For most of his career, Daniel Menaker sat atop the highest peaks of American literature, first as a fiction editor at the New Yorker magazine, then as editor in chief of Random House. Now, in his memoir, “My Mistake,” he shows those of us toiling at the bottom of the range just how he got up there, with special attention to the blemishes in his view.
Unlike most retirees who while away the hours by writing their life stories, Menaker has legitimate memoir-fodder — who doesn’t want to know what it’s like to breathe such rarefied air? What seems to be his primary motivation, however, is an unhappy one: He has been diagnosed with and receiving treatment for lung cancer.
“My Mistake,” told mostly in chronological order, begins with Menaker’s assertion of his mother’s aristocratic ancestry, his Jewish father’s communist ties, and his own folkie bonafides — he “bought the first Bob Dylan record right when it came out.” He attended the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village, Swarthmore College. In short, Menaker has just the sort of intellectual, upper-middle-class background the denizens of self-publishing message boards might expect from those overseeing closing the gate on their literary aspirations.
The story itself starts very slowly, encumbered by impressionistic tales of childhood scrapes, long nights studying for a doctorate, and Menaker’s pre-New Yorker career. While a passage on the premature death of his brother is understated and affecting, the same cannot be said for his recollections of cleaning out camp toilets or the merits of various liberal-arts professors.
But when his editor cousin-in-law (on the WASP side) gets him a job as a fact-checker at The New Yorker, things pick up for Menaker and for the reader. His depiction of William Shawn as a prudish meanie is both funny and terrifying. His apprenticeship under and eventual friendship with legendary fiction editor William Maxwell occasions a number of touching anecdotes. Lillian Ross, Pauline Kael, Renata Adler, and Tina Brown all strut through the text in candid, often unflattering cameos. Menaker makes no bones about revisiting petty slights and rivalries — all the better for us, because they are universally entertaining.
His tenure as an editor at Random House and Harper Collins is equally diverting, but far less pleasant. His portrait of the “onerousness and corporate foolishness and credit larceny” his job requires is sharp and disquieting. It makes the fractious New Yorker fiction department seem like a blissful dreamscape.
Corporate publishing, not so much — but Menaker’s insights into it alone make “My Mistake” worth reading. He remains deeply annoyed by the non-editorial tasks once required of him, like trips to Frankfurt for the famed industry book fair and endless business lunches. He counts his successes — acquiring “Primary Colors,” for instance — as almost accidental triumphs in a screwy industry defined by treachery, misguided metrics, and the bottom line. “[T]he work is hard,” he marvels. But the reading isn’t — and fortunately, he has his inherited house in the Berkshires to retreat to.
At the end of the chapter about Menaker’s time at The New Yorker, he proffers a list of the now-towering writers he discovered. It’s a long and astonishing list. Using said list, one could make the argument that Daniel Menaker has given us some of the best writers in contemporary fiction, and for that, it’s easy to forgive some self-indulgence.
Eugenia Williamson, a writer and editor living in Somerville, can be reached at eugenia
■ Correction: Because of a reporting error, a previous version of this review misstated the name of the legendary editor who presided over the The New Yorker through most of Menaker’s 26-year tenure. His name was William Shawn.