Review: ‘Avid Reader’ by Robert Gottlieb

Avid Reader: A LifeAvid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about “Avid Reader.”

You’d think Robert Gottlieb would have a rich life to draw from in his memoir: a Manhattan childhood; an early, perfect job as an editor at Simon & Schuster; an even more perfect job as the editor-in-chief at Knopf; editor of the New Yorker; and relationships with dozens of the century’s most famous writers, including Toni Morrison, V.S. Naipaul, Robert Caro, Joseph Heller and John le Carre.

But, to steal a line from another review on Goodreads, Gottlieb could have used a good editor.

“Avid Reader” starts out reasonably, with Gottlieb’s descriptions of his distant parents and his experiences at Columbia and Cambridge. There are hints of joy, stray bits of sadness (a rushed first marriage in particular) and the confidence of a man who, once he finds his course, plans to follow it with energy and devotion.

Which, frankly, he does. But he leaves the rest of us behind.

The problem, to me, is in Gottlieb’s bloodless style. “Avid Reader” reads like one of those drippy Bob Colacello Vanity Fair articles about wealthy WASPs or European nobility, with the tone of an overly pleased man who wishes to convey how wonderful life is for his elite friends while avoiding making any waves so he can get invited to the next party or return unscathed to his comfortable life.

So everybody is dear and talented and handsome and admirable and interesting and charming, and his family and their families spend vacations together, and he’s been friends with them for 20 years, or 30 years, or 40 years, or until they die, at which point he gives a pleasant eulogy.

Even his critiques come off as quibbles: Michael Crichton “wasn’t a very good writer,” more interested in machines than people; Katharine Hepburn was needy; William Shawn was sad. (He does get in a sharp poke at Shawn’s mistress, Lillian Ross, whose book “Here but not Here” “embarrassed everybody but herself.”) This is generous of Gottlieb – and Lord knows I’d rather have a kind-hearted observer like him than an axe-grinder like Michael Wolff – but the overall effect is breezy and shallow, with no details on how he figured out advances and print runs, shaved words from “Something Happened,” or dealt with most of the New Yorker writers.

He does offer useful glimpses of many people, but they’re just that: glimpses, like brief scenes caught from a fast-moving train.

It’s not like Gottlieb doesn’t have material to work with. At one point he underwent classical Freudian analysis, visiting an analyst four times a week. But he reveals little and when his therapy is done, so is he with the subject.

Or his occasional trips with pretty assistants. These are all platonic, he says, and I have no reason to doubt him; his wife, he mentions at one point, doesn’t like to travel. (And they’ve been married for more than 40 years.) But he’s almost too casual in the way he brings it all up. And as for his long marriage, about the only rough times we’re exposed to have to do with his son, who’s on the spectrum. But even that works out after a few pages. No guidance, few musings, little pain.

No soul-baring, in other words, for better or for worse.

I wish I could be more generous about “Avid Reader.” I still admire Gottlieb’s work – the list of the books he edited would make an excellent course on 20th-century literature. And the book is certainly well written. But it may have been better served as a magazine article (ironically, it was condensed to one in Vanity Fair) or an appearance on a talk show.

Even there, Gottlieb would probably fall far short of one of his mentions, the raconteur Alexander King – though, given the usual seven minutes and three anecdotes, few would notice. The short form may have been the best form for “Avid Reader.”

Sorry, Mr. Gottlieb. May I suggest you talk to Terry McDonell?

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Review: ‘The Accidental Life’ by Terry McDonell

The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and WritersThe Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers by Terry McDonell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like any good book, Terry McDonell’s “The Accidental Life” kept me riveted from the get-go, laughing out loud, admiring occasional turns of prose, angered on his behalf and unwilling to turn to the last page.

I even cried at the end.

If that’s unusual behavior for reading a memoir – and a memoir about journalism, writing and editing, of all things – well, McDonell’s is an unusual book. For one thing, it’s not written in the classic, clichéd “And then I …” succession of chapters. (Not that McDonell wouldn’t have had an excuse: the guy was the editor of Rolling Stone, Esquire, Us Weekly and Sports Illustrated, among others, and even blow-by-blow accounts of his adventures would have been quite entertaining.) Instead, McDonell wrote the book as a series of vignettes, some as short as a sidebar, others worthy of an SI bonus piece. He even offers word counts and “ENDIT”s.

For another, McDonell spends little time blowing his own horn. Oh, you can tell he’s proud of his work – proud of increasing profits and raising circulation, proud of succeeding at the weekly or monthly grind of the magazine business. But what he’s really proud of is giving writers an opportunity. Some are well-known figures he sought out, such as Thomas McGuane or George Plimpton; others are people he helps to elevate to new, and deserved, heights, such as Tim Cahill, who got the job of a lifetime when McDonell made him a go-to correspondent for Outside.

And he loves writers. McDonell is no slouch himself; his prose is diamond-hard, free of the kind of windiness that someone like (well) me would indulge in. (You can see he learned his wire-service lessons well.) But he often breaks to quote from one of the many people he edited or knew, passages that obviously have great emotional meaning to him. He defers. He quotes Liz Tilberis, a fellow editor (she was at Harper’s Bazaar), when she was confronting her death. Or James Salter on his free-spirited days in London. Or Tom Wolfe on LSD.

I’m reminded of generations past, when people were taught to memorize poetry and could quote a verse when grasping for invention. (Witness Robert Kennedy informing a crowd in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King Jr. had died.) It’s a sign of both knowledge and humility, of deep feeling. It’s also a vanishing talent, if “talent” is the right word. McDonell would probably gently offer a better one.

He offers capsule profiles of a number of figures, perhaps most notably McGuane, Plimpton, Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O’Rourke and Warren Hinckle. (Hinckle, who edited the seminal ‘60s journal Ramparts, gave Thompson his break as a gonzo journalist.) He’s fair to all, celebrating their strengths and lamenting their flaws. If he has some axes to grind, he’s remarkably dispassionate about them.

Late in the book, he has a chapter on SI’s Rick Reilly, who’d become the magazine’s star with his humor-filled back-page columns. Reilly had become smug about his fame – McDonell describes him as “a cocky teenager” – and when he finally left for ESPN, McDonell wrote an editor’s letter focusing on the future, not the past. Reilly was pissed and wrote McDonell a furious email that ended, “Screw you sideways.” McDonell says that Reilly was right in his fury. I don’t think I would have been so generous. But then again, Reilly had been getting on my nerves for years. (I will give him credit for one of the funniest jokes I ever read in any magazine, that “La Quinta is Spanish for ‘next door to Denny’s,’ ” but that doesn’t make up for years of overpraised casuals. Steve Rushin may have been too heavy on the puns, but I got the feeling the guy’s heart was genuine.)

None of this is to downplay McDonell’s own story, especially if – like me – you’re fascinated by an era when many editors were household names and Time Inc. offered generous expense accounts. He built some magazines from nothing, others into something new, and was fearless about pursuing name writers, even if most of his readers wouldn’t recognize the names.

And when it all comes crashing down after the fat-and-happy ‘90s, McDonell gives the digital world his best shot but, to mix metaphors, he was tilting against a rising tide.

“When we did talk about our journalism, the naïve thinking among most of the editors was that we just needed our resources back,” he writes. “We should have been thinking about content-management systems to deliver what we had.”

It’s revealing that SI came up with a particularly good digital model, but couldn’t make it work in Apple’s iPad platform because Steve Jobs wanted the subscriber data, including credit card numbers. Jobs was thinking about his own model, of course – that’s why Facebook and Google are so powerful – but it ends up killing the eggs, if not the goose. Which is where we stand today, with magazine circulations down even as everything is slapped up on the web, free for the taking.

I have to strain to find failings in “The Accidental Life.” I wish McDonell had offered more about HIS accidental life – the private side, that is. He’s apparently at least once-divorced and, given some anecdotes, unafraid of adventure, but there’s little internal probing. The book is about writing and writers, and for the most part he stays in that lane — when it comes to others, at least.

Still, there’s plenty of soul, even if you have to read between the lines to find it. And much to learn, especially in this age of soulless algorithms.

“When bad editors talk about mix, they mean formula: how much service, how much news, how much celebrity and, most recently perhaps, how many top ten lists of ways to serve kale,” McDonell writes. “They should think about eccentricity: what is the most surprising piece they can run without leaving readers scratching their heads, or alienated and angry.”

It’s no wonder I enjoyed Terry McDonell’s magazines, and it’s no wonder I loved his book. Thanks for the surprises, Terry.

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