished book of Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy came into the office I decided to reread it although it had only been three or four months since I’d read it in galleys. It was as if I were reading something I had never read before, because I was reading it simply for fun. Very rarely have I had the impulse to make changes in a book I’m just reading for pleasure or instruction. It’s only bad translations that drive me to madness and make me reach for a pencil.
Bob is the best-read person I’ve ever met. I used to have a somewhat inflated notion of how well-read I was, but Bob makes me look like someone who’s just got his first library card. It’s because his ear is so well trained that he never falters in questions of tone.
Bob is very brainy in academic terms, much more erudite, much brainier than I am. He’s very cosmopolitan in some ways. He’s got quite a European soul, although he is also the quintessential New Yorker. I think he was at Cambridge for a couple of years, so he relishes the notions of understatement and disguise and so on.
I can never tell Bob—in fact I’ve only recently begun to tell anybody—what I am doing critically in a book. If I think I am recasting language in a certain way, or manipulating history so that it becomes flesh—whatever I think is radical and interventionist and different about my work in terms of American literature in general—the lit-crit stuff—I never get into that with Bob. He isn’t interested in it, and it wouldn’t be useful for us to talk about it, because enfin a book has to work as a book for someone who just isn’t going to pick up on all these clever things you think you’re doing. Sometimes Bob will say he thinks I’m editorializing, and I can’t remember a time when he hasn’t been right about that. He sees those places where, particularly earlier on, you didn’t know how to dramatize something, so you editorialized it. I always know what I will not alter under any circumstances. Sometimes I just say no, and Bob won’t pursue it, because he knows that if I say no it means something quite different from “I don’t want to.” It’s in the areas in which you did the best you could, but you weren’t entirely pleased, or you weren’t quite sure, that you need the third eye. Given a few more years I suppose I would identify the problem myself, but a good editor is a shortcut.
In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room and, you have to assume, the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.
For some writers a solution provided by an editor is of no use. When I worked with Margaret Atwood at The New Yorker, for instance, whether there was a plot problem or a punctuation problem, if the solution came from her it worked wonderfully. But if I offered one myself, it never took. Now another writer might say, It’s no good your telling me this is the wrong word if you don’t give me the right word.
Of course, I have also spent a great deal of my life working with writers who are simply bad. I have fixed more sentences than most people have read in their lives. I remember Michael Korda and I, years ago, used to write whole pages of other people’s novels together. And sometimes problems are unsolvable. There are books that are never going to come fully to life, either because the idea was wrong, or it was the wrong idea for that writer, or the writer is just not good. Then the reviewers say, What this book needed was a good editor. But those are usually the books that have had the most editing.
Once I called Bob because I’d read a book he had edited and had found it redundant. I called him up and said, Boy, that book wasn’t very well edited. There was a very snarky silence because he did not take criticism well at all. There was this long silence. Then he said, Dear boy! I think you should consider, when you read a book that seems to you to be not well-enough edited, that perhaps it has already been incredibly edited. And of course that was probably true.
Bob knows how much to tell me and how much to leave to me. I think that is really one of his crucial virtues. There are so many young editors I hear of who are practically trying to write the book for you. Bob is like a good movie director with an actor—he’s just trying to get the best out of you.
Bob always says he is an editor, not a writer. He has a way of not competing with you, which is very reassuring. If you hear criticism from Bob you never think, as you sometimes do with other people, Well, he’s just jealous because he wants to be me. And that helps in terms of hearing things from him that you might not want to hear. It was from Bob that I learned to ask readers, Tell me how you reacted, not what you think ought to be done. Because very often people will jump to their sense of what needs to be fixed and bypass the initial reader’s perception of what was lacking in his experience. Also, I’m usually better at fixing my own writing than they are.
Your job as an editor is to figure out what the book needs, but the writer has to provide it. You can’t be the one who says, Send him to Hong Kong at this point, let him have a love affair with a cocker spaniel. Rather, you say, This book needs something at this point: it needs opening up, it needs a direction, it needs excitement. When people say to me, Oh you’re so creative, I try to explain that I’m not creative. I simply have certain other qualities that are necessary for my kind of work. It has liberated me, being happy being what I am. There are editors who will always feel guilty that they aren’t writers. I can write perfectly well—anybody who’s educated can write perfectly well. But I dislike writing: it’s very, very hard, and I just don’t like the activity. Whereas reading is like breathing.
I think we erroneously give pride of place to the act of writing rather than the act of reading. People think you just read because you can understand the language, but a certain kind of reading is a very high-level intellectual process. I have such reverence for that kind of sensitive reading—it is not just absorbing things and identifying what’s wrong but a much deeper thing that I can see would be perfectly satisfying. Anyway, this separation is fairly recent: not long ago the great readers were the great writers, the great critics were the great novelists, the great poets were the great translators. People didn’t make these big distinctions about which one was more thrilling than the other.
Writing for me is just a very sustained process of reading. The only difference is that writing a book might take three or four years, and I’m doing it. I never wrote a line until after I became an editor, and only then because I wanted to read something that I couldn’t find. That was the first book I wrote.
If Bob identifies a snag in a manuscript and neither one of us can immediately come up with a solution, he will always say to me, go figure it out, and then come back. His fixes are never, as often happens with other editors, editorial patches, impositions that don’t match the language or the tone of the writer. The point about Bob Gottlieb is that he never imposes.
I cannot tolerate editors who go in for line-by-line criticism, or who cross out words and substitute words of their own, or who will cross out two pages and write over them cut. Bob has never been so officious.
Many people have this vulgar idea that writers and editors are at each others’ throats, that they are antagonistic. That is craziness. No editor should work with a book he doesn’t like, because his job as an editor is to make something better of what it is. If you try to turn a book into something it isn’t, you’re doomed to disaster.
An editor has to be selfless, and yet has also to be strong-minded. If you don’t know what you think, or if you’re nervous about expressing your opinions, what good is that to a writer? I remember one book of John Cheever’s I was working on, I felt there was a minor problem with the ending. At first I thought, Who am I to be telling John Cheever to change the end of his novel? And then I thought, Well, I’m the editor he chose, and I can’t, out of cowardice, withhold what I think. I’m not forcing him to do anything. I’m saying, This is what I think is wrong, and it’s up to him to decide whether to take my advice or not. As it happened, he immediately got the point and found a solution.
I have a bad temper and, though Bob would deny it, so does he. While we were editing we were always jumping up and getting out of the room to cool off. Now he, of course, had the great advantage over me because when we were working at Knopf he could leave and go to somebody else’s office and transact some business, but I had no place to go but the bathroom. I went to the bathroom a lot, as I remember. And oh, his tone! If you heard his tone! It gets me so angry I have to try to drown it out. I try not to hear the insulting things he’s saying because, as I said, I have a very bad temper.
Bob Caro and I are always shouting at each other and carrying on because for him each manuscript has been so much work, so much effort, so much obsessive concentration, that everything is of equal weight because everything is of total weight. Your job with a writer like that is to be able to say, You may have done an equally brilliant job on all of these things, but this has more weight than that, and you have to give some of that up. Sometimes in the heat of discussion, that can seem to a writer like an attack. And that’s not helpful, though at times it can be therapeutic. If you are a good editor, your relationship with every writer is different. To some writers you say things you couldn’t say to others, either because they’d be angry or because it would be too devastating to them. You can’t have only one way of doing things; on some instinctual level you have to respond not just to the words of the writer but to the temperament of the writer. That may be hard for some editors; I haven’t found it hard, perhaps because I like to please people. Joe Heller and I, for instance, have never had a bad moment because he is perfectly detached. When you’re editing a manuscript with him the two of you can look at it as though you were two surgeons examining a body stretched out upon a table. You just cut it open, deal with the offending organs, and stitch it up again. Joe is completely objective, he has that kind of mind, even immediately after finishing a book.
We worked like dogs on Catch-22, and then just before it went to press I was reading it again, and I came to a chapter I’d always hated. I thought it was pretentious and literary. I said to Joe, You know, I’ve always hated this chapter, and he said, Well take it out. And out it went. He printed it many years later in Esquire as the lost chapter of Catch-22. That’s Joe Heller. Now that doesn’t mean he’s better than Bob Caro. It means he has a completely different temperament in relation to his work. Joe is a pragmatist; Bob is a romantic.
Doris Lessing also has a very removed attitude to her writing. You can say to Doris exactly what you think without fear either of wounding her or overly influencing her. The day after she gave me the manuscript for The Summer Before the Dark we were walking in Queen Mary’s rose garden in London; she asked me what I thought about the manuscript. I said I liked it very much and told her I was sure it was going to be her most successful book. She said, Now that’s interesting, because it’s by no means my best book. There are not many writers whose clarity and disinterestedness are such that they could say that about a book they had just finished.
There are some writers who put in a first chapter and need lunch immediately. They need babysitting; they need to be able to call up at two a.m. and say they’re about to slit their wrists and so on. I don’t want to see my publishers, editors, or anybody until I’ve produced my baby. If I have frightful headaches about how to make my story work or how to end it or something like that, I will never communicate them until I resolve the thing somehow. So my first use of Bob, if you will, is for his spontaneous response to something he knows nothing about. Then I’m dealing with the Bob Gottlieb who might have picked the novel up in a bookshop.
Some writers need you to read their book as they’re writing it. I worked with one writer who wanted to call me up every day and read me what she had written. I discouraged her.
Some authors really want their books to be loved and want themselves to be loved, but I don’t want that. I don’t want my hand held, I don’t want to be stroked, I don’t want to be patronized, I don’t want any of those things. And I never got any of that from Bob. As a result, our editing sessions are vital, they are hard, and they are tremendous fun.
The most important thing I ever heard Bob say was at Knopf one time when we were standing in the hallway outside his office and some other editor came along and, in that jocular way editors have, he said, So, when is this book going to be delivered? Bob said, Don’t ever ask him that. I’ve never forgotten it. All through our relationship we’ve had a tacit understanding that the words delivery date are never to be mentioned.
From time to time ours was an irritable relationship. Sometimes in later years I would send Bob drafts that were not cleaned up enough, and he would be a little short about the fact that he was being shown something that was not ready. He would never address it directly. He would never say, Why are you sending me this, you haven’t worked on it enough. There would just be this feeling.
Bob is very skillful at motivation. He really knows how to make you work. He would call me up and say, Dear boy! I have read your manuscript, and here is what you have to do. And he was not above saying, I don’t know if you can do it this way, I don’t know if you’re up to it—which of course would drive me into a fury of effort. It was very effective. And it was only years later that I thought, You know, I think he probably said that on purpose.
I certainly didn’t say anything like that to Michael on purpose. I do what I think I have to do and respond to people as I respond to them. I intensely dislike manipulating people, just as I resent being manipulated.
As an editor I have to be tactful, of course (which I wasn’t very good at when I was young). But goodwill has to be natural. You can’t fake it. It just doesn’t work that way.
Negotiations were always tight with Bob. He was celebrated for not believing in huge advances, and it didn’t matter that three other houses were offering literally twice what he was offering. He felt that for half the money, you got the best. Most publishers, when you arrive in New York with your (as you hope) best-selling manuscript, send flowers to your suite, arrange for a limo, maybe, at the airport, and then let you go and put on the nosebag at some great restaurant. The whole idea is to make you feel great. With Bob you did best to arrive in jeans and sneakers, and then you lay on your tummy side-by-side with him on the floor of his office and sandwiches were brought up.
After I finished one book, I think it was A Perfect Spy, my agent called me and said, Okay, we’ve got x-zillion yen and whatnot, and I said, And lunch. My agent said, What? I said, And lunch. When I get to New York I want to be taken, by Bob, to a decent restaurant for once and not eat one of those lousy tuna sandwiches lying on my tummy in his room. Bob called me that evening and said, I think we have a deal; and is that true about lunch? And I said, Yup, Bob, that’s the break point in the deal. Very well, he said. Not a lot of laughter. So I arrived in New York, and there was Bob, a rare sight in a suit, and we went to a restaurant he had found out about. He ate extremely frugally, and drank nothing, and watched me with venomous eyes as I made my way through the menu.
Yes, boys must have their fun! The thing is, when I was a kid in publishing in the fifties, the way business was done, the way you met people, was at lunches. So when I had been at Simon & Schuster a year they said, You should have an expense account. I said, That’s very nice, but I don’t know anybody to take out to lunch. So they said, Well, we’d better give you an agent. The agent they gave me was a young man named Georges Borchardt. They gave me Georges because I read French, and at the time Georges was handling only French books. So Georges and I had many, many lunches on my expense account, and we’re close friends to this day. But after a while, of course, I met more people until I got to the point where having lunch with them all the time seemed to be yielding diminishing returns—you’re out for two hours, two and a half hours, you overeat, you’ve wasted all that time, it’s disgusting. So when I went to Knopf I said, This is it, I won’t do lunch anymore. The best thing that ever came from my spartan eating habits was that I first met my great pal Nora Ephron when the Times Book Review commissioned her to do some fatuous piece on how and where editors lunched.
Bob and I would have big fights over colons and semicolons. Semicolons are not quite as forceful as colons. And dashes are very important to me—I establish my rhythm with them. We could spend a long time fighting over an adjective. We had such fights that sometimes he would bring in another editor as a buffer. When Bob is editing something he’s very careful that the rhythm stays the same, which is very hard to do. I had huge fights with William Shawn when he excerpted The Power Broker for The New Yorker. One time my editor there, William Whitworth, who’s now at The Atlantic, put Shawn on the line, and Shawn said, But we’ve hardly changed it at all, we haven’t changed any of the words. I said, But you ran three paragraphs together—paragraphs matter to me, they’re part of my rhythm. You’re combining sentences, making periods into semicolons, semicolons into commas—that is changing my writing. Those fights were not nice fights; they were bitter, angry fights. Now there’s never anything like that with Bob.
I’ve always believed that for a nonfiction work to endure, its prose has to be at just as high a level as that of a good novel, and Bob believes that too. When we’re working together, what matters—and it is all that matters—is what is on the page.
There’s always a tension between a writer’s idiosyncratic way of presenting himself and the house style, but magazines need house style. If you don’t have some kind of consistent way of doing things, it looks as if you’ve lost your mind.
This is in fact the great difference between being a book editor and being a magazine editor, as I discovered in my years at The New Yorker. In book publishing, the editor and the author have the same goal: to make the book as good as it can be and to sell as many copies as possible. In a magazine, it’s a different matter. Of course a magazine editor wants the writing to be as good as possible, but he wants it to be as good as possible, but he wants it to be as good as possible for the magazine, while the writer wants to preserve his piece’s integrity. At a magazine, the writer can always withdraw his piece, but basically the editor is in charge. In book publishing, editors are the servants of the writers, and if we don’t serve writers well, they leave us.
Another difference is that a book publishing house is much less bound up with the personality of its editor in chief. A good house is a collection of highly individual editors with very individual tastes, all of whom contribute different things to the list. A magazine, on the other hand, is in a sense an emanation of its chief editor—of his impulses and views and, to use a disgusting word, vision. The editors I worked with at The New Yorker were not essentially procuring editors—they were working editors. Only The Editor had the authority to buy a piece.
Magazines have to be run that way, because a magazine has to be itself. A magazine’s subscribers and advertisers and owner have a right to get every week or month whatever it is they’ve been led to expect they’re going to get. If someone becomes an Economist advertiser because he likes The Economist, and then one day opens an issue and sees his ad in a magazine that looks more like Playboy, he’s not going to be happy. And vice versa. A publishing house has much more leeway, because its constituency isn’t fixed. Nobody out there is buying a hundred fifty Knopf books a year. Someone might buy In the Kitchen with Rosie or Cormac McCarthy or Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life or The Audubon Guide to Wildflowers of the East or How We Die, but he won’t buy all of them. This also means that as a book publisher you are far less conscious of people looking over your shoulder—if your house comes out with a profit, no one’s going to complain that this year’s list looks different from last year’s. Then again, I have never worked in an unsuccessful publishing house. I suppose that if your books are crummy and you’re losing money every year, you’ll feel the Loch Ness monster on your tail.
People have accused New Yorker style of being comma-ridden, but Bob had no trouble with it. In fact Bob sometimes wanted commas where even Miss Gould, our great copy editor, didn’t see the need for them, which was quite astonishing to some of us. Bob is concerned above all with making the meaning and intention of a sentence crystal clear. He can become quite ingenious, almost paranoid, thinking of ways that a reader might possibly misconstrue something.
He is a Tartar, too, about participial clauses. He will often take a relative clause—a that clause or a which clause—and make it into a participial phrase or a gerund phrase. And he has a great nose for cant and pretension and highfalutin crap of any sort. He goes at it like a terrier. It’s as if he can smell it.
I have idiosyncrasies in punctuation, like everybody else. Because one of the formative writers of my life was Henry James, it’s all too easy for me to pepper a text with dashes. Many people don’t like dashes. With Le Carré, I’m always putting commas in, and he’s always taking them out, but we know that about each other. He’ll say, Look, if you absolutely need this one, have it. And I’ll say, Well, I would have liked it, but I guess I can live without it. We accommodate each other. When I was a young firebrand it never occurred to me that I might be wrong, or that I wasn’t going to have my way, or that it wasn’t my job to impose my views. I could get into twenty-minute shouting matches over semicolons, because every semicolon was a matter of life or death. As you grow older you realize that there are bad lines in King Lear and it has survived.
There was a certain type of writing we used to laugh about a lot. We called it “cry of the loon” writing—that kind of overblown nature prose. Bob has a deadly instinct for when that stuff has gone ripe. He has a fine ear for English as it’s spoken, and a lot of his work as an editor is taking stilted, artificial language and pushing it in the direction of the vernacular. How words sound on a page (if that’s not an oxymoron) is what Bob listens for.
There are certain locutions I become obsessed with. I hate the overuse of the word continued—he continued to eat his soup, instead of he went on eating his soup. That is something I must have changed ten thousand times in five years at The New Yorker. Impoverished vocabulary disturbs me. I used to joke with my colleagues about V.E.—verb enrichment. I hate it when a writer uses the word walk thirty times in two pages, for example. At The New Yorker changing things like that was difficult because the editors there had been trained that an editor does not improve writing, he makes it correct. I was a book editor, though, and my job has always been to help writers make books better.
I often argue with Bob Caro about his use of certain words—loom, for example, because it’s such an inflated verb. One of Bob’s great talents is creating a scene, and that’s wonderful, but when you’re a biographer or a historian, whose basic concern is accuracy, you must be very wary of overloading the language to make dramatic points. Caro likes to dramatize, and he tends to see people as larger than life. As I’ve often said to him, he’s even done that to me; he’s romanticized me as The Editor, as the one he can trust.
Bob is a very fastidious man. Battle scenes, for example. I wrote The Honourable Schoolboy just after returning from Cambodia and Vietnam, where I had been hanging around with a journalist, so it had battlefield sequences and things. Bob tends to go very quiet when he reads that stuff and turns over the pages rather quickly. It’s not a world he’s ever had to venture into, thank God, and I think he just doesn’t care for it very much. I would not see him as the best person to edit The Naked and the Dead, for example. Or James Jones. Still, Bob is amazingly catholic as an editor; that is to say, I know that if I’d written a golf book, Bob would have been very good about my golf book. He would not have tried to turn it into a prose poem about something different. I expect with his romantic novelists he doesn’t fight with them about split infinitives; he doesn’t worry too much about dangling clauses. He can live with bad books if they’re good bad books.
Anyone can take a piece and tart it up, and in so doing layer another sensibility or another vocabulary on top of what’s there, but Bob doesn’t do that. He has a great ability to get inside a piece and instinctively understand the terms and the vocabulary of the writer, and make changes in those terms and that vocabulary. This is one of the hallmarks of great editing: when it is done right, you don’t notice it.
I happen to be a kind of word whore. I will read anything from Racine to a nurse romance, if it’s a good nurse romance. Many people just aren’t like that. Some of my closest friends cannot read anything that isn’t substantial—they don’t see the point. I don’t, however, like a certain kind of very rich, ornate, literary writing. I feel as if I’m being choked, as if gravel is being poured down my throat. Books like Under the Volcano, for instance, are not for me.
I probably wouldn’t send a postmodernist writer to Bob. Bob likes books with a strong sense of narrative. I think he would have admired Donald Barthelme or William Gass, but they wouldn’t be natural writers for him to work with.
Some marriages are not made in heaven. I inherited Gail Godwin from another editor who had published Godwin’s early work at Harper’s. Now, Gail was extremely sensitive, and she viewed herself as a highly successful commercial writer, whereas I viewed her as a rather literary writer with a limited readership. She couldn’t live that way, and eventually, although we worked together very cordially on several books, she moved to Viking. She had shown them a book she was working on, and they saw it the way she saw it—as a major commercial novel—and they paid her a lot of money, and indeed it became a big best-seller and made her famous and successful. I didn’t read her that way, and I still feel that her earlier work, which was less commercial, is more interesting. But she wanted to develop in a different direction, and I’m sure she doesn’t feel that she compromised in any way to do that. In other words, I was the wrong editor-publisher for her and she was wise to leave me.
One writer I worked with—I don’t remember who it was—got absolutely nothing out of the one meeting we had. Some time afterwards he wrote an article for a magazine and, referring to this encounter (without using my name), he wrote something like: He told me to let it breathe. What does that mean? A completely useless, stupid remark. Now I knew exactly what I meant, and another writer would have known exactly what I meant, but the comment was useless to him. It wasn’t a bad thing for me to say, nor was he being stupid or resistant—it was just that my ways of communicating were never going to work with him. It was not a proper marriage, and luckily we got a quick divorce.
I don’t remember any serious disagreements, but this does not mean Bob has liked everything I have written. He doesn’t like The Sentimental Agents, for instance, which I do like.
I did think The Sentimental Agents was rather schematic. It was an idea rather than fiction. It’s part of Doris’s space fiction series, and like all space fiction, or science fiction, it is underlain by a highly moralistic, utopian impulse. When that kind of thing works it’s because the idea becomes clothed in specifics that are interesting, exciting, moving, whatever, and in most of the books in that series I think that did happen, but in this particular book I felt the ideas were bare.
Once when Maclean’s magazine was running a profile on me they rang Bob and ran one of my quotes by him. Asked about my film work, I had told Maclean’s I used other muscles. Yes, said Bob, his sphincter.
Bob once used an adjective about one of my books—Beloved—that I’d never, ever, ever heard him use before, about my book or anybody else’s. He said great. It’s funny, because everybody says great about anything. What’s the weather like? It’s great. How do you feel? Great. But I know that when Bob said it, in that context, he meant that. He didn’t mean something else. He might say wonderful, when something was wonderfully done, but he never said great.
In all the hours of working on The Power Broker Bob never said one nice thing to me—never a single complimentary word, either about the book as a whole or about a single portion of the book. That was also true of my second book, The Path to Power. But then he got soft. When we finished the last page of the last book we worked on, Means of Ascent, he held up the manuscript for a moment and said, slowly, as if he didn’t want to say it, Not bad. Those are the only two complimentary words he has ever said to me, to this day.
Bob has been advising me and editing my work for thirty or more years. It is hard to remember details now. I have just been reading my diary for 1978, where it records that I spent some days making alterations he suggested. I remember cutting quite a bit out of The Sirian Experiments. I cut a bit out of The Four-Gated City at his suggestion, which perhaps was a mistake. Bob has made mistakes. But, nearly always, he is right. I don’t think Bob would be surprised to hear that I would describe him as an authoritarian personality. Why should he? I’ve told him so. We are good enough friends for us both to put up with this kind of mutual criticism.
Well, I describe her as authoritarian. So there you are. But this is actually more complicated than that, because my neurotic vision of myself is of a fly on the wall. I see myself as an observer, as someone who could not possibly affect any other human being, not even my children. Now, I’m an acute observer and an analyzed person, so I know perfectly well from the evidence of my eyes and ears that I have a strong personality and have no problem running large organizations, and I know that I’ve had a considerable effect on many people. I know I have a great deal of personal authority. But there’s a disparity between what I know and what I feel. I’ve never quite understood why people do what I say. But then, I’ve never taken myself very seriously.
There is a certainty, an ease, an assuredness that comes from Bob, and when you’re a writer and you’re constantly living in a world of panic and uncertainty, to have that in an editor is a valuable thing indeed.
Bob and I used to joke about our egos being so huge that they didn’t exist—which is a way of saying that neither he nor I felt we were in competition with anybody. That’s not a very nice thing to say about myself or him; but at the same time, it’s important to remember that a large ego can be generous and enabling, because of its lack of envy. There was a way in which our confidence was wide-spirited.
People always say Bob has such an enormous ego, but I say that Bob takes this enormous ego and lends it to the writer, thereby reinforcing the writer’s ego. Bob is very generous with his ego.
When you’re dealing with nonprofessional writers, you have to give them a tremendous amount of encouragement simply to convince them that they can write at all. Lauren Bacall is a perfect example. I knew she could write her own book, and I knew that she would never be satisfied if she had a ghostwriter, but she didn’t know how to do it, so finally we set up a system. She would come into the office every day and write in longhand on yellow pads, and every night little elves would type up what she had written during the day. She kept saying, Is it all right? and I would say, Yes, yes, it’s fine. You write it, I’ll edit it. And it was fine. Of course, it needed standard editorial work, but it was her book, it came right out of her. Betty Bacall is a bright Jewish girl from New York—she wasn’t going to write a bad book.
I did Liv Ullmann’s book too. She had already written it in Norwegian and had it translated, and she wanted someone to edit it in English. The first time I met her it was winter, and she came into the office wearing a big fur coat. I took her coat, we had a long talk, and after about forty-five minutes I said, Come on, I’ll walk you around the office and introduce you to some of the people you’ll be working with. She said all right, and she stood up and started putting on her coat. I said, Why are you putting on your coat, it’s boiling in these offices, and she said, I’m putting on my coat because I’m so fat I don’t want anyone to see me. Now, I’m married to an actress, and this triggered something in me, and I completely forgot that I had just met her forty-five minutes ago. I said, Wait a minute. Number one, it’s very hot in here. Number two, you do not look fat, you look great. And number three, you’re not putting on your coat. This is just what I would have said to my wife, Maria. And she said, Oh, fine, and took off her coat. Because she’s an actress—she needed the director to tell her she looked great and she needed reassurance. Yet she had written a very fine book on her own.
Whenever I have a problem, Bob always says to me, Well, Maria . . . and then goes on to tell me how he had exactly this sort of problem with Maria, and here is the way Maria handled it. He is so skilled at this that I’ve never been able to tell whether Maria has always had exactly my problems or whether she has become a kind of pedagogical—or even mythological—device. It depends, of course, on what kind of human being he is, but an editor is often a father figure, a mother figure, a kind of ministerial figure . . . a teacher is really what I mean—someone who stands in authority over you and has something to tell you. I’ve had certain stumbling-block problems in my life, as others have, and every few years I would go and see Bob on some editorial occasion, and I would tell him where I was stumped and how I was stumbling. He would talk to me about whatever it was and generally give me enough perspective in an hour or an hour and a half that I left his office feeling restored and able to put my hands back on the ropes. I never thought that at The New Yorker he would have time to do Cynthia-therapy, but he did.
Bob and I think of each other as close friends, but ten years might go by before we talk to each other or drop each other a note. In between my novels—and my novels come at long intervals—we’ve barely communicated.
We have, basically, no social relationship whatsoever. When the Book-of-the-Month Club bought the first volume of the Lyndon Johnson trilogy they had a lunch for me. Al Silverman, who was then the president, started the conversation saying, Well, you two must see so much of each other . . . There was an embarassing silence—at that point Bob and I hadn’t seen each other socially for years.
There is absolutely no question that I see Bob paternally. Absolutely no question. There is a lot of jealousy involved in your relationship with your editor. You don’t want to walk into the office and see another writer chatting with Bob—you’d want to kill them. So you learn to schedule your appointments so you can see Daddy all by yourself. I remember at one point I wanted a larger advance and Bob didn’t want to give it to me. He asked Lynn Nesbit, my agent, Why does Michael want such a big advance? And she said, Well, Bob, I think he wants to buy a house. Bob said, Well what does he need such a big house for, and she said, Bob, he’s married now and has a child. There was a way in which, as with a parent, I was always this young kid to him, and it never really changed. So maybe there was some countertransference too.
Young writers taken on by publishing houses these days seem to be treated with a great deal more sanity than used to be the case. American publishing went through a phase: just as American acting was haunted by the Brando example, so American publishing was haunted by the Fitzgerald example. For decades it was regarded as almost mandatory that a writer be drunk half the day, that he have an appallingly untidy sex life, be manic-depressive, need a doctor . . .. I have the impression that publishers don’t do all that wet-nursing in the way that they used to. You’re much more on your own, and that may not be a bad thing. I don’t think writers need all that sympathy. They need to be told when their books are bad. The excessively sycophantic phase of American publishing has been forced off the stream because it’s simply not cost-effective anymore.
There have been two pressures that have eroded excellence in publishing. One is its increasing commercialization, the other is politics. We now have a generation of people whose literary education has consisted not of being soaked in excellence, but of judging novels and stories by their theme or by the color or political stance of their authors. Now it is common to meet editors who will talk about a second-rate book as if it were the best. My guess is that they probably started off with high standards—that is, if they weren’t political—but the commercial pressures slowly brought them low.
It is necessary to remember that the great middle-European tradition of publishing and editing, which was largely that of Jewish intellectuals, moved almost in toto to the United States and didn’t stop much in England. The excellence of the editorial process at Knopf, with or without Bob, is still streets ahead of anything at a British counterpart. The British style, with the exception of a few houses, is pretty much to print what they’ve bought, these days, misspellings and all. I’m not trying to make some spiteful point, it’s just a fact of life. I think American publishing is pretty resilient, despite its anxieties, and it does produce very clever people. The trouble is that the tempo of it all—the speed with which books go on and off the market and shoot to the top of the best-seller list, only to be unheard of three months later—produces a much faster and more careless approach to the product itself. That is true. But that has its advantages too, I expect.
These days most people at the heads of magazines and publishing houses don’t do the nitpicky stuff that Bob does. They don’t have time. Perhaps they hope the little stuff will get done by someone else, or perhaps they secretly believe that even if it isn’t done they can get away with it. There has been a great change in the notion of what editing means. Increasingly, editing means going to lunch. It means editing with a credit card, not with a pencil.
There’s so much concern for the bottom line these days. Of course, it’s not that twenty-five years ago everyone was publishing such wonderful literary things and didn’t care about finances; but now that the publishing houses have become larger, and books sell many more copies than they used to, writers want bigger advances, the pressures are greater. I think that’s one of the reasons that, when Bob left Knopf, he was glad to be out.
You have to give a little thought, in human terms, to what Bob’s doing at the moment. It’s an extraordinary situation, where the guy was captain of the ship all those years, and now goes back as a humble member of the crew, working as a line editor, without any executive powers at all. Bob had three ambitions in his life. They involved the New York City Ballet, Knopf, and The New Yorker. And he achieved them all. There’s a Jewish prayer that says, May we never realize our dreams; but Bob did realize his dreams, and it ended with The New Yorker. And at sixty-one he decided that what he really liked doing was what he had done at the beginning of his publishing life, which was editing.
I was an editor myself for a long while, and I have great difficulty explaining what was so gratifying about it. I suppose editing is almost maternal at times: you see yourself as being able to deliver something nurturing and corrective, and the benefit and the pleasure is in seeing the nurturing and the corrective show without your fingerprints. If it has your fingerprints on it, it’s no good. It’s like knowing you’ve been successful with your children when they don’t need you.
What is it that impels this act of editing? I know that in my case it’s not merely about words. Whatever I look at, whatever I encounter, I want it to be good—whether it’s what you’re wearing, or how the restaurant has laid the table, or what’s going on on stage, or what the president said last night, or how two people are talking to each other at a bus stop. I don’t want to interfere with it or control it, exactly—I want it to work, I want it to be happy, I want it to come out right. If I hadn’t gone into publishing, I might have been a psychoanalyst; I might have been, I think, a rabbi, if I’d been at all religious. My impulse to make things good, and to make good things better, is almost ungovernable. I suppose it’s lucky I found a wholesome outlet for it.
This is going to sound ungrateful, but I’ve had more recognition than anybody should have for doing a job that isn’t running the United Nations, and I used to ask myself, Why have I done so well? I really didn’t understand it. I used to feel I was a fraud because I had had so much success and done so little to deserve it. And then I realized, you don’t have to be a genius to be an editor. You don’t have to have a great inspirational talent to be a publisher. You just have to be capable, hard-working, energetic, sensible, and full of goodwill. Those shouldn’t be rare qualities, and they don’t deserve a lot of credit, because you’re either born with them or you’re not. It’s luck. And that’s why you can be as good an editor your first day on the job as on your last; you’re not developing some unique and profound gift.
But publishing has changed in many ways, and one of them is that these days many editors don’t edit. There are editors now who basically make deals; they have assistant editors or associate editors who do the actual editing for them. When I was growing up in the business, editors, even if they were heads of publishing houses, tended to edit what they brought in, or they had someone who worked with them who could help them. Now it’s much more splintered, and the business of publishing has become far more complicated and fierce and febrile.
On the other hand, one has to remember that the time I look back on as the golden age was seen by people like Alfred Knopf as the age of the slobs, as opposed to prewar publishing, which was the true golden age. At a certain point you have to face the fact that you’ve turned into an old fart—that you can’t tell whether the zeitgeist has actually changed for the worse or whether you’ve simply fallen behind and aren’t in touch anymore.
Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.
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Melanie Rae Thon, Necessary Angels
Paul West, After Ranji
Jennifer Ashton, Two Poems
Claire Bateman, Two Poems
Scott Cairns, Necropolitan
Katharine Coles, Natural Disasters
James Cummins, Two Poems
Kent Gardien, Three Poems
Eileen Hennessey, Four Poems
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Galway Kinnell, Lackawanna
Stephen Leeds, Two Poems
Timothy Liu, Four Poems
Jeredith Merrin, Two Poems
Sarah Messer, Two Poems
Jennifer Miller, Two Poems
Victoria Schlegel, Like Unnatural Words
Stephanie Strickland, Two Poems
Shawn Sturgeon, Two Poems
J. C. Todd, Men Kissing
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Pascal Bernier, Table of Contents
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