Daniel Menaker

“Loaded to the Brink”

Saturday, October 05, 2013

I thank Mr. D. Wayne Dworsky for this four-star review of “A Good Talk” recently posted on Amazon.  As he has so many reservations about the book, I am particularly grateful for the four stars. Every star counts, and to over-star someone despite your apparently better judgment is an act of true generosity. I think the review speaks eloquently if sometimes mysteriously for itself. I particularly admire “Loaded to the brink.” That’s the way I feel many evenings, me and my sauvignon blanc.

4.0 out of 5 stars
A Good Talk Escapes the Prose, September 29, 2013
By D. Wayne Dworsky (New York City)
This review is from: A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation (Kindle Edition)

Since pre-civilization people have told stories and related new ideas. They talked. How can we mark this accomplishment among humans? While the author agrees with one scalar that gossip may have begun as a hands-free grooming practice among primates, he manages to bury important concepts by allowing his arguments to sit too loose.

With only seven chapters, the author attempts to define, categorize, discern and derive the concept of talk in a palatable way. Unfortunately, this organization is missing.

I found many of the so-called humorous anecdotes rather stilted and not so funny. In Chapter One, he uses a forkhead box protein P2 diagram to remind the reader not to forget the mutated gene for language skills; perhaps he meant it in jest. He proceeds to make use of arbitrary expressions to mull over a point.

The book is loaded to the brink with name-dropping, the kind of prose that forces you to stop reading in order to incorporate the importance of the mention of a particular person. These cause the author to stray too far from his point. It’s not that the book does not have something important to say, it’s just that it could have been said better.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

If you’re curious about this kind of thing–what goes on inside the submission process of publishing–there follow, a few paragraphs down, eight edited examples of the rejection notes I got, through my agent, for 25,000 words of a memoir.  The book is about my childhood, work at The New Yorker, and twelve years in the book business and is tentatively titled MY MISTAKE.  (The title seemed apter and apter as these “nos” piled up–if aptness admits of degree.)  Those who know the business may enjoy a guessing game here. Those who don’t may enjoy a glimpse of book-business manners and lack of them. I post them here because in a way they are all part of a coded conversation. You can read between the lines,  assaying  the praise for sincerity–I believe half of it, maybe, but am pathetically grateful for all of it, and  was of course inclined to accept all of it prima facie, especially “sublime.”  And finally, these notes give a taste of how disappointing and frustrating the writing game can be, especially these days. In  case you think it’s vanity at work here, remember this: a rejection is a rejection.

That said, there exist in my mind at least two perfect  examples of ego-sparing ways in which a book can be turned down. One is in Ian MacEwan’s “Atonement”–a fictional rejection sent to the novel’s protagonist from a real and very famous editor, Cyril Connolly, which includes such specific and helpful questions as “If this girl has so fully misunderstood or been so wholly baffled by the strange little scene that has unfolded before her, how might it affect the lives of the two adults? Might she come between them in some disastrous fashion?”  The other letter was perhaps an urban legend I once heard about a titanically self-effacing Japanese publisher who said, more or less, “Your book is so wonderful that if we were to publish it, we would have to go out of business completely, since we would never again be able to match its excellence.”

I’ve edited out only identifying information. And a deal has now been made, I’m glad to say–with a great publisher and editor.  If they had all declined,  it would have been on to Mushroom Spore Press, in Weehawken, New Jersey, and Raccoon Scat Books, P.O. Box 43,227, Winnipeg, Manitoba.  Or, seriously, self-publishing–an option that in fact gave me great comfort throughout this process, as the tide inexorably turns against the traditional model of offering books to the public.


Dear _____:

I regret I’m going to have to pass on Dan’s memoir.  I’m sure you and Dan will understand why this book would be tricky for us to do.  I remember Dan once telling me that he loved my “sense of mischief,” so I appreciate the spirit in which this came my way.  I’m sorry not to get the chance to work with him on this….

I particularly enjoyed the reminiscences of Pauline Kael and of the school days in Nyack, and Dan’s wry and bemused portrait of all the infighting and incestuousness at William Shawn’s New Yorker.


Dear _____,

Thank you very much indeed for sending me Dan Menaker’s My Mistake.  I truly love the narrative energy of these pages, the sharpness of the humor—which spares no one, including Dan himself….
That being said, I must add something far harder to say, and that is that I’m afraid that there is some concern here about the size of the audience for this book….Therefore, I feel I must decline, though I do so with regret, and wishing you and he every success with the book:  I am certain that you will soon find another editor who feels differently, and the right house for Dan and My Mistake.


Dear _____,

After much thought, I’ve decided not to offer on Dan Menaker’s memoir.  I loved the parts on the New Yorker – as did everyone who read it here.  But the family history sections, with the exception of the devastating pages on his brother, were not as striking — to me in any case….

Thank you and Dan for including me.



Dear ______,

I love the humor and playfulness and intelligence of Dan’s writing.  I have too much trepidation about the marketplace for a memoir to move forward.  I had previously suggested to Dan that he put his personal stories in the service of a larger idea, beyond memoir, as he did so well with conversation, but that’s just my bias.  I understand and appreciate Dan’s desire to tell his story in the most direct and personal way.  I’m sure he’ll do it brilliantly, and I wish both of you great success with it.  Thanks, as always, for the opportunity.


Hi, ____

The easy pass here is to say, truthfully, that _______ is largely in business to feed paperbacks to _______.  And I don’t think there is going to be much paperback action for a publishing memoir.  So it’s really not right for the list….
This book will get reviewed everywhere, but I don’t think we are going to be able to get readers to come to it based on the name dropping, and I can’t figure out how to position it in a bigger way.



Dear ____,

Thanks for the chance to consider Dan’s memoir but I don’t see this as working for me.



Dear _____,

Thanks for this.  Dan is a sublime writer and I enjoyed reading about his childhood…. But I’m sorry to say that I don’t think the draw of these subjects is strong enough to drive sufficient sales for us….
Thank you for letting me read this, and please give my thanks and best wishes to Dan.



Sorry for the slow response regarding Dan’s manuscript; I had spoken to _______ about it and I’ve been meaning to get in touch.

I enjoyed the pages. The two narratives bounce off each other in intriguing and suggestive  ways, and both are infused with great energy and charm; a tantalizing kind of tension is developed. The shifts between the two stories are sometimes rather abrupt, the pacing sometimes off, but I’m sure this will get worked out in the writing.

Ultimately, though, ______ and I felt we should step aside….

Thanks for the chance to look at the chapters; please give my regards to Dan. I hope we’ll connect on something else before too long,

Have a good weekend.


The last letter, from one of the smartest and most likable editors I know, gave me the best chuckle. I mentally filled in the blank inadvertently left by “I’ve been meaning to get in touch”  with “but there was a tiger sitting on my keyboard who would have killed me” or “Obama called me in for some help with killing bin Laden” or “but there was this one word in the crossword puzzle I just couldn’t get.”

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Now in Paperback

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The paperback of “A Good Talk” is out today. It has a new cover image, and in light of the recent vitriolic tone of public discourse in this country, I’d like to think that the book has a renewed timeliness.  “A Good Talk” was featured in The New York Times Book Review Paperback Row column last Sunday, and it continues to lead a modest but satisfying publishing life.  If you haven’t read it, I hope you will.

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Dan Talks to John Marks @ Purple State of Mind

Monday, March 29, 2010

Check out this new Q&A with Dan and John Marks of Purple State of Mind, an interesting and influential blog.

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The New York Times Sunday Book Review

Monday, March 22, 2010

“It takes nerve to write a book about conversation, given the well-conceived examples already on the market — Cicero, anyone? In this breezy primer, Menaker, a former executive at Random House, adds an urbane, contemporary cast to the discussion of what makes for good talk and why, drawing on everything from the dating scene to New York publishing gossip to studies on the hormone oxytocin to (how could he not?) Barack Obama.”

Read the full review here.

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I Stand Corrected

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

This is not a question, Dan, but I couldn’t figure out how else to reach you. I’ve just finished (and enjoyed, often laughing out loud) your new book but spotted an inaccuracy in the bibliography. You may know this already but, in case not, CONVERSATIONS OF SOCRATES was translated by Robin Waterfield, not Robert.


P.S. Haven’t seen you near my garden in Riverside Park for ages.

How embarrassing!  Where’s the hemlock?

Thanks, T.  Hope you are well.  And thanks for the perduringly beautiful garden.


“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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I Am Not Checking My Amazon Sales Rank Right Now

Monday, March 01, 2010

The only concession I’ve made to being a neurotic writer is to check fairly regularly* my Amazon sales rank and reviews for “A Good Talk.”  Oh, OK–I’ve also Googled the efforts at explaining Amazon sales ranks. But that’s it. I swear. Haven’t bugged my publisher, haven’t looked for where (and if) the book is displayed, haven’t harrassed the publicity guy, haven’t beleaguered friends and family with my highs and lows. As a publisher, I saw far too much of this behavior in others, and the person it ends up having the most deleterious effect on is the writer himself or herself.

The rank has been as high as 45 and as low as 12,000 or 13,000.  When I last checked–and I won’t tell you how recently that was, lest you get the wrong (that is, right) idea–it was about 6,000.  After a while you get used to this sort of metaphorical freestyle skiing course and can be at peace with it. And that rank isn’t bad at all. But the reviews!  The negative ones hurt in a way I didn’t expect they would, mainly because like most painful criticism, they hit a nerve. And because as far as I know, the negative reviewers are untainted by influence, personal opinions of me, or the need to curry favor.  So they just say it: “Disappointing.” “Elitist.” “Thinly disguised liberal agenda.” “Boring.” “Supercilious.”  And so on. I bet the system won’t allow you to do  no-star reviews, because if it did, I would surely have some.

The book itself counsels people to take seriously remarks in conversation that seem like insults or criticism, because often they contain a grain of truth that it might be helpful to think about. One Amazon reviewer said he put down the book because it has the word “aesthetical” on the first page.  I have to admit that he has a point.  There is some truth in the general consensus among poor reviews that my “voice,” insofar as I have one, is Eastern/literary/liberal and sometimes ironical.  Some people like that kind of diction–I’ve gotten many good Amazon reviews as well–some don’t.   But if and when I write something again, something book-length, I mean, I will in fact try to use plainer speech if I possibly can and if it comes naturally.  I do tend toward sesquipedalianism, and a certain arching of the eyebrow (the origin of the word”supercilious”).

Now I must run back to Amazon, in the hope I’m higher than 5,000. That is said to be a watershed number. I remember when I used to think that word was pronounced “water’s-head.” Hadn’t yet learned irony.

*less than the frequency of the #7 subway line in New York City

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

From the AARP book review:

Daniel Menaker began to fear for the future of conversation at his own dinner table: “Some friends were over and our talk was peppered with ’24/7,’ ‘pushing the envelope,’ and ‘at the end of the day,’ ” the 68-year-old New York editor recalls. “It made me a little insane to realize that business clichés had invaded my personal relationships.”

It also made him something of a dialogue doctor, intent on assessing the health and well-being of conversation in the land. His diagnosis, laid out in A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation, may hearten or deflate you—possibly both—but never again will you think of chat as a trivial affair. “We can enrich our lives by understanding the great rewards of good conversations,” Menaker says. “In finding out who the person we’re talking to is, we find out who we are.”

Intrigued by the book’s utopian premise—that “every time people talk together in a social and mutually gratifying way, the world becomes a better place”—I invited the author of A Good Talk to sit down for, well, a good talk.

Read the interview here.

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Cover of Publishers Weekly

Monday, January 11, 2010

Publishers Weekly features A GOOD TALK on their cover this week; read the interview here.

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@ the WSJ Speakeasy

Monday, January 04, 2010

PULMONOLOGIST (discussing treatment for a growth found in my lung a year and a half ago): There are two surgeons I would recommend. They are both excellent. One does not have a great manner but he is brilliant. The other I would send my mother to.

ME: (Find out by clicking this link.)

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