Posts Tagged ‘robert gottlieb’

Copy Editing at The New Yorker with Mary Norris

September 20, 2009

mary norris new small (1 of 1)Mary Norris started working at The New Yorker  thirty-one years ago, in the editorial library, moving on to the collating department and the copy desk. Since 1993, she has been a page O.K.’er, or query proofreader.  She has written for The Talk of the Town and contributes to the New Yorker books blog.  She is working on a memoir about having a transsexual sibling, the legendary Baby Dee.  You can read Mary’s fabulously entertaining blog : “The Alternate Side Parking Reader.”

 By the way, if you want to learn more about copy editing from those who are the best in the business,  check out: The New Yorker Festival (October 16-18). This year  there is  a master class in copy editing, on Sunday, October 18th, at 2 P.M., with Ann Goldstein, the head of the copy department; Elizabeth Pearson-Griffiths; and Mary Norris. A program guide to the festival is in the issue of September 21, 2009, and online.

I want to talk to Mary about what really goes on at America’s most prestigious literary magazine.
 Andy: Mary, I understand that you often write  some extremely well-received books under the pseudonym: “Malcolm Gladwell.” Is this true?
Mary: Hah! Are you trying to get me in trouble?  Malcolm Gladwell is an incredible phenomenon. He is not a made-up composite of a writer but a real person, and though he must be a millionaire by now, amazingly, he continues to write.
Andy: Can you describe for us what a typical day is for you at The New Yorker?
Mary: The hours at The New Yorker are from ten to six, and I try to be on time, as it is embarrassing to be chronically late when you don’t have to be at the office till ten. We have a weekly schedule for closing the contents of an issue in an orderly fashion: fiction closes early in the week, critics at midweek, and the longer, more demanding pieces near the end of the week; Talk of the Town and Comment go to press last, on Friday. The head of the copy department, Ann Goldstein, parcels out the week’s tasks, matching up who is available with what needs to be done. If the lineup changes, we readjust.
There are four full-time O.K.’ers, as well as a team of about six proofreaders, some of whom act as O.K.’ers when we need them. Basically, on the day a piece closes, you read it, and give the editor your query proof, which will also contain the queries of a second proofreader, and after the editor has entered all the acceptable changes and sent the new version to the Makeup Department, you read that new version. There will sometimes be a “closing meeting,” when the editor, the writer, the fact checker, and the O.K.’er sit down together over the page proof and discuss final changes. The O.K.’er then copies these changes onto a pristine proof called the Reader’s (to keep the paper trail) and enters them into the electronic file, and sends the revised piece back to Makeup. The next version is read against the Reader’s proof by another layer of proofreaders, the night foundry readers. The system is full of redundancy and safety nets.
 Andy: Wow! That is even more proofreading than I do on this blog.  You do copy editing there. What is a copy editor? How is it different from a line editor?
Mary: The job descriptions at The New Yorker are different from those at book publishing houses and other magazines. We have a copy desk, and the job of the copy editor is to do the first pass on a piece, when the manuscript is “set up,” that is, set in type for general distribution. At this stage, the copy editor makes minimal changes, in spelling and punctuation, to conform to New Yorker style. You may have noticed that we spell “theatre” the British way, reversing the “er” to “re,” and double consonants before suffixes (“travelled,” rather than “traveled”); we use the diaeresis in words like “coöperate” and “reëlect”; we prefer the serial comma; we spell out round numbers, even big ones. The copy editor does not make any interpretive changes.
Next (and you won’t find this job anyplace else) a piece is “Goulded.” This used to be the domain of the legendary Eleanor Gould Packard, a grammarian and a genius whose old office I now occupy, though I am neither a grammarian nor a genius (except for real estate: the office has a great view). One of the query proofreaders, on a day when she is not O.K.’ing a piece, reads the galleys of a piece that is scheduled for a future issue, fixing spelling and punctuation, of course, but also making more subtle suggestions.  Query proofreaders at The New Yorker are probably more like line editors at other publications. We go over the piece twice. We fix danglers. We try to improve the sentences, making sure that the author is saying what he or she intends to say. Eleanor Gould was big on clarity, and I have absorbed some of that. Basically, you’re giving the piece a really close reading.
When a piece is scheduled to run in the magazine, we read it again, twice. As I said above, in addition to the O.K.’er, each piece has a second reader, to back up the O.K.’er. The O.K.’er then has the duty of reading the piece yet again, to make sure no mistakes have been introduced, and also to smooth things out. Sometimes a fact checker’s language does not blend in with the writer’s voice, although the checkers work closely with the writers. Any material added by the writer or the checker has to be copy-edited. This takes as long as it takes, and we don’t rush out at 6 P.M.
Andy: I have always heard that The New Yorker had extremely rigorous standards for copy editing and fact checking.  (Or perhaps I should say: “cöpy ёditing”)  Can you talk about that? How is your job copy editing different from, say, that of a copy editor at the National Enquirer?
Mary: I don’t know what it’s like to be a copy editor at the  National Enquirer. The main thing here is to respect the writer. The writers don’t have to do everything we want them to—we make suggestions. The ideal would be to give an editor a proof and have all your suggestions meet with approval. Sometimes you notice that your suggestions have not been taken, so if something bothers you, you try again. Sometimes you wear them down, sometimes you cave.
I have been on both sides of the process, as a writer and as a query proofreader. Being edited sometimes felt like having my bones reset on a torture rack. I don’t ever want to do that to a writer, but I probably have from time to time. “What is this, the adverb police?” a writer who shall remain nameless once said in my earshot. “You betcha,” I wanted to say. I don’t remove every word ending in “ly,” but I like economy and concision.  
  Andy: The New Yorker has such an iconic status in the literary world. When Vicky Raab quoted me in the New Yorker blog, I went around for weeks telling my friends I had become a “New Yorker writer.”  Does the office reflect this kind of exalted status? Or is the workplace like everywhere else? You know, people complaining about the bad plumbing, that sort of thing.
Mary: Bad plumbing! How did you know? There is someone who trashes the ladies’ room regularly, and we can’t figure out who it is.
When you have worked at a place for a while, it is bound to lose its mystique. But as someone who has occasionally been published in The New Yorker, I cannot deny that it is always a thrill to have a piece accepted. You belong to the same tradition as some great, great writers. And although sometimes you are just churning your way through the week, other times you’re getting paid to read something great. We are probably all in this business because we like to read, right? So what could be better?
 Andy: I have always imagined that most of the real workers at the magazine, the guys who don’t do the featured stories, are writers in their other lives. Probably pretty good writers. Is that true? Is TNY a good gig for a writer? Connections and all that stuff? Entrée to parties at the Hamptons?
Mary: You’re right there. Many of the people on the editorial staff have the will to write: they’re poets, essayists, novelists, playwrights,  journalists. I have a novel in my bottom drawer, if you’d like to take a look at it. I guess what we have is access: I can e-mail the editor-in-chief, or talk to an editor if I have an idea. But, obviously, the staff writers are given preference, and you are competing with them just like anyone else. Sometimes people leave The New Yorker to take writing jobs elsewhere.
I have never been invited to a party in the Hamptons, but maybe I’m just not working the connections assiduously enough. One of the perks is grabbing books off the book bench—review copies that get sent to the magazine (there’s no way we can review all the books that get sent here). Recently I asked Roger Angell to sign a copy of his 2008 Christmas poem for my second cousin Dennis Kucinich (rhymes with “spinach”), whom I met at a family reunion. Another perk is getting to hobnob with the cartoonists. When a copy of the magazine lands on my desk on Monday morning, the first thing I do is still to flip through it looking at the cartoons.
 Andy: You have worked under William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Do you have a sense that there was a “golden age” of TNY or are we living in it now?
Mary: Hmmm. Sometimes when I have occasion to look back at an issue from the Shawn days, I am moved by the beauty of those vintage magazines: the lines of type were fitted character by character, the hot type is very alive, the black-and-white columns of print have a classic purity. Bob Gottlieb was careful to maintain that, though he introduced some changes. Tina Brown brought in color and photography, and shortened the length of pieces (and probably the attention span of the general reader). I think that what David Remnick has done is bring his newsman’s nose to the job. Remnick has succeeded in making The New Yorker a vital part of the national conversation. We seem to have found our voice after 9/11.
On the other hand, you find fewer quirky pieces that may not be particularly newsworthy but that readers love. For instance, “Uncle Tungsten,” by Oliver Sacks. (I still regret making him spell “sulfur” our way, with the “f,” when he wanted to spell it the old-fashioned British way, “sulphur,” which he’d grown up with.) Ian Frazier’s two-part piece on his travels in Siberia is a good recent example of a beautiful, funny, interesting, old-fashioned piece of writing. A good writer can make you care about anything.
Andy: Is your job satisfying?
Mary: The thing I like most about my job is that it draws on my entire background. I know a little Italian and Greek that sometimes come in handy. I once caught a mistake in Middle English (in a piece by Andrew Porter yet)—the only time my graduate degree has ever had a practical use. I know the name of the airport in Cleveland, and that can be useful when you’re reading a piece of fiction by a Southern writer who is making things up about northern Ohio. It’s redemptive to have a practical use for the arcana of Roman Catholicism.  
  Andy: What qualities make a person a good candidate for copy editing?
 Mary: Self-doubt. It’s always good, before changing something, to stop and wonder if this is a mistake or if the writer did this for a reason. When you’ve read a piece five or more times, it is tempting to believe that it must be perfect, but you have to stay alert for anything you might have missed. Eternal vigilance! It also helps to have read widely (and well), and to have noticed, while you’re at it, how words are spelled. Of course you have to be attentive to details—you have to be a bit of a nitpicker yet be constructive in your nit-picking. You have to love language. And not be too proud to run spell-check.

 Andy: I hope this isn’t too naughty to ask, but can you tell me the three  biggest style errors that you have gotten from New Yorker writers?

 Mary:   When I first got into the copy-editing game, I wondered why writers persisted in the error of their ways when they must have seen the changes that the editors made. Finally I figured out that it isn’t the writers’ job to style their own copy. For writers, having to think about those things is constricting. Plus, if they did, it would put us out of a job.

 But here are a few things that have irked or puzzled me.

  1. There was a writer who spelled “annihilate” with just one “n.” And he used it in every other sentence. This was back in the days before word processors, when I was in the collating department and had to prepare handwritten Reader’s proofs for the printer. I must have written the word “annihilate” four hundred times. The writer never did notice that it had two “n”s.
  2. One stubborn editor refused to believe that “arrhythmia” was spelled with two “r”s. This doesn’t come up often,  but it is odd to have someone simply refuse to spell a word right because he thinks it looks funny. It’s almost admirable.
  3. The difference between “lie” and “lay” in the past tense continues to confound. It is “lie, lay, lain” (intransitive verb, meaning “to recline”) and “lay, laid, laid” (transitive verb, meaning “to set [something] down”). “Laid” is so often used incorrectly as the past tense of “lie” (as in “She laid down for a nap” [ding, ding, ding: wrong!]) that people are afraid to use it even when it’s right, so you’ll get a sentence like “She lay the stones on the grave.” It doesn’t set off so many bells, but it’s a mistake, in this case attributable to overcorrectness.

  Andy: Mary, this has been fascinating. You expand this into a 50,000 word piece, and I can sell it to Knopf.

Final note: After completing this interview, I sent the text to Mary. She sent it back, hurling me into copy edit hell. I spent 3 hours correcting her edits that included caps to  lower case, lower case to caps, spaces between periods and colons, assorted italics and the list goes on.  This exercise was a powerful lesson, in itself, in the work of a copy editor. I’m exhausted from the experience.


Alan Rinzler, a Legend in Publishing, Shares His Memories

August 4, 2009

rinzlerAlanAlan Rinzler is a legendary figure in publishing. He began his career in 1962  as assistant to Robert Gottlieb, then the managing editor of Simon and Schuster.. He has worked as an editor at Bantam Books, where he was Director of Trade Publishing, Macmillan, Holt, and Grove Press.  He was the creator and director of Straight Arrow Press, the book division of Rolling Stone Magazine, where he was Associate Publisher and Vice President during its formative years.  During the course of his career, Alan edited an amazing list of the great writers of our time: Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Hunter Thompson, Jerzy Kosinski, Claude Brown, Shirley MacLaine, Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Irv Yalom, Woody Guthrie,  and Andy Warhol. Alan is currently executive editor of Jossey-Bass Publishing in San Francisco, a division of John Wiley & Sons. He’s also the Academic Director for Trade Book Publishing at the Stanford Professional Publishing Courses.


Alan is also a freelance consultant and developmental editor.  One of the best. And we will talk to him about this later. If you want to see  Alan in action, here is a list of his upcoming workshops. Also I highly recommend looking at his website and blog. It has lots of information and advice about freelance editing.

When  I have a client that needs some good freelance work (and let’s face it, most of us can use it),  Alan is the guy I recommend. I would like to do 3 interviews with  Alan. The first will be a conversation about his life in publishing. We will then go on to talk about the role and the value of freelance editing in the work of a writer. We will also talk to him about his editorial work in publishing and try to get him to help us understand what publishers are looking for these days –and how they think.

  Andy: Alan, let’s start at the beginning.  How did you get into publishing and   what were your first jobs there?

Alan: The year after I graduated from Harvard I was living on the Lower East side, writing terrible plays and loading trucks as a fur freight dispatcher in the garment  business. My former English Tutor at Lowell House knew I needed direction, and said I should be in the book business, so go see this guy, who turned out to be Bob Gottlieb at S&S and he hired me.

 Andy: When did you start doing editorial work?

Alan: Right away. Gottlieb saw me for the callow, jejune puppy I was, and tried to show me the ropes. He let me work with his authors like Joe Heller, Jessica Mitford, Sylvia Ashton Warner, Sybil Bedford, and Rona Jaffe. “Give the reader a break…” he had framed on his wall, so at his feet I began to stifle my ego and enter into the consciousness of the author to help them be clear, useful, and to struggle to put out the best they could. He also gave me the freedom to start signing my own ideas, since no author or agent was sending me anything.  I began commissioning “youth culture” titles, since I was young and connected to that sixties revolutionary material from the inside. I brought in the likes of: Bob Dylan, Lorraine Hansberry, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,  Fair Play for Cuba, and other lefty, civil rights, rock and roll, so-called radical stuff. Then  Bob and I had to break up our Oedipal relationship (I wanted to kill him, or was it the other way around?) so he got me a job at Macmillan, which led to Claude Brown (Manchild in the Promised Land), Vine Deloria Jr. (Custer Died for Your Sins), Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel, Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Shaft, and eventually Rolling Stone.

 Andy: What was it like working for Rolling Stone?

Alan: Very scary. We had no idea what we were doing and nearly went into Chapter Eleven bankruptcy when we were just getting started. I opened the NYC office, then packed up my young family and moved to California. The notorious Jann Wenner was the boss of Rolling Stone then and now, nearly everyone who’d worked on the first few issues had walked out in a huff, so the situation was perilous and unstable. Jann and I were the only so-called grown-ups around for the first few years, so the office culture was treacherous  and deeply crippled by too many self-indulgent and immature bad habits which shall remain nameless. We had no idea how to make a financial plan, no calculators or knowledge of managing a business with modern accounting methods So we’d line up green thirteen-column book-keeping sheets and budgets which were filled with math mistakes and preposterous financial projections. Nevertheless, through the kindness of grownups like Ralph Gleason, who persuaded record companies to advertise, and avuncular family friends with some money, and a lot of really good writers, we survived and did great issues.  Eventually we published  books by the likes of Hunter Thompson, Annie Leibovitz, Jonathan Cott, Joe Esterhaz, Ben Fong Torres, David Dalton, David Felton, Jon Landau, and others.

 Andy: This was all back in the Sixties. I kind of had this image of  publishing as  a bunch of scrungy hippies, taking a break from the  editorial work and going into the back room to get stoned. Lots of free love too. This is certainly the way it was when I was studying German Intellectual History back then. And publishing seemed to be a lot more fun than that. Is my R Crumb image of life in publishing back then  a fantasy?

 Alan: Not really such a fantasy. It was, in fact, a lot of fun in many ways. The corporate bean counters had not yet taken over at S&S, Bantam, Rolling Stone,  and Grove Press. Consequently the editors had much more independence and power. The dark side of letting the lunatics run the asylum, though, was a lack of structure, control, and an unbridled recklessness that led to a lot of internal politics, competition, and nasty behind the scenes machinations.

 Andy: Can you tell us some memorable stories about some of the great writers you discovered and edited?

Alan: Working with Hunter Thompson, the Prince of Gonzo, nearly killed me, and did leave permanent scars that I hope are not life-shortening. For three of his books (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, The Great Shark Hunt, and the Curse of Lono), we stayed up all night for weeks doing terrible stuff and taping our interviews, which we then transcribed and edited into book form. Discovering Toni Morrison was really something. Claude Brown had just written Manchild, which was hugely successful and still sells 43 years later. He had a big crush on his English teacher at Howard, Toni Morrison, then a cute divorcee with two small sons who were working as face models in the advertising business. She lived in a tiny house on the landing flight pattern at JFK Airport so when the jets thundered over us a few hundred feet up, the cups and glasses would all rattle. Claude wanted to marry her but she kept him at arm’s length, until finally admitting she had “this novel” she’d been working on for years that turned out to be The Bluest Eye and the rest was history. Toni has become such a diva now, however, that I have to admit she stopped returning my calls a few years ago. Oh well. Dylan was impossible to edit, going on and on, but Andy Warhol was a peach. Every idea I had was “fabulous” and we’d put it in his “Index Book”, including pop-ups, early plastic recording of group grope interviews, “terrific art”, photos, spin-out balloons, a 3-D cover and other mixed media bells and whistles we’d brainstormed and slapped together at his silver-foil “factory”, while dodging 24 hour film crews and the first generation Velvet Underground.

 Andy: What was the most important book that you were responsible for publishing?

 Alan: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a beautifully written elegiac revisionist history of the American Indian, which was number one on the NY Times best-seller list and sold millions around the world, changing the universal perception of the Native-American and revising American history for the better.

Andy: What job was the most fun?

Alan: The one I still have. No kidding. Not so glamorous, but for seventeen years, I’ve worked with people I love and respect who are totally honest, ethical, and upfront – which turns out to be the most important thing about any office culture.  Jossey-Bass is a place where I can be myself without fear or embarrassment, and still feel accepted. This is my best and last job.

Andy: We all know that publishing has changed over the past 40 years. I have always seen it as a decline from a sort of “golden age”.  That it has become dominated by corporate culture, the obsession with unrealistic profit expectations, a fetish for media driven mass merchandising values, and a disregard for quality books with more modest audiences. What do you think about this? Are the barbarians at the gates (or inside the gates?) Or have I been selling books in Berkeley for too long?

Alan: When I had my first office with a window in 1962, Max Schuster was down the hall and Alfred and Blanche Knopf across the street. They had just been  acquired by TV personality and “random” publisher Bennett Cerf. But those guys were none of them golden paragons of intellectual literary art. S&S had started reprinting and making a lot of dough from the New York Times crossword puzzles. Knopf and Cerf had a reputation for hustling books that made money, and that has always been the name of the game. I don’t think the quality of writing or number of good books per year has declined. It’s always been hard to find great art that made money too. I do agree totally, however, the pressure for  quick profits, and  return on investment  that the book business has never been able to achieve, has put excessive pressure on serious people to come up with mass market books that sell fast but don’t build into long-term back-list titles.  So there’s a tendency to pay huge money for the blockbuster sure things, if you can land them, at the expense of the more marginal, mid-list proposals with promise. Having said that, however, you know that last year more first novels were published than ever before, and all publishers today would like nothing more than to find a new author with a great future. So ultimately I deplore B list celebrity book publishing, the proliferation of mediocre repetitious rip-offs and imitations, and victim memoirs for the Oprah market. Nevertheless I think it’s a wonderful time for the book business, filled with tumult and turbulence, panic and alarum, challenges and opportunities, and big changes coming towards us like a tsunami. 

 Andy: So tell us some ways in which the book business is different today. What about the impact of the chains, of mass media, of the Internet?

Alan: Book chains were at first heralded as the death of good writing and intelligent publishing, which turned out not to be true. Book chains made it possible for more people to find books where they shop and work.  One result was that best-sellers moved up from thousands to millions sold, good for everyone. The bad news was only for independent stores, which is a tragedy, with one half nationally already gone, closed and boarded up like Cody’s. And by the way, this  still upsets and makes me sad every time I see or think of it. There are some wonderful independent book stores left where I live in Berkeley, including Moe’s, Mrs. Dalloway’s, Diesel, Pegasus and Pendragon, with Book Passages and others nearby. But it’s tough, I don’t have to tell you of course, to survive and compete without a lot of us forsaking the few bucks discount and supporting our neighbors.

 As for the internet, it’s good for the author to be able to go directly to the reader, for information, inspiration, ongoing feedback and marketing. Publishers have been too slow to realize this as well as to fully embrace the value and potential opportunities of digital publishing with new content, old content repurposed, and new diverse platforms that deliver titles on Ebooks, cell phones, MP players, laptops, and who knows what next?

  Andy: I also have a bad feeling about the state of literacy in America. Again my own sense about this comes from the change of reading habits that I saw over the 30 years at Cody’s. It really seems that the Internet has had a huge impact on the way readers read. Reading requires patience and a long attention span. It is the medium where ideas can be expressed in all their complexity and with nuance. I’m wondering whether the Internet has created a world with attention deficit disorder.  Got any thoughts about this? Am I a hopeless dinosaur? How are these new behavior characteristics manifesting themselves in publishing decisions?

Alan: Yes, Andy, you are a hopeless dinosaur but charming and funny, so we love you anyway. Kids still read, just in different ways and forms. Reading will never die, it’s hard-wired. New evolutionary and neuroscientific research tells us that we have to tell and read stories or the species won’t survive. Never fear, there will always be print books and also more and more digital versions and types. And hey, as an editor I’m all for the discipline of having to fit thoughts into short forms like the 140 character tweet. Try it, it’s not that easy to do well.