Biography corner: Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader and the New Yorker revolt of 1987

gottlieb [Note: like all the “biography corners,” these are informal impressions, not real reviews, so caveat emptor.]

For lunch and breakfast reading this week, I’ve been reading Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader: A Life .   I’d been curious about Gottlieb ever since reading Michael Korda’s Another Life: A Memoir of Other People (2000) years ago, a book with great stories about publishing for those who enjoy relaxing by reading that sort of thing (that would be me) and who enjoy Korda’s stories about his life (also me).

anotherlifeIn Another Life, if I remember correctly, Gottlieb bursts on the scene at Simon & Schuster with immense talent, direction, and a love of books, and he (along with Korda) revitalizes the place. He’s a life force or maybe a publishing force, a Superman of books, until he leaves for Knopf in a whirlwind of energy some years later and The New Yorker in the distant future and I don’t know what after that because I haven’t finished Avid Reader yet.

In Avid Reader Gottlieb is much more modest and charming about his accomplishments than he has reason to be, and this is a generous memoir. Gottlieb doesn’t do the name-check-and-thank thing that a lot of memoirists do; he tells the stories of collaborations, things that worked, and a few things that didn’t. (Here’s Paris Review interview.)

Right now I’m in the section where he’s editing The New Yorker, which was a famous contretemps 30 years ago.

abouttown

Ben Yagoda’s About Town, New Yorker book that looks promising.

Editorial aside: There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to memorializing The New Yorker, which you could spend your life reading if you had endless time, which I don’t, so I haven’t. Some are devoted to an ubi sunt lamenting the demise of its excellence, which is sort of like the perennial clickbait about whether SNL is still funny or not, so if you’re interested, those books are out there for you.

Back to 1987. With apologies to Mr. Gottlieb, I’m going to retell this in a nutshell, so put on your padded shoulders sweater, pouf up your hair ’80s style, and follow along.

In 1987, William Shawn, at nearly 80, had been the legendary editor of The New Yorker for a looooong time, with both the magazine and his magic ways (and neuroses) having survived Thomas Wolfe’s infamous attack “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!”  in April 1965.  This was the piece that drew the famously reclusive J. D. Salinger out of hiding to attack the attackers, but that’s another story.

The 1987 story, as reported in an innocent time and place apparently so bereft of news that an editorial shakeup could inspire multiple stories, was that the new owner, S. I. Newhouse, had rudely booted Shawn from his perch and installed a young upstart.

Gottlieb’s version makes more sense and has a more humorous aftermath. This is my version of his version, so any mistakes are mine. The link above gives a different version.

  1. Newhouse meets with Shawn over lunch. Shawn says, “You’d probably prefer that I leave sooner rather than later.” Newhouse, not knowing this is his cue to say, “Of course not! You’re irreplaceable!” gives a quiet fist pump and says “Yes.”
  2. Shawn leaves thinking this is the first step in a process that will leave him in place. Newhouse leaves thinking “we’re done here” and installs Gottlieb.
  3. All or most of the New Yorker writers sign a letter saying that Gottlieb is a cad and a bounder, and that he should not take the job. They send it to him.  Oops, they sent the wrong letter. Would he mind not reading that one but read this one instead? Gottlieb, don’t take the job, and also, you’re a cad and a bounder (paraphrasing).
  4. Gottlieb gets to work.
  5. Lillian Ross, famous New Yorker writer and skewer-er of Hemingway and others, who was also Shawn’s lover and the author of an unpleasant memoir about their affair, Here but Not Here, demands that Gottlieb re-install Shawn at The New Yorker in some capacity, and, when he doesn’t, quits.
  6. Gottlieb hires people like Adam Gopnik, which some old-liners think is a mistake but which I am here to tell you, as a New Yorker reader, was a great decision.
  7. According to Gottlieb:

    “To end the Lillian saga: Some time later someone passed along to me a movie script she had written about a great and noble magazine editor ousted by a coarse mogul and replaced by a clever but brash young book-publishing executive (not an editor, however; a public relations/marketing man.) The heroine–an intrepid young girl reporter–came to the rescue when this poor specimen failed at the job, by convincing the mogul to bring back the great man. And then–this was the beauty part–she married the young publishing guy, who had gone back to where he belonged: marketing.”

The moral of this post, and maybe of this book, could be that we all do this because we believe that reading and writing are at the center of who we are, and maybe a little bit that writing well is the best revenge.

Biography Corner: Unsensationalizing Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate

Biography Corner: Unsensationalizing Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate
hughes
As a counterpoint to reading for work, my reading for pleasure tends to be nonfiction on either subjects (British literature), disciplines (history), or time periods close enough to be interesting but with enough distance to provide an escape. In practical terms, these tend to be biographies (John Hay, Jack Kerouac) or popular nonfiction (The Bully Pulpit, Stephen Crane Remembered).

Since these are reading for pleasure, I don’t pretend to have any special insight into the subjects they cover but thought that this blog might be a good place for thoughts about them.

The most recent book is Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life by Jonathan Bate. The press surrounding this book has tended to sensationalize its revelations (go read them if you want to) and has earned the condemnation of Janet Malcolm, whose The Silent Woman on Sylvia Plath and the perils of biography I’ve read several times and who condemns this work and what she calls its superficial readings. Bate has gone on record saying that the Hughes estate’s withdrawal of permission to quote from Hughes’s poetry forced him to cut out huge portions of the manuscript.

baskinWhat struck me about the book, even in this truncated form, isn’t the gossip but its its account of Hughes’s process of poetic creation. I knew something about this (Graves’s The White Goddess, etc.) from a grad class in which we read “The Jaguar” and Crow, but it’s not until the later chapters that Bate speaks powerfully to this. Bate clearly sees Lupercal and to a lesser extent Crow as the highlight of Hughes’s career, with occasional descents after that into vatic self-importance amid some genuinely good poems and a host of public performances (as Poet Laureate and public intellectual) that diluted his gifts.

Despite praise for Hughes’s translations, which were (I looked this up) his poetic reconstructions or renderings from a word-for-word translation created by a fluent speaker of the language (Hughes could speak French but not other languages), Bate sees these as an evasion, too.

Bate sees Hughes as roaring back to life with The Birthday Letters (1998), however. What the chapter on The Birthday Letters reveals is that they were written over the course of years but unpublished due to fears of feminist and other critical backlash. (Feminists and critics in this book are represented pretty much as shrieking harpies and vultures, respectively.)

birthdaylettersBate shows Hughes as constantly on the edge of a more confessional mode–in the early 1970s, for example–but held back by these fears. It’s as though Hughes teeters on the confessional versus vatic/safe imagistic poems precipice and goes with safety but then unleashes his powers in The Birthday Letters. The Birthday Letters frees him, but Hughes expresses the thought that it may be 30 years too late for the electric voltage of the early poet of “The Thought Fox” and “The Jaguar.”

Bate spends chapter 30, “The Sorrows of the Deer,” in explicating both a later volume, Howls and Whispers (509) and a Silvine notebook, likely composed before 1969 (511), called The Sorrows of the Deer. Containing 22 poems, the notebook could, claims Bate, have “expiated both [Hughes’s] grief and his guilt” if published in the 1970s. It’s a chapter about Hughes in elegaic mood, but the meta version is that Bate expresses some sorrow, too, for the poet that he thinks Hughes could have been.

Bate repeatedly compares Hughes to Wordsworth, right down to his use of his vivid journals being similar to the use that William made of his sister Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals. Another notebook, a “Challenge Triplicate Book,” contains a 5,000 word draft of what could have become Hughes’s version of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Bate reads in detail a poem called “Black Coat: Opus 31,” linking it to Hughes’s life but also demonstrating how its Wordsworthian “spots of time” of grief, memory, and loss recall Wordsworth. Bate says that there are thousands of unpublished pages in the archives and that a whole book could be written on the composition of The Birthday Letters.  Knowing academics, I’m pretty sure there’s probably one in production right now.

I haven’t finished the book yet–two chapters left to go– and can’t say whether Bate has a grand summing-up on Hughes’s career. I’m also not up on the status of Hughes’s literary reputation.

What interests me primarily is this book’s achievement as a literary biography, even in its current form, and a question. Does Bate believe that Hughes has somehow failed the poet that he might have been by refusing to take (in a Frost quotation he uses often) the road less traveled? Is it the biographer’s place to judge the achievement of his or her subject, and, if so, to what extent?