Daniel Menaker’s ‘My Mistake’: memoir of a New Yorker editor
Daniel Menaker’s memoir “My Mistake” chronicles his losses and his triumphs, including a long career as fiction editor for The New Yorker. Menaker discusses his book Friday at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “My Mistake” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Daniel Menaker’s dishy, behind-the-pages look at The New Yorker magazine would be enough to highly recommend his new book, but, for this reader, his ruminations on memory (at the heart of this and any memoir) are even more striking.
“… Your memory, despite its notorious unreliability, provides the most important information,” writes Menaker in “My Mistake” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 234 pp., $24). “It has already verified and falsified and winnowed the past in a way that begins to form, for you, patterns and through-lines. But though you have to distrust the memories that create these patterns, and though someone else might well see different patterns in them, in a way the ones you come up with can’t be inaccurate. Because they are patterns that you discern, and so they must be, in an important way, true of your life.”
A former fiction editor at The New Yorker, Menaker is now in his 70s, and having survived several battles with cancer, he reckoned that it was the right time in his life to reflect and take stock.
Menaker recalls his childhood with a sly twinkle in his eye, rendering formative moments in declarative sentences written in the present tense. Many of the stories feel like old-timey shtick: jokes (recalling Jack Benny) with wry punch lines. He titles sections in the book by his age at the time of the recounted experiences (“Fourteen,” “Fifty-nine”).
As the author grows up, his mother works as a copy editor at Fortune magazine in New York City, and his father is an exporter who descended from a long line of left-wing radicals. He and his older brother, Mike, are partly raised by an African-American nanny whom he considers his second mother.
The central relationship in Daniel’s early life is with Mike. They compete and fight and partake in mild delinquencies, forming a strong bond. When, as a young man, Mike dies suddenly after a freak accident in which his brother plays a part, Daniel is devastated. To this point, the book has meandered pleasantly enough and feels episodic, in spite of the chronological progression. After the shattering loss of his brother (which “compels [him] to write”), the narrative strides forward assertively and with purpose.
Menaker acquires a passion for literature at Swarthmore College, an education that proves to be the foundation for his future work as a writer and editor. “I don’t know it at the time, but these humanities courses and seminars — demanding, deep, wide in their scope — constitute not only an intellectual but an emotional preparation for the work I will do later and the losses I will suffer.”
At age 27, Menaker lands a job at The New Yorker, as a fact checker, and works his way up to copy editor and eventually fiction editor. He provides delightful portraits of some of the magazine’s most venerated and legendary figures, including editor William Shawn, film critic Pauline Kael, fiction editor William Maxwell (who mentored him) and sports writer Roger Angell. He clashes with the famously fastidious Shawn on numerous occasions. He and others keep a list of words Shawn detests (especially the women’s undergarment called a “teddy”). As fiction editor, Menaker works with some of the luminaries of 20th-century literature, among them Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout, Michael Cunningham and V.S. Pritchett. Toward the end of his tenure at The New Yorker, he initiates the now-popular Fiction Issue.
Later in his career, Menaker moves on to become editor-in-chief at Random House. He describes the stark realities of modern book-publishing business — how hard it is for a writer to break through and get published — and also some of the tricks of the trade. In one fascinating demonstration, he compares one passage as submitted by an author with the version of the paragraph that he heavily edited.
It makes one wonder: Who could possibly be qualified to edit him?