Oops! Daniel Menaker’s ‘My Mistake’ Chronicles a Life in Publishing

My Mistake by Daniel MenakerIn May 2011, Daniel Menaker posted eight of the rejection letters he received for his memoir, My Mistake, on the Huffington Post.

“If you’re curious about this kind of thing—what goes on inside the submission process of publishing—there follow, a few paragraphs down, eight edited examples of the rejection notes I got, through my agent, for 25,000 words of a memoir,” wrote the former editor for The New Yorker and editor in chief of Random House.

The rejections, with names redacted, all cited similar reasons: While most of the editors who read Mr. Menaker’s short memoir, My Mistake, were interested (or claimed to be) in the publishing gossip, especially the parts about Mr. Menaker’s 26 years at The New Yorker, there was trepidation about the sales potential for a book about a quasi-corporate industry that amounts to a small New York subculture and a concern that the personal parts of the narrative weren’t engaging.

“I loved the parts on The New Yorker—as did everyone who read it here. But the family history sections, with the exception of the devastating pages on his brother, were not as striking—to me in any case,” wrote one editor.

“This book will get reviewed everywhere, but I don’t think we are going to be able to get readers to come to it based on the name dropping, and I can’t figure out how to position it in a bigger way,” wrote another.

The right publisher turned out to be Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and while most readers probably don’t care very much who publishes a book, anyone who wants to read Mr. Menaker’s memoir probably cares a great deal. Why else, after all, would someone buy and read more than 200 pages about a nice guy who made a living off the mostly solitary—or at least alienating—act of editing?

Mr. Menaker began life as a red diaper baby: Raised in Greenwich Village back when that connoted bohemianism rather than Marc Jacobs, Mr. Menaker’s mother worked as a copy editor at Fortune and helped organize the newspaper union. His father, although present, is a more shadowy figure. Mr. Menaker attended elementary school at the aptly named Little Red Schoolhouse and spent summers at his gay uncle’s socialist summer camp in the Berkshires.

The formative experience of Mr. Menaker’s younger years, more than a liberal arts education, a Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins and a cushy job as a prep school teacher, happened during a Thanksgiving football game. His older brother, Mike Menaker, goaded by a 26-year-old Daniel, ignored his knee problems and played backfield. After tearing a ligament, Mr. Menaker’s brother required surgery. The routine procedure resulted in septicemia, a blood infection that proved fatal, which Mr. Menaker felt was his fault. His brother’s death haunts him, and his guilt recurs throughout the memoir:

I know it’s true that I didn’t take a vial of staph bacteria and pour it into the incision during surgery, and I know that the accident’s outcome was violently random and arbitrary, and I know that we all tend to take responsibility for things we aren’t responsible for. But on the other hand, try not to tell me that there’s no chance that my brother would be alive today if I hadn’t done what I did.

Not much later, Mr. Menaker landed at The New Yorker, first as a fact-checker, then a copy editor and, eventually, a

Daniel Menaker (photo: Patrick McMullan)

Daniel Menaker (photo: Patrick McMullan)

fiction editor. All in all, he stayed at The New Yorker for nearly three decades, witnessing William Shawn’s legendary reign, Robert Gottlieb’s short-lived stewardship and, eventually, the chaos of Tina Brown.

And that is really where the memoir gets going. Mr. Menaker’s book is at times very entertaining. There is dish about Mr. Shawn and Ms. Brown, movie critic Pauline Kael and a young Chip McGrath, small asides about Mr. Shawn’s now-well-known, long-term affair with Lillian Ross and the peculiarities of the venerable institution.

Mr. Shawn’s 35-year tenure at The New Yorker has already been the subject of a number of biographies and memoirs and literary chatter. Mr. Menaker spends a good deal of ink on his former boss. Tasked with editing the famously prickly Ms. Kael, Mr. Menaker must call Mr. Shawn to inform him of any language that may offend his famously delicate sensibilities (something that Ms. Kael deliberately sprinkled her pieces with in order to mess with her editors).

Mr. Menaker gives up other New Yorker business that Mr. Shawn would no doubt object to, such as the time in the pre-S.I. Newhouse days of 1983 when the editor wouldn’t allow certain key employees of the magazine to buy into an incentive stock ownership plan, because, since writers are not eligible, Mr. Shawn felt that if editorial employees were allowed to profit, it would hurt the writers.

Although Mr. Menaker spent more than a quarter of a decade at the magazine, published some pieces of his own and conceived the Fiction Issue (“my idea and for once not my mistake,” Mr. Menaker writes in a parenthetical aside) and edited writers like Alice Munro and Ms. Kael, he never really felt that he belonged. This is partially because he had never been privy to the highest-level discussions and partially because, after his brother’s death, he claims to have often felt like “an outsider.” (Here and elsewhere, the reader can practically hear the psychoanalysts, whose opinions dot the narrative and whose accents and observations are occasionally reproduced).

When Ms. Brown tired of Mr. Menaker, her husband, Harold Evans, then the publisher of Random House, hired him to edit literary fiction. This might seem like a dream scenario for most of Mr. Menaker’s readers, but he attributes this turn to a Macbeth-like, though still plausible, agreement by husband and wife to force Mr. Menaker out of The New Yorker.

At 59, Mr. Menaker left Random House for a brief stint at HarperCollins, where he was given more money and the title of executive editor. When he told Random House publisher Ann Godoff of the offer, she said, “I hate what they do.” To which Mr. Menaker replied, “What? Publish books?”

Although Mr. Menaker had only learned about the business of book publishing five years earlier, at least in his memory, he seems jaded about the gentility and snobbishness of the book business, even as he seemingly embraced it. Mr. Menaker recounts a conversation with an agent while at HarperCollins to illustrate the industry-wide common knowledge about fudging numbers and embellishing sales:

 This is the way in publishing, as I’m sure it is in most other industries that produce physical objects for sale. Rounding up is fun. Rounding down is reality. Announced first printings of, say, a hundred-thousand hardcovers often shrivel to under fifty-thousand. Publicity announcements of an author tour of 12 cities shrink to New York, Washington and Boston and only if the writer agrees to use Bolt buses for transportation.

(For what it’s worth, the initial print run of My Mistake, according to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is 20,000.)

The problem with books about book publishing is that it’s hard to make anyone outside the industry care. It’s easier to ignore book publishing altogether than, say, the world of finance, and the canon of publishing industry books is relatively small.

Jason Epstein’s Book Business benefited from gossipy passages about Vladimir Nabokov, a slightly more towering presence than, for example, Tina Brown. The Way It Wasn’t, by New Directions founder James Laughlin, depicts Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams with the ease with which Mr. Menaker recounts his childhood. But as more books about the business of putting a book into print are published—Boris Kachka’s history of FSG from earlier this year, a book about Laughlin due out in 2014, J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer biography that has as many details about the author’s advances as it does about his drunken brawls—the thought occurs that maybe a story about publishing can’t support itself in book-length form, especially when you take the actual books being published out of the picture.

An editor’s job is not the stuff of great drama, and Mr. Menaker’s before-and-after excerpts of pieces he edited don’t help to create tension. Do readers care how the sausage gets made? Anyone who does want to know will no doubt read the excerpted parts of the book or get a review copy for free. And while some of the personal anecdotes work, others are just dull—for instance, when an employee at the Public Library tells Mr. Menaker that he can’t take a tote bag into the New Yorker archives, he dubs the experience “Tote-Bag-Gate.”

After Random House, Mr. Menaker is diagnosed with lung cancer, treated and then treated again. His illness, which is foreshadowed throughout the early part of the book, forms the basis for a meditation on sickness and death. He ends on a life-affirming note. As Mr. Menaker writes the final pages of his memoir, he sees cherry blossoms in Riverside Park and gets the barn doors to his Berkshires house fixed after Hurricane Sandy almost as good as new. “I have never seen better days,” he writes. “No mistake.”