Daniel Menaker

By Popular Demand

Sunday, June 05, 2016

“By popular demand” indicates that more than one people have demanded whatever it is. Gary Krist asked that I tell about the other person to whom I will not speak. I need one more people to demand it, to make the demand popular. Hmm. Let’s see. OK–*I* demand it.

The other person is Sean Wilsey, whose memoir, “Oh the Glory of It All,” I acquired going on many years ago now. I liked the book a lot–it told a good story about growing up rich and dysfunctional in San Francisco, with one of the best early paeans to skateboarding I know of and what I recall as a hilariously terrifying account of his mother at one point suggesting to him that they both commit suicide. I made an offer for the book, got it. I was Editor in Chief then and was utterly flooded with work, and I didn’t get around to reading and working on the manuscript for four or five weeks, though I think I officially accepted it pretty quickly.

Sean let me know of his impatience. He was going to move the book. I asked him for more time, read it and edited it as quickly as I could–I knew it was going to be successful.

He told me that he had decided to move the book, to Ann Godoff, at Penguin Press, my good former boss at Random House who was fired in a horribly public, shaming way. Just so you know, this means that Sean was breaking a signed contract, presided over by Ann herself, before she was run out of town. But signed contracts in book publishing often hold as much weight as a cotton candy would. (Later on, a writer who had a first-reading agreement with RH sold his book to another publisher without giving us that first or any other look. I called the agent and said, “Hey, we had an option on____’s next book. What’s going on?” She said, “I forgot.”)

I asked Sean to come into my office and he came in bravely, and I will say he took my tirade well. I think it was the only professional tirade I ever delivered. At one point, Sean wiped his brow in an almost cartoon-like way. Four weeks is not a long time to turn a manuscript around. The book whose cover is this blog’s image–“The African Svelte”? Eight weeks. And the editing, by Jenna Johnson, who has since left Houghton Mifflin, was superb. Anyway at one point, I asked Sean if Ann had actively tried to lure him away, and he said, “No–when I talked to her about how long it was taking, she just said, ‘I’m here for you if you need me.'”

It was humiliating for me to have to tell my new boss, Gina Centrello, about this failure on my part and malfeasance on the author’s. She was incredibly nice about it. I was just boiling with anger at Sean, and Gina was pretty philosophical about the whole thing.

By the way, I lied. I didn’t really edit the book after four weeks. I couldn’t. I didn’t really ever edit it thoroughly, even though in an effort to keep it, I gave Sean an edited manuscript. I was too overwhelmed with administrative responsibilities and other proposals and manuscripts. I asked my assistant, Stephanie Higgs, to read and make editorial suggestions about the manuscript, and, reader, I redid some of them in my my own handwriting and added occasional comments and commas of my own. Cringeifying!

To some extent, what Sean did was a fair comeuppance for me. Maybe he intuited that in addition to the four-week delay, I had, largely unconsciously, been taking him and his work a little for granted. He was much younger, callow, spoiled, in my opinion, a kind of literary peon, however accomplished, in comparison to me, master of at least some of what I surveyed. He could wait for my attentions.

That last paragraph: probably the sequellae of too much analysis. However patronizing I may have been–and it wasn’t very–this guy broke an agreement, undertaken by Random House with admiration and enthusiasm, and with a a pretty high $offer. Afterward, I ran into Sean a few times at this or that book party. He came up to me to try to talk. No thanks.

By the way, I once posted about ordering from a Chinese restaurant and hearing the woman on the other end ask, “Do you want utensirs?” Gary Krist, one of the two online begetters of this post, chided me a little for this touch of P.Un-C, suggesting that I had been drinking. There was a little back and forth about “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and so on, an eventually I malbecianly unfriended him. He messaged me, to the effect of what?! Had I really unfriended him? I friended him again and now considel Galy Klist a good fb fliend.

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2 thoughts on “By Popular Demand

  1. Ann Banks says:

    That’s the worst thing that ever happened to you in your publishing career?! Clearly you never had any dealings with Bill Clegg.

    • Daniel Menaker says:

      I don’t think I said it was the worst thing that happened to me in publishing–I just said it infuriated me and led to my (admittedly pointless) refusal to speak to Sean W. The worst thingthat happened to me in publishng was losing Atul Gawande’s first book after having finally convinced him and his agent that a collection of his New Yorker pieces would “work,” based on the long-ago bestsellerdom of Berton Roueche’s collections, including “The Blue Man.” It did. Work.

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