Yelling at your editor

In earlier writing here on mentorship, I noted that you do not have to actually like your mentors to have a fruitful relationship with them. In one post, “Mentorship without Friendship,” I wrote: “A mentor sees in her or his mentee a devotion that is shared – or that could be – to a craft, a topic, or to an art. (It is almost never a shared devotion to a person.) … Friendship, if it happens, happens elsewhere, and later.”

I recalled these pieces while reading this wonderful interview with Robert Gottlieb in The Paris Review. Gottlieb, who passed away the other day, was an editor whose list of authors was so outlandishly esteemed, prolific, and indeed truly great, as to be, literally, incredible – but there you go, all those books are there and they surround us with art and majesty and more than a half century of true culture. In The Paris Review interview Gottlieb’s words are surrounded by those of numerous authors (Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, John le Carré, and others you all know), to illustrate the relationship between authors and their editor.

My favourite remarks came from Robert Caro, which oddly elated me:

I have a bad temper and, though Bob [Robert Gottlieb] would deny it, so does he. While we were editing we were always jumping up and getting out of the room to cool off. Now he, of course, had the great advantage over me because when we were working at Knopf he could leave and go to somebody else’s office and transact some business, but I had no place to go but the bathroom. I went to the bathroom a lot, as I remember. And oh, his tone! If you heard his tone! It gets me so angry I have to try to drown it out. I try not to hear the insulting things he’s saying because, as I said, I have a very bad temper. …

Bob and I would have big fights over colons and semicolons. Semicolons are not quite as forceful as colons. And dashes are very important to me—I establish my rhythm with them. We could spend a long time fighting over an adjective. We had such fights that sometimes he would bring in another editor as a buffer. …

In all the hours of working on The Power Broker [Caro’s book on Robert Moses] Bob never said one nice thing to me—never a single complimentary word, either about the book as a whole or about a single portion of the book. That was also true of my second book, The Path to Power [about President Lyndon Johnson]. But then he got soft. When we finished the last page of the last book we worked on, Means of Ascent, he held up the manuscript for a moment and said, slowly, as if he didn’t want to say it, Not bad. Those are the only two complimentary words he has ever said to me, to this day. …

We have, basically, no social relationship whatsoever. When the Book-of-the-Month Club bought the first volume of the Lyndon Johnson trilogy they had a lunch for me. Al Silverman, who was then the president, started the conversation saying, Well, you two must see so much of each other . . . There was an embarrassing silence—at that point Bob and I hadn’t seen each other socially for years. 

They shared a devotion to the same thing: the book. You couldn’t say they did not care about one another, because they did and they absolutely had to, but neither saw any need to like the other.

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