In another post, recently, I wrote about the virtues of Michiko Kakutani of the NY Times — her invisibility except where it counted most: in her reviews.
But even there, she took books to task on their own terms. She didn’t make it about her.
I used to edit somebody at the L.A. Times who was the opposite of Kakutani in so many ways — every review was always about him. He was a mid-level critic with enough chops that my boss kept hiring him out … and I had to keep dealing with him.
Every phone call to discuss edits was a long, torturous discussion. Every edit — even to change an article (which are as neutral, and as trivial, as the stones along a hiking trail) — required considerations worthy of the Talmudic sages of old.
Ok, fine. There are plenty of writers like that. I act that way, too, when my own writing is under the microscope. Words matter, even the little ones … but hey, please, just don’t subject a poor sub-sub book review editor to such a long talk about it when a shorter one will do, especially when the guy has plenty of other editorial work waiting for him after the phone call is over.
But the thing I absolutely couldn’t bear was the self-dramatization in every conversation. This guy saw his own life in grand, heroic terms — and he narrated his latest experiences to me in terms that were just, well, weird. Here’s one example that I’ve never been able to forget. You may understand why in a moment. When I rang him and he answered, I identified myself and asked, benignly, “how’s it going?” and his answer was:
Well, you know, spring has come early to New York City. Everything is blossoming now, and there’s this riotous energy in the air that is making me feel sexually restless. I don’t know what to do with it. Once it awakens, you know, you can’t change it. I’m just feeling very sexual lately.
That’s cool, buddy, I’m glad you told me.
My wife and I had two baby boys at home, and our hands were full. This kind of talk didn’t just strike me as weird; it seemed incredibly naive and self-indulgent and typical of an academic bachelor with way too much time on his hands.
At any rate, the guy has gone on to fool several publishers into collecting his musings on various things, and recently a memoir of his was published … and thoroughly skewered in the pages of the TLS for the same reasons why I never looked forward to calling him to discuss my edits. His book sounds dreadful.
It’s been many many years since I’ve thought about him, but that review prompted me to recall our editing exchanges — and it was also nice to think that karma, though it may take a while, always arrives.
Keep going, my dear friends.