One additional nugget I managed to recover while fixing broken links was a post on the Barnes & Noble site, written by Daniel Menaker. Who is Daniel Menaker? Well, at the time I knew almost nothing about him, to the point that I described him — hilariously in retrospect — as “another dirt-dishing voice” in the publishing industry. (Saving me somewhat, I also noted that he was a former Editor-in-Chief at Random House and Fiction Editor at The New Yorker.)
Re-reading the B&N post after five years, however, I found myself more curious about Mr. Menaker than about publishing. A quick search led me to a memoir he’d written, titled My Mistake, which was published in 2013. Interestingly, in reading that book I found that the context of Mr. Menaker’s life gave more weight to the views he expressed in the B&N post, as well as those in that book and in other writings I discovered.
Now, it may be that confirmation bias played a part in my reaction because much of what Mr. Menaker had to say jibed with my own conclusions, but I don’t think that’s the case. Not only do I think he would disagree with some of my grousing here on Ditchwalk, but my interest in understanding the publishing industry has decreased so much in the past five years that I now consider such questions moot at best. (For example, five years ago I would have deemed this story important. Today it seems meaningless.)
Still, as an outsider corroboration is useful when you’re assessing any human endeavor, to say nothing of doing so from the relative orbit of, say, Neptune. In reading My Mistake I found a fair bit of corroboration for conclusions I’d previously reached, yet after I finished the book I also decided to see what others had to say as a hedge against my own potential bias. That impetus quickly led to this review in The New York Times, which caused me to stare agape at my screen as I read what seemed to be a bizarro-world take on the same text I’d just digested:
Make no mistake, this is an angry book. Menaker is angry at himself for his character flaws (a flippant one-upmanship that alienates others), and he is thin-skinned, remembering every slight. As a former executive editor in chief of Random House, he is proud to have nurtured writers who went on to win literary acclaim (the Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout, the National Book Award winner Colum McCann). Menaker is understandably upset over being ousted from that job in 2007, but what seems to truly infuriate him is being shunned by the publisher, Gina Centrello, during a transition period.
I honestly don’t know what that reviewer is talking about. My Mistake is not an angry book, unless your definition of anger includes expressing an opinion. And no, Mr. Menaker is not infuriated about being shunned by anyone — or at least not anyone in the publishing biz. If anything, he’s infuriated by his own serial incapacity to connect with other human beings in his life, though over time — and particularly in the writing and structure of My Mistake — I think he belatedly squares things with his departed father.
Then again, that’s the publishing industry in a nutshell. You can spend a year or two writing a book, yet when it’s reviewed — in this case, by no less than the self-anointed consensus cultural steward of commercial literary criticism — you can still end up being cleaved by a reviewer with an axe to grind, or mischaracterized because of a reviewer’s blind spots or personal acidity. (If you also worked in publishing for a time you might even be the recipient of some score settling.)
Given that the publishing industry, like the oil industry and the pharmaceutical industry and every other industry, always has a vested interest in grinding an axe for itself, and that publishing is a decidedly New York business, at least in America — by which both I and the publishing industry mean New York the city and not the rest of that beautiful state — and that New York is in many ways a very small town, it’s not hard to imagine that brokering power and protecting turf has as much or more to do with what is and is not said about any work as any work’s actual literary merit.
Having visited New York many times myself I can also tell you that there is nothing more adorable than watching New Yorkers take themselves too seriously. Which is to say that there is nothing more adorable than watching New Yorkers be New Yorkers. In terms of gauging personal credibility, however, that bombastic tendency means we have to look past rhetorical bluster and bombastic certitude for clues that a given voice does not belong to a con artist or deluded neurotic. Fortunately, while many New Yorkers seem willfully blind to their chutzpah, angry Mr. Menaker is not one of them. From My Mistake:
When my mother was ill, I didn’t visit her often enough. What would have been often enough? I’m not sure, but it would have been much more often. Once, when she was in a drugged sleep on the couch, where, home from college, I used to watch Soupy Sales, I was so impatient for the next nurse to arrive that I went out and stood at the bottom of the driveway and paced back and forth, muttering, like a New Yorker.
Whether you’re a writer or not, it should be obvious that such an admission would be easy to leave out of a memoir. The fact that it’s in there, along with other unflattering moments in Mr. Menaker’s life, ultimately convinced me that he’s worth listening to. That doesn’t mean he’s always right, but it gives weight to his credibility, and if you’ve taken a look around the publishing industry in, oh, the past five hundred years, you know credibility is always in short supply.
The reason I mention all this is that what I learned — or had confirmed — from reading Mr. Menaker’s writings, including one piece I have yet to mention, is that the publishing industry is not for me. I’m interested in saying what I want to say, and writing what I want to write, but the rest of it — the trappings and the traps — no longer hold any interest. There are complicated and unique reasons for that, but I simply do not aspire to be an author or a celebrity or a personality, or even interviewed or blurbed. For me personally My Mistake confirmed that where I am in my own head is actually where I want to be, and where I should be, and I found that reassuring.
Mr. Menaker battled cancer a few years ago, and if you go to his website you’ll see that he stopped posting there in late 2013. You will still find a listing of his books, however, and some blogs posts that might be of interest. Searching the greater interweb one last time, however, I did find a post on Slate from early 2015, which concerned gatekeeping and cultural stewardship. Mr. Menaker ended that piece with this question:
It’s not incumbent on those who defend the publishing industry/business/art and book reviewers to justify the gatekeeping services they perform, however imperfectly. It’s incumbent on those who want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves to explain what, if anything, will replace them.
I think there are two answers here. The first Mr. Menaker provides himself, earlier in the same piece, when he says:
In my judgment, there are between 20 and 30 editors and publishers in New York who—along with experienced and discriminating publicists, marketers, and sales reps—have over the decades regularly and successfully combined art and commerce and, in the process, have supported and promulgated art. They are in fact the main curators of our life of letters. They have somehow survived the grinding—tectonic—friction between creativity and business and made a go of both. They are cultural heroes, actually.
It would be great if every worthy author could have an editorial champion. Unfortunately, given the usual industry weighting of art, craft, celebrity and cold hard cash, it’s unrealistic to believe that publishing as a whole will be anything other than perpetually corrupt, or that the digital revolution and the addition of new players will do anything to change that weighting. Which is fine in a mercenary and capitalistic context, but not at all fine if you’re simultaneously using pleas to cultural stewardship as a means of facilitating deception or controlling access, as many in the publishing industry have and continue to do.
As regular readers know, I’m a fan of Rust Hills and Thomas McCormack. I’m now a fan of Mr. Menaker as well because I think he’s sincere in subversively using the means of publishing as an opportunity to promote artists and literature. Then again there are considerably more than 20 or 30 editors and publishers working in the publishing industry, which means most writers will not be interacting with professionals who are sincere about cultural stewardship, even as they insistently profess to being so.
The second answer to Mr. Menaker’s question — my answer — is much simpler. Nothing. We replace the gatekeeping and cultural stewardship that the publishing industry has perverted and hidden behind and used as an excuse to deny individual voices a chance to be heard with nothing. Instead, we encourage authors and editors who share a vision to find each other and build new structures, new relationships, new (and almost certainly modest) markets that meet their needs.
Today, as a result of advances in technology, authors have the only thing they’ve ever really needed, which is a distribution pipeline. Couple that with valuable input and feedback from people like Mr. Menaker, who seem sincere about helping writers and their intended audience find each other, and everything else is simply marketing noise. Even better, it doesn’t matter whether a given author is aiming for high art or low comedy. All that matters is the work, as it should.
Again, I know I’m an outlier. I don’t talk about the business of publishing much any more because it doesn’t factor into what I’m trying to do. Writing matters. Writers matter. Supporting people who want to write or make any kind of art matters, as does keeping them from falling prey to those who would exploit them. Unfortunately, working with and through the publishing industry — including, now, Amazon.com — often means being lied to as a matter of industry practice, which is why authors also need to arm themselves with, and pay for, agents, lawyers, managers, accountants, and on and on.
My hope is that people inside the industry who, like Mr. Menaker, aspire to something more from literature — who are willing to engage in a little subversion or anarchy as against maximizing income or quarterly revenue — will hang out a shingle and build a small press based on personal integrity and accountability. In that way authors who share such interests can spend less time trying to avoid being fleeced by institutionalized industry abuses and more time perfecting and practicing their craft. Because that’s ultimately where art comes from.
— Mark Barrett