Book Review: “My Mistake: A Memoir” — Notes from a Reticent Memoirist
There will be readers who appreciate Daniel Menaker’s brevity and lack of emotional engagement, but for me, much of “My Mistake” reads like notes for a memoir.
My Mistake: A Memoir by Daniel Menaker. Houghton Mifflin, 234 pp, $24.
By Helen Epstein
A couple of years ago, after eight publishers had passed on his book proposal for My Mistake and Houghton Mifflin finally bought it, Daniel Menaker posted parts of the (redacted) rejection letters on the Huffington Post. It seemed an odd thing for an editor as seasoned as Menaker to do. All writers receive rejection letters. Publishing his drew attention not only to Menaker’s sense of injury, but alerted readers to potential problems in his book project. It also reminded me that, some 40 years ago, I had received a short rejection letter from Menaker, when he was apprenticing as a fiction editor at The New Yorker.
Many writers have had their work rejected by Menaker and many more have had direct or indirect contact with the author, who has worked in magazine journalism and book publishing for over 40 years. Menaker’s wife, Katherine Bouton, was a long-time editor at the New York Times, where she worked with hundreds of journalists including – once or twice — me. Full disclosure: I also shared a psychoanalyst with Menaker’s former boss William Shawn, know several of his colleagues, and have a friend who remembers him as “Mr. Cool” at Swarthmore College.
So I was curious about My Mistake, particularly about Menaker’s take on the last dismal decades of magazine journalism and book publishing. Good editors tend to be discreet and to subsume their own opinions and experiences to the text at hand. Good memoirists, on the other hand, open up both about themselves and the significant places and people in their lives. When good editors write good memoirs (Diana Athill’s come to mind), they produce unusual work that reflects a heightened awareness of the writing process.
The author outlines his project in a snappy introduction that presages its pervasive ironic tone. He presents himself as the son of a Jewish father “who spied on Trotsky for the Communist Party of the United States” and a WASP mother who “could trace her lineage to William the Conqueror – if she cared about that kind of thing, which she didn’t….”
He attended “the most prominent progressive….private school in the United States, the aptronymic Little Red School House, on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, during the 1940s, when Leadbelly and the Weavers were singing at the Village Vanguard.” He skips over his suburban high school to himself as an undergraduate who “captained Swarthmore College’s varsity soccer team to a 2-10 record and bought the first Bob Dylan album right when it came out because I thought the musician was a Welsh folksinger. My mistake, but a good one.”
The next mistake he mentions is a bad one: “My brother died when he was twenty-nine after surgery for an injury that I caused.”
Moving right along, Menaker writes that he worked “for twenty-six years in the brilliant, crazy house called The New Yorker…where the editor William Shawn, a kind of genius, fell psychological prey to three or four short women who managed to get their hooks into him….” (Short women who annoy Menaker are a leitmotif of sorts in this memoir) and fifteen in book publishing until “Finally, Introduction-wise, I was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of sixty-six…and have just now had my fourth ‘clean’ CT scan as I write this very sentence. The cancer led me to consider writing this book and in that way take stock of my life…
He concludes: “Cancer can, at least for a while, have some benefits. It allows you to dodge onerous commitments. It strengthens friendships. It prevents you from taking things for granted. It increases the urgency of parts of your life and shows up the trivialities. It requires you to find your courage.”
Menaker’s introduction to My Mistake (the book’s title and recurring phrase in the manner of Kurt Vonnegut’s “So it goes,”) does a good job of indicating both the substance and style of this slender, impersonal memoir. It moves chronologically in short sections ranging from a paragraph to several pages in length, with the author’s ages serving as section headings.
In the first, “Three Months,” the author’s nanny is quoted: “Danny you was so sick…you was in that hospital for two months.” In “Eleven,” the Menakers move from Greenwich Village to suburban Nyack, New York. In “Seventeen to Twenty-one” the author is studying at Swarthmore; in “Twenty-one to Twenty-three,” at Johns Hopkins.
In “Twenty-three to twenty six” — 1966-68 –- Menaker teaches in prep schools and his older brother Mike dies of hospital-acquired staphylococcus septicemia as an indirect result of a touch football game during Thanksgiving week-end of 1967 in Nyack. Mike, who had “bad knees,” wanted to play the less active lineman position, but Dan insisted that Mike switch positions with him and play backfield. Mike did that, tore a knee ligament, and died as a result of what should have been a routine surgery.
In the episode “Twenty-six to fifty or so,” Menaker devotes two and a half pages to a reflection on Mike’s death. His conclusions include: “After decades of hard psychological work and simply getting on with things, I’ve forgiven myself;” “I’m good at consoling others;” “I respond even more deeply to art, music and literature because of the lesson in life’s fragility,” and “his death will ultimately leave me in better shape than I would have been if he had lived…Somewhere in my hideous id, I’d killed him. I vanquished him from the field and all the spoils are mine. And the only thing worse on a primal human level than Oedipal defeat is Oedipal victory;” “It allows me to write.” And finally, “Would I give back every sentence, every lesson learned, every bit of wisdom, every gram of sympathy for others, every sensitivity, every penny, every square inch of real estate, to have Mike walking three years ahead of me….Instead of living in the shadow of an alternative unlived life? You tell me.”
I would think so, but Menaker is such an emotionally withholding narrator that I couldn’t say for sure.
In “Twenty-seven,” his mother’s first cousin Janet Bingham sends him via her husband Robert Bingham (“close enough to my family to remember that I’m emotionally and occupationally adrift”) to interview at The New Yorker, where he’s placed in the checking department. Though Menaker writes that he never felt comfortable at the magazine and was asked, after four or five years there, to find another job, he stays and is eventually promoted from fact checking to copy-editing to editing fiction.
Menaker follows journalist Tom Wolfe in portraying William Shawn’s New Yorker as a cult, ”the leader of which is a small, demonically manipulative, and (I believe) self-loathing – but in some very important ways brilliant – man with a quiet voice and a nearly floor-length overcoat.” He retreads some ground that others have covered (see memoirs by former New Yorker writers Brendan Gill, Renata Adler, E.J. Kahn, and receptionist Janet Groth, among others) and details his experience in the acceptance process of stories and the workings of the magazine’s fabled fact-checking department.
The most vivid parts of My Mistake follow “Fifty-three,” when Tina Brown, who has replaced Robert Gottlieb, who has replaced William Shawn, pushes Menaker out of The New Yorker and into Random House via her husband Harold Evans, Publisher of the Random House Publishing Group. Menaker’s account of “the thick and unpleasant realities” of 21st century corporate publishing would be funny if it did not ring so depressingly true. Many of the best bits (including editor Ann Godoff giving Menaker a brisk tutorial in how to cook the numbers) were excerpted in New York Magazine.
In his account, getting a book accepted by a publishing house is harder than getting your teenager past the admissions committee of an elite college. “Three streams feed this broad river of negativity,” he writes. “Most trade books don’t succeed financially. Three out of four fail to earn back their advances. Or four out of five…This circumstance in turn increases the usual business strategy of self-protective guardedness. You’re more likely to be ‘right’ if you express doubts about a proposal’s or a manuscript’s prospects than if you support it with enthusiasm. And finally, the inevitable competitiveness among acquisitions editors will incite them to cast a cold and sometimes larcenous eye on others’ projects.”
If a book makes it through those three forms of dissuasion, it runs a gamut of other vetoes: of the title, the jacket, the lay-out, the flap copy, the timing, potential blurbers, and reviewers. And, Menaker adds, if you work in Editorial you don’t usually know what’s going on in Sales or how or if each salesperson sells the book. This section of My Mistake is convincing enough to drive you to self-publish.
Cancer re-enters in “Sixty-six.” Menaker has surgery and chemo. Fortunately, he’s able to draw on the expertise of Siddhartha Mukherjee, whose comprehensive book on cancer he acquired at Random House in “Sixty-five.” I would have liked to have read much more of Menaker’s thoughts about medical writing, about his literary tastes and whether they changed over time, about how he worked with authors and what he learned from them. But Menaker is a reticent memoirist.
There will be readers who appreciate his brevity and lack of emotional engagement, but for me, much of My Mistake reads like notes for a memoir. He drops lots of names – “writers whom no one else wants to work with,” writers whom Menaker pursues, writers who appreciate him (he quotes Alice Munro in this regard) – but few are fleshed out. I never learned what he loves about literature or which authors most moved him as a student or now, as a senior citizen. He drops remarks here and there about anti-semitism but doesn’t delve into how he actually felt about his “mixed” Jewish and Protestant heritage while he was growing up or now. He doesn’t indicate how he experienced growing up as a Red Diaper baby during the McCarthy period. He refers to his psychoanalyses and two analysts, yet prefers to caricature rather than characterize them as he does most people in the memoir.
His father is defined by his “fecklessness;” his mother by her devotion to copy-editing. Lillian Ross – one of the recurrent short women — is “a staff writer and William Shawn’s mistress.” Tina Brown and Harold Evans put Menaker “ever so slightly in mind of the duke and the king in Huckleberry Finn, floating down the Mississippi, affecting noble lineages, and fleecing townspeople right and left with their cons and impostures.” Even his “petite” pulmonologist, who seemed pretty smart to me, makes the mistake of saying to Menaker more than once that no one believed she had grown children.
Kindness is scarce in Menaker’s narrative. Put-downs abound. The reader yearns to read more about the compassionate and helpful souls in the author’s life, like the late New Yorker editor William Maxwell who accepts five of his stories for publication and becomes his mentor and model. “As I begin the work of editing, coarse and fine,” Menaker observes in one of his best passages, “I begin to understand the cliché “’God is in the details.’ It’s also the case that failed intentions are in the details, and confusion is in the details, and the unconscious is in the details, and deception is in the details, and self-deception is in the details, and provocation is in the details, and surreptitious editorializing is in the details. And so on. God – if by God the agnostic means precision, clarity, genuine feeling, accuracy – is in the details only when the writer (or speaker, for that matter) knows himself and exactly what he is doing: rare.”
As I reread his memoir, I wondered whether Menaker kept in mind this very wise paragraph as he edited My Mistake.