Daniel Menaker has been involved, in one way or another, in the literary world for more than 40 years. After graduating from Swarthmore College and receiving a master’s degree in literature at Johns Hopkins, he taught English at a private school for a few years before beginning at the New Yorker in 1969 as a fact-checker under legendary editor William Shawn. After serving as a fiction editor at the magazine, Menaker became a senior editor at Random House, where he worked until 2007. During his time at the New Yorker and Random House, Menaker worked with a veritable who’s-who of notable writers, including David Foster Wallace, Elmore Leonard, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Curtis Sittenfeld and A.S. Byatt.
In addition to his work as an editor, Menaker is the author of six books, including My Mistake, a consistently illuminating and entertaining memoir of his entire life, with specific focus on his 26 years at the New Yorker. On his way to a psychology conference to discuss his writing, the author took a few minutes to discuss his new book, the Random-Penguin merger, and the current state of the publishing industry.
Why did you decide to structure the book as a year-by-year chronicle?
Initially, the proposal was a more straightforward narrative with transitional elements, but it was met with almost universal rejection. Eventually, George Hodgman, who was at Houghton [Mifflin Harcourt] at the time, made an offer. I actually posted the rejections, and everybody got mad at me, especially my agent—even though I redacted the identifying information.
Then George left a week later and I was orphaned, and I looked at the proposal and thought it was clumsy and cumbersome and oddly restrictive. So how might I be able to restructure it? That led to the sectional approach, which may have also been influenced subliminally by social media, the idea of bite-sized, short takes. I was not aware of it at the time, but it probably has something to do with the era in which we live.
I know you discuss it in the book, but could you talk more about what compelled you to stay at the New Yorker after William Shawn essentially asked you to look for work elsewhere?
I don’t know. I’m not completely sure of the reasons, and it was a crazy time in my life, but I think that with handling fact checking and some copy editing, I figured I could ultimately do something at that place. I could have left—I received some offers, but they either ultimately vanished or were seemingly unbearable—and perhaps the mystique [of the magazine] had something to do with it. I also wanted to try to prove people wrong and accept the challenge to stick with it, to right what I saw as a wrong, and I eventually worked my way up to become the fiction editor.
The New Yorker is well known for its unparalleled fact-checking procedures. How difficult was it to adjust to that rigorous process?
From the beginning, fact checking and I went together like Laurel and Hardy, like peanut butter and jelly. It was something that I took to right away. However, I’m very skeptical of fact checking in general. Of course, you want to be accurate, but I think it’s a somewhat spurious process.
The real checking that needs to be done involves point of view. With magazines somewhat decentralized, the really important aspect of their work are the angles in which they approach stories. Fact checking is important—we caught plenty of egregious errors in fact—but the larger skepticism and attention is really the reader’s duty. If you want to truly understand the causes of the First World War, you need to read about 10 different books to really grasp it, to get all the necessary angles, even if the books all use the same facts.
Do you still read the New Yorker?
Yes, and I think it’s excellent. There are two things, however, that I miss: more chance-taking, more off-base risk—though it does show up sometimes, to David’s credit; and the lack of longer pieces and multipart pieces that run at least a few times of year. My guess is that it’s not economically practicable these days with increased advertising, online competition and other factors—though this may be more about nostalgia for me than editorial knowledge.
I like the fiction. I was also worried about someone taking [TV critic] Nancy Franklin’s place, but Emily Nussbaum is doing a great job. I love Anthony Lane, George Packer and most of the other New Yorker writers. But there’s so much good writing out there these days, it’s difficult to remain a literary centerpiece.
What have you been reading this year?
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I recently read and reviewed Philip Mackowiak’s Diagnosing Giants, a wacky, wonderful book about the illnesses of famous people throughout history, including Lincoln, Darwin, Lennon and others.
I've also been re-reading the two memoirs by Samuel Hynes, who taught my Modern Poetry seminar at Swarthmore. One is about his boyhood in the Midwest, and the other, Flights of Passage, is about being a bomber pilot in the Pacific in the Second World War. At the age of 89, he has just signed a contract with FSG to write another book, about his time at Swarthmore. It happens that I saw him again after 50 years for the first time just a few weeks ago, and he is still one of the coolest guys I have ever known. His writing about war is as good as anybody.
As a former Random House editor, what do you think of the merger with Penguin?
I don’t think anybody knows enough yet to predict the fate of publishing, though I am much more sanguine about it than I was 5 years ago. [The merger] is probably a wise move, but it may restrain competition a little too much.
I thought for a while that the editing, marketing, distribution and other functions would be fragmented and that the bigger publishers would crumble. I don’t think that anymore, as it seems they have finally caught up with the current landscape. Ultimately, human beings will continue to need well-done stories and interesting narratives, no matter what the medium.
Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction editor and managing editor at Kirkus Reviews.