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.)