My Mistake

A bout with cancer--now in remission--led Daniel Menaker (Good Talk) to reflect on his past and his career in publishing in My Mistake, which is marked by a breezy wit and fascinating insider portraits of people with whom he has worked over the years.

Menaker's "demanding, deep, wide in scope" classes at Swarthmore prepared him intellectually and emotionally for the work he would do later and the losses (parents, brother) he would suffer. He reads a piece by Tom Wolfe about the New Yorker, then edited by William Shawn, and its "hermetic, self-involved, highly ritualized life." He applies for and lands a job at this "brilliant crazy house."

He starts as one of the legendary fact checkers. After publishing his first story in the magazine, he moves up to copy editor, and eventually, he becomes the magazine's fiction editor. After Tina Brown takes over, the amount of fiction is cut in half, "shunted from the front of the magazine to the back." So, after 26 years, when an opportunity to join Random House comes along, Menaker takes it. His first acquisition: George Saunders's CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.

He quickly learns the business. "150 more or less worthwhile books are published every week in this country," he reports--all part of a "grand cultural roulette" in which your chances of winning are very small. He becomes Random's editor-in-chief, and works with some very fine writers: David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie, Michael Cunningham, Elmore Leonard, Billy Collins, Elizabeth Strout and Colum McCann, to name a few. "I have never seen better days. No mistake." --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

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