Monday, 19 December 2016

Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb

Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb · Lisa Hjalt

There is a reason Toni Morrison's Beloved wasn't the first part of a long novel and why you may have read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller instead of Catch-18. That reason is editor Robert Gottlieb, who recently published his memoir Avid Reader: A Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Memoirs often have too much of name-dropping but in his case we could call it title-dropping. Whether it's too much is debatable. He tells his story through his work, at Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker, and because of all the book titles his style may at first seem to lack depth. As the reading continues, it makes sense, and gives an insight into his world of publishing. Apart from Heller and Morrison, other feathers in his cap were e.g. Doris Lessing, John le Carré, John Cheever, Chaim Potok, Charles Portis, and in non-fiction, Jessica Mitford, Nora Ephron, Robert Caro, Lauren Bacall, and Bill Clinton. Even Miss Piggy. This is a man who loved his job; editing was his life. For the bibliophile, also interested in publishing, this is the book to read.
Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb · coffee · Lisa Hjalt

In 1955, after studying at Columbia and Cambridge, the extremely well-read Gottlieb, then twenty-four, started working at Simon & Schuster, where his role was somewhat undefined. He was doing everything: reading manuscripts, writing jacket copy, making editorial suggestions. Two years later his boss died and key executives left the company. Suddenly, Gottlieb, Nina Bourne, the legendary advertising director (she went with him to Knopf in 1968), and a few others were running the show. Gottlieb, now eighty-five, became a canon in the publishing world, mainly for being the right man, in the right place, at the right time, who happened to be good at editing. In the book he doesn't brag, even though he has every reason to.

For me, Gottlieb's thoughts on the editor-author relationship and the role of the editor are one of the book's strengths. Doris Lessing was one of the S & S authors he had a great relationship with and she followed him to Knopf. When Gottlieb became the editor of The New Yorker (in 1987; there was drama when he succeeded former editor William Shawn) Lessing continued to show him her work. He was 'dumbstruck' when she told him she was 'always hoping for' his 'approval'. Earlier he observes that her novel The Golden Notebook 'sold very few hardcover copies . . . [b]ut they were the right six thousand copies' (p. 136). It shows that for him the job wasn't about publishing a bestseller but to reach the right readers. Since then the book has of course done very well and Lessing was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. He reminds us of the moment she received the news in front of her London home 'grumpily expressing her irritation at having her life interrupted this way' (p. 139). If you haven't seen the clip please look it up online. She had no idea why the reporters were waiting outside when she came home from doing her grocery shopping, and her reaction to the news was: 'Oh Christ!'

Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb · book covers · Lisa Hjalt
Some of the book titles edited by Robert Gottlieb

Toni Morrison was another author of his who was awarded the Nobel, in 1993, and they had a good working relationship. Between the great successes there were of course less successful titles and bad editorial experiences (he disliked Roald Dahl (so did the Knopf staff) and thought V.S. Naipaul, also a Nobel Laureate, was a 'snob' but a 'superb writer'). Some authors jumped ship (e.g. Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo):
It's hard to convince a colleague (or oneself) that it's not personal—that a writer's chief concern is, and should be, protecting himself and his books as he thinks fit. If the editor and publisher don't provide that sense of security, they're not doing their job, which is first, last, and always a service job: What we're there for is to serve the writer and the book. That doesn't mean I haven't been stung when an author I valued moved on. (p. 176)
When it was time for Bill Clinton to write his memoir, Gottlieb was the chosen editor (he was back at Knopf after five years at The New Yorker). If you have read My Life I'm pretty sure Clinton's name-dropping is still fresh in your memory (my father-in-law returned my copy; he gave up), but it doesn't diminish the fact that it was a well written book. I think it sums up their editorial relationship when Gottlieb wrote in a margin: 'This is the single most boring page I've ever read.' Clinton sent it back having added: 'No, page 511 is even more boring!' (p. 253).

Gottlieb's book isn't flawless. The talk about him and his family holidaying with, or becoming close to, this author or that co-worker and their family members becomes repetitive, and reaches a point where one no longer cares. At least I didn't. There are exceptions, a few witty stories. When the late Katherine Graham was working on her autobiography Personal History he used to visit her in Washington to view her writing and stayed in her Georgetown house. '[O]ver the years we established an easygoing routine—breakfast, for instance, in slippers and dressing gowns at side-by-side tables in the library, with the Post waiting for her and the Times waiting for me' (p. 242). Her book became a bestseller and won the 1998 Pulitzer.

There is also a chapter about dancing that I have my doubts about. Gottlieb, a great fan of the ballet, became a dance critic for The New York Observer. Those following the NY dance scene will probably enjoy this chapter but the only reason I connected with it was that a few years ago I read the memoirs by former ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, Dancing on My Grave and The Shape of Love.
Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb · coffee · Lisa Hjalt

Gottlieb is an editor who, without planning to, became a writer himself. Some of his works are Collected Stories, a collection of Rudyard Kipling's stories (it made Susan Sontag exclaim in a bookshop: 'Bob, I didn't know you could write so well!' (p. 295)), Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt (for the Jewish Lives series at Yale University Press), George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, and Reading Jazz.

During the reading I kept asking myself how the guy found the time and energy for everything he accomplished (supportive wife, actress Maria Tucci, is definitely one of the reasons). I got my answer in the final chapter:
Why, also, considering that my personality is so relentlessly ebullient, have I since childhood felt so melancholic, perhaps even depressive? I suspect that I've summoned up my hyper-energy to keep running fast enough to ward off that depressive tendency—the few times I brushed against the real thing were so distressing that it's no wonder I've done everything possible to avoid it. (p. 311)
He was brought up in a dysfunctional family - they read at the dinner table instead of talking - and he seems to remember his childhood in books. Early in the book he admits doing eight years of psychoanalysis. That's when I thought, Okay, he doesn't find the need to dig deep in this book. He's done. I'm not saying his book is shallow. He simply doesn't dwell on things and seems to have a healthy dose of detachment. It's also good to keep in mind that he had no intention of writing this book. He only did it for his daughter (thank you, Lizzie!) who wanted her twin sons to know about the life work of their grandfather.

It has been a few weeks since I finished reading Avid Reader: A Life and I still keep it in the stack I take with me from room to room. I'm still browsing through it and noting down titles that I would like to read. This is a book I really enjoyed reading. My advice to the bibliophile: keep a notebook next to you during the reading because your to-read list is about to get longer!

Avid Reader: A Life
By Robert Gottlieb
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 337 pages, illustrated

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