Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Great Grammarians

Menaker, author of a memoir called My Mistake, started our at The New Yorker as a fact checker but rose to become an editor, particularly of short stories.

I loved Menaker's book, especially the several  hilarious anecdotes he recounts, such as, for example, the following few. (Note: Menaker writes in the present tense):

My mother arrives home [South Nyack] from her arduous commute to the offices of Fortune, where she has become a legendary copy editor -- an expert on grammar, usage, idiom. She was a Classics major at Bryn Mawr and knows Greek and Latin. She is beautiful -- she always wears her brown hair in a bun, always acts in a somewhat flirtatious way even with Mike [Menaker's brother] and me, always makes an impression of effortless good looks. She says to me, "When I got off the bus I heard one Negro boy on a bicycle say to another, who wanted a ride, 'Get the fuck up on the bicycle.'"

I have never heard her use those words before. She says, "I wonder what part of speech "the fuck" is in that sentence structure."


Before she dies, suffering from metastatic pancreatic cancer … she writes a last entry in her journal: "Is this what I get for feeling so superior my entire life?"


[At his mother's memorial gathering] the last person to speak is Greg, my mother's last boarder. He does a bad job, unfortunately -- choking back tears and speaking almost incoherently. It makes me angry.

But then I think how amused my mother would have been by this display, and that calms me down. And then I remember two incidents involving Greg that make my blood simmer all over again. Once, in the driveway at the Nyack house, Greg told me that he had been undecided about whether to take this course or that course at the college. "But I listened to God," he said, "and God told me what direction to follow. I heard His voice saying what I should do, and I felt so grateful." 

Ok -- that bugs me but really isn't so bad. Greg was lucky to have joe traffic-cop God pointing him in the right direction. But then, as he is still babbling and quasi-sobbing, I recall a conversation that my mother had with him shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She said, "I asked him, 'Greg, do you believe that when I die I will go to Hell because I haven't been born again? And he got upset and looked around and sighed and knitted his brow, and then he said, 'Yes, Mary, I'm afraid that that is what God has decreed. You will go to hell.'"

When she told me that story, I said, "What the fuck kind of religion obliges its followers to tell someone with a terminal diagnosis, a very fine and moral person, that they are going to Hell?

My mother said, "That she is going to Hell. Someone is singular."


Menaker's uncle left him a house near Great Barrington where, eventually, another New Yorker writer, the film critic Pauline Kael lived. 

She and I become friends up there, now that we have both left The New YorkerI’m visiting her at her house, on the hill above the town, one afternoon, sitting on the wide front porch. She has read a piece I wrote for the New York Times Magazine about Emmylou Harris and gives me a compliment about it. I tell her that once I’d been interviewing the singer, years earlier, backstage at Carnegie Hall after a concert, when we were both in our early thirties. She was in what seemed like a rivalry, a friendly one, with Linda Ronstadt. I’d fancied myself in love with Emmylou Harris, which distinguished me from perhaps four blind, deaf males in America. She turned away to say something to someone else, turned back to me, and said, "I'm sorry, Dave, what was the question?" I said, "It's Dan, but that's OK, Linda." She laughed. Ten minutes later, after circulating in the room, she came back to me and said, "We're going out to have some dinner. Would you like to come?" I said that I couldn't, even though I absolutely could -- because I was just plain terrified. So the point was I absolutely couldn't. Oh, oh, my mistake.

Pauline listens. When I finish, she says, "You asshole!"

I laugh and say, "Thanks, Pauline -- thanks for your understanding after I told you this mortifying youthful tale."

"You have to understand," she says. "I said that because when I was in San Francisco, at KPFA, Duke Ellington propositioned me. I was a young, swooning girl, but I said no too."

"I'm not sure 'propositioned' is the right ---"

"Asshole is."

Menaker says that the two stories The New Yorker published in his day [which number, by the way, is down to one now] were chosen out of some two hundred and fifty submitted. "So if, say, twenty-five of those submissions earn more than a cursory glance, then the acceptance rate from even that select group -- of approximately two a week -- is under ten percent."

Daniel Menaker (Google image)
I twice tried to be one of that "select group" that gets a story into The New Yorker. I never thought I was good at fiction; and I preferred writing letters to friends anyhow.  But then a friend named Cookie Mueller got a collection of stories called Walking Through Clear Water in A Pool Painted Black published (posthumously, as it turned out, sad as it was. But I love these stories; Cookie managed to make writing seem so effortless … basically just telling anecdotes from her own life, and calling them fiction. I told myself, "You can do that."

I wrote ten or twelve stories and mailed the one I thought had the best shot to The New Yorker. Someone had told me the magazine's fiction editor's name so I even addressed it to Daniel Menaker.  Back came this response:

I was thrilled that even though it was a form rejection, still it had a personal note.

Three years later (I'm really slow) I tried again with the same story, hoping to catch Menaker in-house. Rejected a second time, but also again a personal note and, this time, from "DM" himself.

So, despite having "a lot of energy" and being "lively" "The Snitter" didn't make the cut. It got put away in a box somewhere; I haven't seen it for years.

(And, eventually, I realized of course that you can't write like Cookie Mueller unless you are Cookie Mueller.)

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