My Mistake/Daniel Menaker: Reflections

Monday, October 13, 2014

Daniel Menaker's memoir My Mistake fills me with a desire for confession.

I'll keep this unnaturally brief: Once, aged twenty-five, attempting to strike out on my own as a writing consultant, I misspelled the word "renown" in my proposal. I did not get the job. Once, after the publication of one of those Kephart memoirs, I discovered a mistake or maybe even two; I barely left the house for the next three months, afraid that any perceived movement on my part would lead to the discovery of my crime. Once, dead tired after a transatlantic flight, I picked up the wrong suitcase from the Heathrow carousel (see, even here, I am giving myself an excuse). Once, a few posts ago, on this very blog, I misspelled the last name of Eula Biss. I have been wrong and failed to apologize. I have apologized for mistakes I never made, also typically a mistake, for the gesture rarely silences the accuser. I have forgotten the lady's name at church. I have intuited incorrectly. I have supposed and I have suspected. I have given bad advice. I have been impatient. I fell on the double axle in my last skating competition while floating to a West Side Story number.

My Mistake. Singular. What a brilliant title for a brilliant book by a former fact checker and fiction editor for The New Yorker, former Random House executive editor in chief (he worked with Colum McCann, people), and still and always author. I have dog-earred one thousand of its 234 pages. I have felt a certain bliss just sitting and reading this personal and publishing history, gossip and innuendo. These stories about William Maxwell and Michael Cunningham, Alice Munro and Tina Brown, Anonymous and an MRI nurse with a ripe sense of humor. These explications of New Yorker style. These truths about the a death of a brother, the terror of anxiety, the budding of a new spring.

My Mistake is musical and funny, heartbreaking and consoling. It is insanely readable. It is the sort of thing I would have read aloud, except that I was on the SEPTA Quiet Car while turning many of its pages, and the rules were being strictly enforced.

Let me read out loud, then, on this blog.

On the cult of The New Yorker:
However consciously or un-, The New Yorker, a kind of Jonestown of the literary/journalistic realm, encourages in its employees an ethos of superiority, essentialness, and disregard for fad and fashion. Shawn himself, in his words and demeanor, appears to disavow any self-importance. He wants to be taken as a quiet, modest man who puts the greatness of the institution he runs above all else. This faux-modest version of occupational vanity, in combination with native timidity, keeps very intelligent people in the same, often dead-end, jobs for years, simply because they can say, in this modestly quiet voice, that they work for The New Yorker. Great institutions, so long as they are small, will often (a) eventually take themselves too seriously and (b) try to camouflage their pride with self-effacement.
On panic, a condition with which I am much too intimately familiar:
But for pity's sake don't dismiss this affliction as a chimera or a ruse or a plea for attention or any of the other at least implicitly condemnatory assessments that so many so often make of it. It is all too real, itself and nothing else, and it can be disabling. It came close to disabling me for life. The prospect of lunch with a colleague was torture. Flying was a sentence. Social life an ordeal. It's no wonder that with Valium always on my person and the need to lose myself in something that would take my mind off this dread, I throw my energy into fact-checking so violently. I start psychoanalysis and keep the Valium in the shirt pocket over my heart. This goes on, gradually abating, for many years.
On publishing:
It's my strong impression that most of the really profitable books for most publishers still come from the mid-list—"surprise" big hits bought with small or medium advances, such as that memoir by a self-described racial "mutt" of a junior senator from Chicago. Somehow, by luck or word of mouth, these books navigate around the rocks and reefs upon which most of their fleet—even sturdy vessels—founder. This is an old story but one that media giants have not yet heard, or at least not heeded, or so it seems.
Okay, obviously, I am a fan. Such a fan that I decided, mid-course or maybe sooner, to assign My Mistake to my Penn students in the spring. I can't think of a more complete introduction to life and forgiveness, facts and foibles, literary thinking.


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