Talker in the City

So,” I say to Daniel Menaker, a former fiction editor at the New Yorker and for six years a senior editor at Random House, later executive editor in chief. “How did you get into an editorial career?”

He looks me straight in the eye and says, “How did you get into one?”

Asking questions while unflaggingly maintaining eye contact is very much on Menaker’s mind these days. He is about to make his debut as the host of an online book show, in which he’ll be talking to four writers per episode, and my visit to his apartment, though arranged to afford me the opportunity to inquire about his library, affords him an opportunity to practice interviewing. He has been analyzing the pros with an editor’s eye for detail. “Most of us look away a little bit,” he says, “but Tim Russert, for instance, doesn’t.” Then there’s posture. Menaker once saw a podcast of himself on a panel with several other editors and was not impressed. “It was as if I were some Russian melancholic,” he laughs, angling his head and shoulders morosely toward the floor—the legacy, he says, of years spent hunching over manuscripts. “I knew that my slouch had to be corrected.”

If you tune in to Titlepage—the first episode, featuring Richard Price, Susan Choi, Colin Harrison, and Charles Bock, debuts March 3, and subsequent episodes will appear every two weeks at—you will see a warm man in his sixties, not slouching, with strong features, curly gray hair, and a clear and pleasantly colloquial conversational style, who is well versed on all facets of the publishing industry, as well as on art, country music, and football. (As it happens, our meeting takes place the day after the Patriots-Giants showdown, and when Menaker’s son phones to check in, his father naturally excuses himself for a quick recap.) If Menaker does face a challenge, it might be staying in his seat. No sooner have we taken ours in the living room of his Upper West Side apartment than he is up again—to fetch a book he published by Matteo Pericoli called Manhattan Within, which features a foldout, color, 360-degree rendering of the city as seen from Central Park. We’ve been talking about the eastern view from the window, overlooking the water towers of West End Avenue and Broadway, and he has already pulled a watercolor off the wall to show me a Hudson view painted by the artist Nell Blaine—more or less what we’d see to the west if walls weren’t in the way. The piece was a recent gift from Menaker to his wife, Katherine Bouton, deputy editor of the New York Times Magazine; he jokes that he meant it as a placeholder until they could acquire the real view.

Books line the entrance hallway of Menaker and Bouton’s apartment, a fitting welcome to a household of letters. There’s no overflow in sight, as much of their library has been shifted off-site to their house in the country, which has a large barn. “It’s sort of like locks on a canal,” Menaker says. “When we reach a certain critical mass, we have to release pressure.” The fiction that remains—a largely canonical selection—is shelved alphabetically by author or subject, from Aubrey’s Brief Lives to Zola: A Life. An auxiliary set of shelves, set back from the main entrance, holds miscellany—poetry (including a first edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse), travel guides, and cookbooks. “I had what I called in a very vulgar way the friends shelf,” he says, “but my wife thought better of it.” As a novelist and short-story writer himself, Menaker rubs bindings with Claire Messud. The first piece he ever published, a prescient-sounding article on “Art and Artifice in Network News” that originally appeared in Harper’s in 1972, is anthologized in a volume called Television: The Critical View. Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics, the 1996 roman à clef about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign that Menaker edited while at Random House, is with the A’s for “Anonymous,” in accordance with the intentions of its mystery author, later revealed to be Joe Klein. Menaker, for whom literary discovery is clearly a joy and a priority, has also worked on novels by Gary Shteyngart, Colum McCann, Elizabeth Strout, and Benjamin Kunkel, and though preparation for Titlepage is taking up much of his time these days, he is still editing books; right now, he’s working on three or four, including a “wonderful first novel.”

Menaker’s shelves also reflect his long affiliation with the New Yorker, where as a fiction editor he introduced Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, Antonya Nelson, George Saunders, and many other soon-to-be-major American voices to the magazine’s pages and readers. “They were salad years for me,” he says of his tenure there under editor in chief Robert Gottlieb, in the late ’80s and early ’90s. His mini-library of New Yorker lore includes James Thurber’s The Years with Ross, Brendan Gill’s Here at the New Yorker, and Renata Adler’s Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker, as well as multiple works by two of the magazine’s illustrious alums, Thurber and E. B. White, and Katharine S. White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden. He also points out half a dozen books by William Maxwell, the fiction editor who took Menaker under his wing. “He really despised the word mentor,” Menaker says, “so I’d just like to say that he taught me a lot.” The teaching wasn’t always by way of encouragement, though. Menaker remembers one instance of particularly constructive criticism. “I tried poetry for a long time,” he says, “and after I got a couple of stories into the New Yorker, I gave my poetry to Maxwell, thinking, now’s my chance—all these poems that were rejected over the years, they’ll be published now. He took them home and came back the next day and gave them back and said, ‘Stick to prose.’”

Menaker’s first post at the New Yorker was as a fact-checker—he started in 1969—and he comes by his close attention to language in part from his mother, who worked as an editor at Fortune when it was “a hotbed of radicals—Archibald MacLeish, Walker Evans, James Agee, John Kenneth Galbraith.” Menaker used to visit her office in the ’40s and ’50s. “It was so exciting to go to that magazine when I was a kid,” he recalls. As for his mother, “she was a stickler,” he says. “She once threatened to disown me for saying ‘Tiffany’s’ instead of ‘Tiffany.’” Another time, he remembers, she came home to Nyack after work with a grammatical query that really caught his ear. She’d heard two boys talking when she got off the bus, she told him, “and one was giving a ride to the other on a bike, and he said, ‘Get the fuck up on the bicycle.’ And she said, ‘What I’m wondering is what part of speech the fuck is.’”

Titlepage seems a project tailor-made for Menaker, who is invested not only in sustaining good conversations with writers about books but also in sustaining good conversations with anyone, about anything. To that end, he is at work on A Good Talk, a guide to the art of conversation, scheduled for publication in 2009. “It’s a sort of literary how-to book,” he says. “I hope it’s entertaining but slightly advisory as well. Basically, I think young people need to know when it’s safe to swear and when it’s not safe. I find crap a word that is the turning point in a conversation. Probably you can go [only] a little bit further if somebody says crap to you.” Probably you can go further still as long as you sit up straight and look them in the eye.

Radhika Jones is the managing editor of the Paris Review. Her books are shelved alphabetically, when they are not piled on the floor.