Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing

Overview

For more than three decades, a quiet man - some would say almost an invisible man - dwelt at the center of American journalistic and literary life. He was William Shawn, the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker from 1952 to 1987. In Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker, Mr. Mehta, who started writing for The New Yorker at the age of twenty-five, and over some thirty-three years contributed such historic pieces as his brilliant study of philosophers at Oxford, and who was a friend of Shawn and his family, gives us the ...
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Overview

For more than three decades, a quiet man - some would say almost an invisible man - dwelt at the center of American journalistic and literary life. He was William Shawn, the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker from 1952 to 1987. In Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker, Mr. Mehta, who started writing for The New Yorker at the age of twenty-five, and over some thirty-three years contributed such historic pieces as his brilliant study of philosophers at Oxford, and who was a friend of Shawn and his family, gives us the closest, most careful, and most refined description that has yet been written of Shawn's editorship of the magazine. As Mr. Mehta pulls back the curtain, we see the workings of The New Yorker behind the scenes. The book will give intense pleasure to all who love reading and writing, for it is at once a tribute to William Shawn, a close look at the relationship between writer and editor, and a joyful homage to the inextricably linked arts of editing, writing, and reading.
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Editorial Reviews

David Bowman

Ved Mehta has suffered through every imaginable version of the literary willies, but not even he foresaw that his old colleague Lillian Ross would upstage his reminiscences of New Yorker editor William Shawn by publishing a memoir of her own. Although Ross, as everyone now knows, was intimate with Shawn for years in a cosmopolitan "marriage," Mehta's memoir begins as the stronger tale of passion. Ross just tells us how much she loved Shawn. Mehta describes the breathless excitement of being seduced (edited) by "Mr." Shawn step-by-step. We read of their first meeting. Mehta asking for a date (the submission). The acceptance. Phone calls ("I began sitting anxiously by the phone waiting for Mr. Shawn's call, as if I were in love"). Their first fumblings on a couch (the editing process). First glimpse of the beloved naked (the page proofs). First night together (the magazine on the stands).

But this consummation is over after the first 30 pages. What's left to write about? William Shawn is just an editor and Ved Mehta is just a writer, which means they both spend their working life sitting on chairs writing and editing (invisibly!). How lively is this tale, even if the vehicle of publication is the holy New Yorker? Among the big pile of usually self-serving New Yorker memoirs, only that blind man James Thurber's The Years With Ross (Harold Ross, the New Yorker's first editor) is a joy to read. Thurber's editor is no invisible man. Ross swears, fornicates and loses money at backgammon. Mehta's Mr. Shawn just "invisibly" edits and answers phone calls. Mehta makes passing references to Shawn's famous idiosyncrasies -- i.e. carrying an ax in elevators -- but never actually witnesses Shawn hoisting his blade to escape being trapped in a stalled lift.

But Mehta mostly writes about himself anyway. He's a fussy man who's always "desolately working" on a piece. He'll go on for pages about a lawsuit that never happens. About access doors in his apartment in the Dakota that get sealed up. He'll go to parties, and almost meet Greta Garbo. Or almost get into a fight with Norman Mailer. "Luckily for me," Mehta writes, "Lady Jeanne [Mailer's then-girlfriend] intervened."

Lucky indeed. Mehta is addicted to the anticlimax. Incidentally, Mailer threatened fisticuffs in conjunction with his accusation that Mehta was faking blindness. Our memoirist, you see, is as blind as Thurber. Mehta has been sightless since he was 3. But his real fakery is writing as if he possesses 20/20 vision. "Mehta plays an extraordinary trick on his prospective readers," a Times reviewer said of his work in the 1960s. "He [writes] as if he had normal vision." This blind man is still up to his old tricks. He tells us that Shawn has a "steady and penetrating" gaze and rhapsodizes about Mrs. Shawn's smile. Other times Mehta acknowledges his blindness subtly. He "suspects" that a "nubby purple" bedcover is "not in keeping with the neutral colors in the apartment." There's skill in the use of the word "suspects," yet all of Mehta's adroitness with prose is wasted on nubby purple bedcovers. Better to describe the fight he didn't have with that hooligan Mailer.

A former student of Mehta's told me an illuminating anecdote. Allegedly, Mehta doesn't use a cane or a Seeing Eye dog. He gets around by the grace of students and colleagues who guide him by walking shoulder-touching-shoulder. There is a formal intimacy about this gesture, as well as a sense of equality -- you're not "tugging" the blind man around by his arm. This method allows you to steer Mehta to the right or left of approaching puddles, mud, dog poop, etc. -- while you yourself are left awkwardly immobile and end up walking through the muck yourself. Mehta writes most of this book with the same kind of irritating obstinacy. Only the last pages come alive, when Mehta describes the dry tragedy of Shawn being pushed from the New Yorker and the former editor's "invisible" and lonely death.

Mehta is surprisingly gentle on Shawn's successor, Robert Gottlieb, a man who drove the antiquated New Yorker into pointlessness. And he has little to say about Gottlieb's successor, Tina Brown, except a delightful anecdote about meeting her in her office and sitting behind her desk in her chair.

Chairs. That's where every memoir of an editor ends up -- even one from the New Yorker -- unless, of course, you're sharing that editor's bed. -- Salon

Lisa Schwarzbaum
Mehta. . .coos and postures, fawns and boasts, doing his late mentor no favors by championing the cause of an editor who let this kind of prissy, snobbish wheezing go on unchecked. -- Entertainment Weekly
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A poignant tribute from a flawed but well-placed Boswell, Mehta's book revisits (through memories, letters and interviews) the career of William Shawn, who edited the New Yorker from 1951 to 1987. During his self-effacing stewardship, Shawn shifted the emphasis of the magazine from the satire and whimsy of his predecessor, Harold Ross, to serious in-depth reportage, all the while maintaining the elegance and integrity for which the magazine was famousqualities generally thought to have faded from its pages since his departure. As the eighth volume in the memoir series Continents of Exile, Mehta's account suffers from a dual focus. Like the real Boswell, Mehta (who joined the New Yorker's staff in 1959 and was "terminated" by Tina Brown in 1994) tends to get in the way of his more interesting mentor, dropping names, telling tales and settling scores with tiresome self-importance; at times his adulation of Shawn seems to call less for a memoir than for a few hours on the analyst's couch. But, even a decade after publishing tycoon S.I. Newhouse asserted his new control of the magazine by firing Shawn and replacing him with Robert Gottlieb, Mehta's nostalgia for the "old," independent New Yorker is still contagious. Indeed, once he jogs our memory, it comes almost as a shock that something as eccentric and rigorously uncommercial as Shawn's New Yorker could have existed so recently, or vanished so completely from the literary scene. In his chronicles, Mehta builds a powerful, very moving case for the punctilious, "invisible art" of his former boss. (May)
Library Journal
As editor-in-chief of The New Yorker from 1952 to 1987, William Shawn guided the exceptionally talented writers and artists who contributed to the magazine. Among these was Mehta, who, under Shawn's "inspired guidance" and infinite patience, developed from a fledgling 25-year-old writer into a highly acclaimed author. This memoir, the eighth in Mehta's autobiographical series, , focuses on Shawn's wonderfully gentle manner, his unerring ability to bring each published piece to artistic perfection, and his knack for maintaining high standards "in defiance of the demands of the market." With candor and engrossing anecdotes, Mehta portrays the unique ambience of The New Yorker. The final part of the book details the events that led to Shawn's dismissal and to a radical change in the magazine's style. An engaging narrative recommended for academic and larger public libraries.Ilse Heidmann, San Marcos, TX
Booknews
A memoir of writer Mehta's years 33 years of work with The New Yorker magazine's editor William Shawn. Mehta discusses the centrality of Shawn to what was arguably the high-water mark of journalistic and literary writing in 20th-century America and exposes the relationship of an editor to his writers. He also treats in some depth the final years of Shawn's editorship which finally ended in his dismissal by the magazine's new owners. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
A fond remembrance of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn and the changes that brought about his dismissal, by a former staff writer who spent three-and-a-half decades at West 43rd Street. Curiously, as this is part of his autobiographical Continents of Exile series, Mehta (Up at Oxford, 1993) sometimes paints his own story with rather broad strokes. Mehta does an extraordinary job, however, in describing what it was like to work with Mr. Shawn (as he insists on calling him) and his day-to-day editorial process. The opening pages are remarkable in demonstrating Shawn's ability to guide a writer from an initial idea to its shaping as a New Yorker article. But, as the ever- admiring Mehta sums up, Shawn's technical ability was the least of it: What informed and animated his editing were his judgment and wisdom, his thinking and vision. Shawn had been at the helm since 1952, following the death of founder Harold Ross. Mehta's recollections of his colleagues are often too scant, and one can sometimes sense the damning of his faint praise, as with Roger Angell. But the usual suspects are on hand: A.J. Liebling, Penelope Gilliatt, Edith Oliver, Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross, whose long affair with Shawn he mentions only in passing. His narrative thickens as he recounts office intrigues, the early intimations of Shawnþs eventual departure in 1987. He finds tremors as far back as the mid-1970s when mandatory retirement was instituted, displacing writers and editors intrinsic to Shawn's style. He also recounts inner-office power struggles that found Shawn turning in his resignation as early as 1978. It didn't happen, but it had a profound impact onhis final years at the magazine. Too admiring perhaps, as Mehta himself admits, there were too many long fact pieces that went unread and the fiction too often didn't go anywhere. Still, the high level of quality Shawn managed week after week is matchless, and Mehta effectively captures that era.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780879517076
  • Publisher: Overlook Press, The
  • Publication date: 5/28/1999
  • Edition description: EXPANDED
  • Pages: 414
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.23 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker

The Invisible Art of Editing
By Ved Mehta

Overlook Press

Copyright © 1999 Ved Mehta
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0879517077


Chapter One

A STORY IN
THE NEW
YORKER

    WHEN I WAS THINKING OF SETTLING IN INDIA AFTER graduating from Oxford--by then I'd been away in the West for ten years--I had written to Norman Cousins, the editor of The Saturday Review, who was a friend of my father's, for his advice on how to go about it. He had written back:

4 September 1959

Dear Ved:
    You want to know what the best way is of finding your way back to India. I should have supposed that the question should go the other way around. You will have no trouble in metabolizing your way into your homeland. Your country, on the other hand, may have some trouble in getting to know the new man that is you and giving you a place commensurate with your stature and capabilities....
    You are only now at the beginning. You have the responsibility, therefore, to do those things that will best contribute to your own continued development. Indoing this, you also serve your country and, in a more basic sense, the cause of people everywhere who want to believe in the limitless possibilities of the human mixture.

    Norman could be embarrassingly extravagant--even rhapsodic--in his enthusiasms, and this particular enthusiasm of his had the effect of making me feel uneasy. At Oxford, I'd become so sensitive to people's style that I was put off by his writing; many of the observations in his letter struck me as well-meaning rather than accurate. Still, my father, who had met him about a decade earlier, when Norman spent some time in New Delhi interviewing Prime Minister Nehru for his book "Talks with Nehru," set great store by his opinion, and I--in part, no doubt, because I had become blind shortly before I reached the age of four--set great store by my father's opinion. Moreover, Norman had written a high-flown, emotional review of my young autobiography, "Face to Face," which I'd finished just before going up to Balliol College, Oxford, as a freshman, three years earlier, at the age of twenty-two, and he had also put a drawing of me on the cover of his magazine. Although I was touched by that generous gesture, I felt that I could never measure up to his grandiose expectations of me. Yet my father, perhaps because of his upbringing in British India, seemed to think that doing well in life often depended on having friends in high places. As children, my brothers and sisters and I had all rebelled against this view of the world and had wanted to make our own way. Still, in some corner of my mind, without knowing it, I must have grown up to be my father's son.

    I had just spent two turbulent months in India--months that led me to postpone the decision of where I should live--and now I was on a plane taking me to New York so I could go to Harvard, where I had a prize fellowship to do a Ph.D. in history. I suddenly remembered Norman, and felt the need to explain to him and to others how India had affected me and why I had chosen to postpone my decision about settling there. In fact, I suddenly felt the need to write a sort of postscript to "Face to Face," to bring it up to date.

    The plane made a stop at London's Heathrow Airport, and I called Kingsley Martin, the longtime editor of the British weekly The New Statesman and Nation, and asked if he would be interested in my Indian article. I had come to know Kingsley, a man of shrewd, independent judgment, through "Face to Face." After it was published in England, he had written to me, "I have been reading your book over the week-end with very great pleasure. It is a book to keep and reread." Some time later, I had sent him a little article I'd written about my experiences at Oxford. He had rejected it, but with a very pleasant letter, saying, "My guess is that the time has come for you to work very hard on improving your writing. Not that it is bad in any way, but that you might be able to make it far better with pruning, compressing, and sharpening, However, we will talk about this when we meet." During my Oxford years, we became fast friends, and later he put me up for his club, the Savile.

    Now, when I got him on the telephone from the airport, he said, "We could always use a political article on India by you. But the article you have in mind sounds personal and impressionistic. That would not be suitable for our readers. What about trying your idea on David Astor?"

    I felt nervous about ringing Astor, the editor of the London Observer. Although I had several friends on the paper and had visited its offices, I knew Astor only by his reputation, and some of my reporter friends referred to him as God. In any event, I didn't think that my writing was up to his paper's standard. I was so much in awe of the Observer (as it then was) that whenever I could I read practically every word of it--even Katharine Whitehorn's column for women, on, say, "Tips to Mothers," for the sheer pleasure of her style. The paper had caught me a lot about England and the world, about the revolutions taking place in theatre and music in the late fifties, and about letters and politics generally. But now I decided that I would try Astor. His paper had published an extremely favorable review of "Face to Face." Moreover, he was a Balliol man and was known to be hospitable to people from his college.

    I got Astor on the line just as my flight was called. He's going to ask me to describe my idea for the article in two minutes, and I will be unhinged, I thought. Instead, he asked, "How long will your screed be?" His manner, at once grand and pointed, took me aback. Reaching for a figure out of thin air, I said, "Oh, thirteen thousand words."

    "The most we could do would be fifteen hundred," he said. "The American magazines like long, boring things. You might try one of them."

    Back on the plane, I told myself that since his paper ran to only fourteen pages he couldn't possibly use the kind of long article I had in mind. Still, his response, together with Kingsley's, left me feeling limp and discouraged.

    Almost as soon as I got to Harvard, I started making trips to New York and peddling the idea of the postscript to various newspapers and magazines. I had no trouble seeing editors. Some of them lorded it over me; Philip Horton, the executive editor of The Reporter, for instance, asked me how I thought I could aspire to appear in the company of luminaries like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who regularly graced its pages. Others--among them Carmel Snow, the chairman (as she was then called) of the editorial board of Harper's Bazaar; Irita Van Doren, the editor of the New York Herald Tribune Book Review; and John Fischer, the editor of Harper's Magazine--took me to lunch at expensive restaurants, like Chateau Henri IV, and listened to me with half an ear. A mere mention of the idea of a postscript, however, seemed to cast a pall over our meetings. After all, I was reminded, the book had been out for more than two years. If there was some additional material, it surely belonged in a new edition. Anyway, a magazine should not be expected to publish what seemed like an appendix to a book. For my part, I wondered how writers survived on nothing but lunches. I wished I could tell the basically discouraging, if hospitable, editors what I thought of them; but that, I felt, was a luxury granted only to those with private means and no fear of consequences. My series of dead-end conversations with editors should have made it clear to me that there was something wrong with my idea, but I kept pressing on, as if dogged determination were all I needed in order to succeed.

    Stopping in at Norman Cousins's office, I brought up the subject of the postscript with him.

    "Did you suggest it to Ted Weeks?" he asked. Aside from Norman himself, Edward A. Weeks, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly Press, who had edited and published "Face to Face," was my only real friend in the American writing establishment. The two men had so little in common that it was hard to think of them as working in the same field. Weeks was sedate and literary, his talk full of contemporary writers like Hemingway and of country pursuits like fishing. Norman was brisk and political, and what he enjoyed most was talking about world statesmen and big causes. In a voice that was as warm and rough as his handshake, Norman added, "I'm sure Ted would jump at the idea."

    "Weeks was the first of many editors to whom I've mentioned the idea, but he, like all the others, wants something short," I said. "He has all the good will in the world, but he's hemmed in by the constraints of space in his magazine."

    As we talked, Norman kept jumping up and taking from a bookshelf one or another of a group of primitive African artifacts he had collected on his travels, and handing it to me, then waiting expectantly to see whether I could tell what it was and perhaps whether I could admire it with my fingers as he did with his eyes. It seemed like a second- or third-grade test at a school for the blind. Even as I correctly identified the artifacts, I squirmed, feeling guilty at not being able to live up to his kind, outgoing nature.

    "What's this?"

    "A giraffe."

    "Why don't you do a thousand-word teaser for the S.R.?" he suggested. Atlantic articles finished just as one got really interested, but the ones in The Saturday Review--or S.R., as he called his magazine--were like little introductions to articles that might be written for The Atlantic one day.

    "I couldn't possibly," I said. "There is too much to say. But thank you all the same."

    "And this?"

    "A zebra."

    "How many words would it take, then?"

    "About thirteen thousand words, I think."

    "This?"

    "A rhinoceros."

    "I know what," he said abruptly. He opened his office door, stepped out, said something to his secretary, and came back in, almost in one swoop. He was restless and fast-moving, and seemed to be happiest when he was doing something active.

    Soon he was describing me and my project in lavish terms to someone on the phone, as if I were not in the room.

    At one point, I tried to step out, but he handed me the telephone, saying, "Talk to William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker."

    I had not heard of Mr. Shawn and was scarcely familiar with the magazine. But I was aware of its great reputation and its mystique--qualities that made me think it would be the last place to welcome a personal article by a struggling twenty-five-year-old graduate student. Yet I recalled that the magazine had published a brief review of my book and, in it, had described my character in one unsettling word, which when I read it gave me a shock of recognition. The word was "truculence."

    I now found myself speaking to a person whose voice was hard to make out. At first, I thought this person must be a very youthful man who worked for William Shawn. In my Oxford setting, voices had tended to be forceful. This one was quiet and gentle, and even seemed on the verge of a quaver, although it hardly ever actually quavered. It was very clear and friendly. Above all, it had not a hint of the self-importance or condescension I had come to associate with editors. But I soon found out that I was indeed speaking with William Shawn.

    "How long are you going to be in New York?" he asked.

    "Only a day or two," I said. Actually, I had planned to return to Harvard that evening and had made no provision for an overnight stay, and I had no money.

    "Would it be convenient for you to drop by today for a cup of tea?"

    I remember thinking how ironic it was that the editor of such a supposedly sophisticated magazine should sound natural. I was bowled over. "Yes, please," I said eagerly.

    "What time would suit you?" he asked.

    "What time would suit you?" I asked.

    He was reluctant to propose a time, and, although normally I would have taken the initiative, his courtesy was so disarming that I couldn't find my tongue. It took some negotiating in the manner of "After you" before we settled upon four o'clock.

*

    AT THE APPOINTED time, I went to the New Yorker offices, at 25 West Forty-third Street. On the nineteenth floor, I gave my name to the receptionist, and Mr. Shawn himself came out and shook my hand. (At other magazines, a secretary had invariably come out to greet me and usher me into the office of the editor.) I was interested to discover that his voice was as small as on the telephone, and also that he was a couple of inches shorter than I. I eventually learned that he stood five feet five and a half inches tall, had rosy cheeks and blue eyes, wore horn-rimmed glasses, and was dressed in a dark-blue suit, a white oxford button-down shirt, and black shoes. (I will explain in due course how I gather visual impressions.) The few editors-in-chief I had met tended to be tall, with big voices and big handshakes, as if having a domineering presence went with their august job. When I met with such editors, I had tried to adopt their bold, almost aggressive manner, feeling that if I did not deal with them on their own terms I would not be taken seriously. But Mr. Shawn's manner was so soft and guileless that I was caught off guard, and I found myself saying, "I'm so sorry I'm shaking so much, but I am very nervous."

    He laughed warmly, and that made me feel at ease. I noticed that he had a faint smell of witch-hazel after-shave, which I associated with my father.

    I followed Mr. Shawn along a couple of corridors, which had the hush of Sleepy Hollow and made me wonder how a weekly magazine was put out from those premises. We walked into his office. It was a large, cheerful corner room. On the walls were caricatures and drawings, one of them signed in a child's hand "Wallace." The desk had ranged across it neat piles of manuscripts and proofs, along with jars of pencils.

    Mr. Shawn offered me the end of a sofa near his desk. Most of the sofa was stacked with large manila envelopes, no doubt containing more manuscripts and proofs. Mr. Shawn sat down in an upholstered swivel desk chair--beside which were a typewriter and a telephone, and behind which was a stand holding the Second Edition of Webster's New International Dictionary--and turned to me.

    After his secretary, Pat Broun, brought us each a cup of tea, I suddenly realized I had his full attention, as if he had set aside all his concerns and interests and kept a completely open mind for what I had to say. The experience was so heady that my words poured out of me, and I found I was thinking and saying things about my project and about myself which were so honest that they almost invited rejection.

    "I am not a real writer," I said. "I just want to get a few things off my chest about Oxford and India--to update my autobiography, as it were, most of which I wrote when I was twenty."

    He said that he knew about the autobiography.

    I went on to say that at Oxford many of my literati friends had written for various undergraduate publications, but that I hadn't. "Many of them led a bohemian existence and engineered a coup in this or that publication, whereas I had a dark-suit persona and was so apolitical that I didn't even know the names of editors who decided which undergraduate writers got the limelight and which ones were snubbed," I explained. "Like many of my scholarly friends, I had mostly contempt for undergraduate publications and thought of them as 'rags.' Compared with the abiding values of scholarship and academic life, the posturing and self-advertisement of the literati seemed fleeting. At the same time, many of my close friends were literati, but they were both writers and scholars--were able, as it were, to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds--and I secretly wished I could be one of them."

    "Would you like to write about your literati Oxford friends?" he asked.

    "Oh, no," I said, realizing that I had gone off at a tangent. "I was just saying all that to tell you I am not a writer. I don't know why I am here taking up so much of your time."

    "You are not taking up my time," he said. "I am enjoying our conversation."

    "What I meant to say was that my time at Balliol College, Oxford, had a deep effect on me and changed the way I felt about India," I explained, and I told him that I had just spent two months in the country after ten years' absence, and had discovered that the India I'd carried in my head bore no relation to the real place--that my memory of that India might have been exceptionally sharp and vivid because I had been abruptly cut off from it when I was fifteen, and that my impression of it had become petrified because I had not been able to revise and reinterpret my childhood experience of it. My return had taught me that there was no way I could hold on to my romantic notions of the country while I was seeking to accommodate myself to the day-to-day demands of the real India. I went on to say that I'd had trouble coping with the combined excitement and disappointment of my return--with my relatives' treatment of me as if I hadn't changed at all, with their total incomprehension of the eruptions and landslides that had reshaped my soul in the West. Even though I tried to slow down my pulse rate to the, as it were, thin-blooded Indian level, I said, I found myself homesick for the West. In some part of my mind, I knew that I would not be in India long, so I avoided pressing any disagreements and didn't make any real effort to fit in. Indeed, I met up with an Indian friend from Oxford, the poet Dom Moraes, in New Delhi, and we travelled and bummed around like two spoiled Oxford brats, spending some time with extremely flirtatious but essentially innocent teen-age girls, whom we called the "pinks"; staying with a Nepalese prince who was reputed to have a flock of concubines and to fret about losing them in a revolution; indulging in spirited high jinks; appearing extravagant in a poor country; and adopting arrogant personae. The impulse behind much of what we did was self-protection, but whenever I stopped to think about our conduct I felt demoralized and guilt-ridden.

    Here I ceased speaking, for I felt that I had been blathering about all kinds of things that were perhaps only tangentially relevant to my Indian article.

    I thought that the reason I'd said so much might be that I had never before had anyone in my life listen to me at as deep a level as he was doing, with no wish to judge--with only boundless interest and curiosity. He seemed to listen with childlike wonder, his gaze so steady and penetrating that I felt he was looking straight into my soul. Most people in conversation tried to impress you, hurried you along, had their own preconceptions or agendas, or were distracted by their own worries or cares. In contrast, he seemed to absorb words as a musician absorbs music.

    "Is it your homecoming that you would like to write about, then?"

    "Yes, homecoming," I said, and I thought, "Homecoming" is much better than "postscript." His mere use of the word gives a form to all the flotsam and jetsam that have been knocking around in my head.

    "Did you meet people in India whom you admired?" he asked.

    "I wish I could respond to life with the idealism of Prime Minister Nehru, whom I got to know a little--I had lunch with him," I said. "He seemed so at peace with himself. He did not seem to be at all conscious of the power he had--in fact, seemed hardly aware of his gifts."

    "He sounds wonderful. You might find a way to write about him."

    I felt like saying that he and Nehru were kindred spirits, but I checked myself, because I had become aware that as I was talking almost confessionally he had listened to me with the formality of a priest, and that to say anything personal about him would be to overstep the bounds of propriety.

    "Do you think it's an article that The New Yorker might be interested in?" I asked abruptly. I had talked for almost an hour without getting to the point.

    After a moment, he said, "I don't think that your article sounds like a New Yorker piece--although I don't know what that is. But if you write it, and want to send it to me, I would be glad to read it and help you revise it. I would also try to think of a magazine that might be interested in publishing it."

    I felt a little disheartened. In some part of my mind, I had thought that his listening to me with complete attention meant that he would accept the article. I wanted to ask how I could go about writing an article for The New Yorker--for him. But I realized that if I did I would come off sounding like a child who was asking his father to do his homework.

    Instead, I said, "How long do you think the piece should be?" Not knowing what to say, I was trying to sound professional by asking him the question that editors had asked me, and for which I'd had no satisfactory answer.

    "You should not worry about that. You should simply write it to its natural length--whatever that is," he said.

    The simplicity of his answer dazzled me. I came away feeling that everything about Mr. Shawn and The New Yorker's offices was magical. How modest and unpretentious they were, compared with, say, the club-like atmosphere of the London Observer and its socially prominent editor.

    The next day, when I sat down to write Mr. Shawn a note to thank him for seeing me, I found myself comparing The New Yorker's offices to a sanitarium. I wasn't sure what, precisely, had given me that impression. Perhaps it was Mr. Shawn's profound silence and his attention to every nuance of my thought and feeling. Or perhaps it had to do with the fact that I longed for a sanctuary from what I felt was the anonymity and coldness of Harvard graduate school. Or perhaps it was simply that I just happened then to be reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night."

    As soon as I had posted the letter, I began to worry that Mr. Shawn would consider me mad for comparing the midtown offices of a magazine to a mental hospital. I thought of calling him and telling him not to read my letter, but then, I feared that that would only compound my mistake.

*

    I FOUND MY meeting with Mr. Shawn so inspiring that I wrote a piece within three weeks. I called it "Indian Summer," in part because my summer in India as an Oxford graduate seemed to mark a change in my writing from pedestrian and earnest to stylized and playful, with a corresponding change in my persona. (Friends who later read "Indian Summer" accused me of consciously trying to model my prose to fit the mold of The New Yorker, but in fact I became a New Yorker reader only after finishing my piece.) Coincidentally, the piece turned out to be fifty pages--or just about thirteen thousand words--long.

    The moment after I sent it off, I began rewriting and editing it in my head. Is the title a foolish play on words--should I have changed it? Is the tone too self-indulgent--should I have put more starch in it? Mr. Shawn won't like the "me" in the piece--I should have made myself nicer.

    I sent the piece off on a Thursday, and didn't expect to hear anything from Mr. Shawn for a month or two, since Weeks and Cousins, with whom I had some experience, had taken months to get back to me. I thought that, at most, I would get a quick note of acknowledgment from his secretary. But the following Thursday the telephone in my rooms in Eliot House, where I was a resident fellow, rang at about nine o' clock in the evening, and the caller was Mr. Shawn.

     "Am I calling you at an inconvenient time?" he asked. There was a little quaver in his voice, as if he had been lost in a manuscript and might be just coming back to the real world.

    I was so unnerved that I immediately started telling him what I thought was wrong with the piece, as if to have an alibi for his pending rejection.

    At the first pause in my apology, he said, "Thank you for letting me read your India piece. It is funny and marvellous. It will require some editing, and if the finished piece is agreeable to you we would like to publish it in The New Yorker." (The "if' concerning editing was not pro forma, I was soon to learn. A writer always had the right to withdraw his piece from the magazine if he did not agree with the editing, and he would still be paid for it.)

    The telephone almost dropped from my hand. I felt that his acceptance was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me--and, indeed, that first call from him was to transfigure my life.

*

    A WEEK OR so after that first call, Mr. Shawn telephoned again, also in the evening. He asked if it was convenient for me to go over some queries he had on my manuscript, and when I said yes he began going over them.

    At one point, he said, "In the fifth sentence of the third paragraph of your piece, when you are comparing Moraes to Dylan Thomas, you mention Thomas three times. Each time, you refer to him as 'Dylan.' That sounds as if you were being familiar with him--something I don't think you'd want to do. Also, a sort of cult has grown up around Thomas's memory, and you wouldn't want to sound as if you were a part of it. Would it be all right with you if we used his full name at the first mention and thereafter called him 'Thomas'?"

    "But at Oxford when people were comparing Dom--I mean Moraes--to ..." I hesitated, because I now didn't know whether to say "Dylan" or "Thomas," or, whether I should even say "Dom." (I later realized that this was probably the beginning of a protracted period of self-consciousness about my talk, in which I tended to edit my speech almost as if it were a piece of writing that would be scrutinized by Mr. Shawn.) "Well, they just said 'Dylan.'"

    But then when they were talking about Sir Isaiah Berlin they also probably just said 'Isaiah,'" Mr. Shawn observed. "People at Oxford probably assumed a certain familiarity with one another because they thought of themselves as members of an Oxford family."

    "But wouldn't calling him 'Thomas' change the informal tone of the piece?" My question was in the spirit of a student wanting to learn--not in that of one seeking to challenge his teacher's judgment.

    There was an audible silence on the telephone; I could almost hear Mr. Shawn studying the sentence. "I don't think you lose anything by calling him 'Thomas,'" he said, and he read out the amended sentence: "He wrote like Dylan Thomas, he was lovable like Thomas, and, like Thomas, he was a ladies' man."

    As he read, I immediately saw that his change had made an improvement. "It sounds better," I said, feeling happy in a surge.

    "Should I then call Dom 'Moraes'?" I asked, catching myself thinking about the text as he did, and raising a kind of question I thought he would raise.

    "Oh, no," he said. "The two of you are friends, travelling in India. In the fifth paragraph--" He started reading.

    "That won't be necessary," I broke in. "I know the manuscript almost by heart. I am worried about taking up so much of your time and running up a big telephone bill."

    "You shouldn't worry about any of that--it's just part of the routine of getting out the magazine," he said reassuringly.

    "Still, this must be so laborious for you. Wouldn't it be easier just to mark up the manuscript and send it to me?"

    "We'll handle proofs by mail. But I would like to get the piece into type, so that we can perhaps get it into the magazine in the next few weeks, when we have more columns for editorial matter, because of the Christmas issues coming up." He resumed, going back to the text, "In the fifth paragraph, in your sentence 'Dom who has come to New Delhi with his father has spent some weeks in Bombay doing much the same thing I have been doing,' is it all right to enclose the 'who' clause in commas?"

    "Why do we need the commas?"

    "Without them it sounds as if there were more than one Dom, and one of them had come to New Delhi with his father."

    I was about to say that that seemed far-fetched--that it was a rather Jesuitical distinction--but I found I agreed that his change would make the sentence clearer.

    There was a pause, and I could hear him flipping pages back and forth rapidly.

    "I'd like to plant the word 'bummy' in the first sentence of the lead," he said. "And then repeat the word, or 'bumming,' in these sentences in the paragraph." He read out the proposed sentences: "'Before spending a bummy month together in India, Dom Moraes and I were great friends at Oxford.... I am not quite sure what friendship means elsewhere, but at Oxford it means being able to spend a whole day together--that is, from breakfast to bedtime--and being able to roam from room to room, sometimes bumming drinks, sometimes taking along hip flasks and sharing drinks with other friends.... At Oxford, we worked frightfully hard perhaps for five or six days, five or six weeks, and after this intensive period we took a physical and spiritual holiday, bumming and being amiable, visiting and being visited. These bummy days were an Oxford specialty.'"

    "By my count, that makes no less than--" I broke off, realizing that I should have said "no fewer than," and quickly corrected myself. "That makes no fewer than four 'bummy' words in a paragraph of about thirty lines. Doesn't that seem a little heavy?"

    He paused, apparently studying the sentences, and then said, "I don't think so. I think 'bummy' helps to establish that the way you conducted yourself in India was out of character--that you are not normally as rakish and irresponsible as you appear in this piece. The repetition would set the tone of your high-spirited Oxford holiday in India. But when you get the proof you can look at it and we can consider the question again."

    It soon became clear that Mr. Shawn would not change a word or a punctuation mark without first consulting me. Yet I was twenty-five and inexperienced, with a foreigner's shaky grasp of English, and with only one simply written book to my credit. I wrote mostly by the way things sounded. For example, I had so little understanding of the use of a comma that I put it in anywhere I thought I needed a pause in a sentence, without understanding the rationale for it. But I was wary of exposing my ignorance of such matters to Mr. Shawn. At the same time, I didn't think that there was any point in trying to bluff him. Not only did I imagine that he had X-ray perception and could see directly into my brain but I wanted to be as honest with him as he was with me. I decided that I would be like the English and somehow muddle through.

    As our conversation continued, I was sometimes able to guess his explanations before the words were out of his mouth. There were many more times, however, when I was stumped by the reasons for his changes, and he then carefully explained them to me. In any event, his suggestions for changes were always offered as "fixes." And if there was a lacuna in a thought, and it required an addition, he would offer me a "dummy" phrase or a "dummy" sentence, and ask me to put it in my own words. I would have to think on the spot and stumble through my emendations. He would take them down like a scribe and edit them there and then. Having him go over my text was like being back in an Oxford tutorial and having my tutor go over my essay, word by word. It was an education in itself. But sometimes, even if I agreed with Mr. Shawn that my version was grammatically infelicitous, I would not adopt his suggestion, because I was attached to the way I had put something. Then, in order to be as considerate of him as he was of me, I would laboriously give my reasons, such as they were. He would retreat at the first sign of resistance, for he seemed never to lose sight of the fact that it was my piece and should be improved only if I wanted it to be.

    Mr. Shawn grasped my objections or modifications so fast that I got the impression that he had the entire piece in his mind, as if it were out of time--as if it were a painting. And not once did he make me feet that lie was the dictatorial editor and I was a supplicant writer. There was not so much as a hint of coercion or condescension in his style. His only concern seemed to be the artistic perfection of the piece, his only aim to make it accurate to the experience and courteous to the reader, irrespective of its complexity or its length. His fixes, however, were never designed to write down to the reader. Quite the contrary. Since he didn't know who the reader might be, he worked as if he and I were the ideal readers: he assumed that if we liked something the readers would like it, too. Under his inspired guidance, I was learning that a writer and an editor had a higher calling than self-glorification--that they were partners in a search for truth. I fell completely under the spell of his manner--kind, courtly, respectful, and patient. The editing process was arduous and time-consuming, since there was hardly a paragraph that was not touched. Yet he made our work, which could so easily have degenerated into a power play, intensely pleasurable. All the while, I felt that he was sensitizing me to the force and the importance of each word--to its weight, tone, and texture--and was teaching me new ways not only of writing but also of thinking, feeling, and speaking.

    How different was Mr. Shawn's process from that of Mr. Weeks--as I was now thinking of him, though I had ventured not long before to address him as Ted. Mr. Weeks had published a couple of extracts from my book in The Atlantic. Any editing of those sections of the manuscript had been done without reference to me. He had just sent me proofs of the articles and asked me to look them over. To avoid expense, I was to make only changes that were absolutely necessary, he had told me. More often than not, his own changes had seemed to me to be directed at enhancing the articles' readability and commercial value. When I made some substantial changes on the magazine proofs, he had telephoned me; the bottom line of the call was to tell me in a gentlemanly, good-natured way to keep down the printer's bill.

    Mr. Shawn's call went on for about two hours. As I was thanking him and saying goodbye, I remarked that the piece belonged as much to him as to me.

    "No, it belongs to you--I just made it more yours," he said.

Continues...


Excerpted from Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker by Ved Mehta Copyright © 1999 by Ved Mehta. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

PHOTOGRAPHS xiv
I. A STORY IN THE NEW YORKER 3
II. THE SIGHTED BOOK 43
III. FROM ELIOT HOUSE TO THE PICASSO 63
IV. EMBARKING ON A DANGEROUS PROFESSION 92
V. ELEVEN-FIFTY 153
VI. JACKKNIFE BEN 170
VII. FLIGHT OF CROOK-TALONED BIRDS 195
VIII. PINNING THE BUTTERFLY 226
IX. UNDER A TOLERANT ROOF 267
X. EARLY TREMORS AND SHOCKS 297
XI. THE SUCCESSION PROBLEM 314
XII. "BEING HONOUR BRED" 357
XIII. AFTERMATH 388
EPILOGUE 407
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