Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff's 'Commentary' Days
That afternoon's meeting moved along with a relaxed dispatch, with Norman keeping a surprisingly easy hand on the wheel. I'd expected him to run the magazine with the same hard-driving authority out of which he wrote and that he had occasionally summoned when sizing me up. But now he acted as though his opinion was worth no more than ours, and the discussion was much more collegial than most of those at the English staff meetings at the University of Chicago, where everyone was vying for position, even an adjunct like me who hardly had one. When the article on the change in medical governance came up, Norman read my comment about how badly it was written, tossed it my way and said, "We agree. But it's an important piece. It just needs heavy editing. See what you can do."
Clearly I was being tested, maybe even having my feet set on the road to the slaughterhouse. I'd thought that editing a magazine as consistently well written as Commentary was like umpiring, calling the pitches and occasionally dusting off home plate; working on "Medical Care and the Consumer" was more like do-it-yourself plumbing, water rippling all along the ceiling and I having barely a clue of how to locate or fix the leak.
There was no question of going to Norman for instruction or even a few tips; if he had wanted to give me any, he would already have done so. Nor did I feel I could ask Sherry for help. I had been brought in as an associate editor, I was being treated as one and I should know what to do. What I knew how to do was to help students with various bad habits and ignorances write better. But the author of "Medical Care and the Consumer" was hardly a freshman and hardly ignorant. He wrote like a bureaucrat but clearly knew what he was writing about, unlike myself. He was also an official of the American Jewish Committee and worked on the next floor.
Faute de mieux, I began to practice what I'd been teaching on the clogged syntax and denatured diction of Martin T. Price, as I'll call him, though proceeding much more cautiously than I would with a student's writing. The trick, I thought, was to boost the writing to high-level journalism while maintaining as best I could the author's organization; the sentences that more or less worked, however dull; and, as much as I could, the authority of his voice. I spent most of the week in the office as well as evenings at home trying to carry out these mismatched tasks, often erasing and revising my own editing in the margin.
I finally decided I could do no more--or less--with Martin T. Price and brought the edited manuscript to Sherry. I asked her whether I should send it upstairs to the author or ask him to come to my office and go over it with him there. Also, could she look it over and see if it was OK?
Sherry, who always kept her office door open, was about twenty years older than Norman or I, less motherly than big-sisterly, less big sister than a still-vital woman who liked young men. Handsome and leggy, often wearing net stockings, she had long, dancing eyes, a repertory of smiles and giggles and an arty fringe of hazel-gray curls. Sister to the famous Trotskyist lawyer Albert Goldman, who had gone to prison with his clients, Sherry had been married to the playwright, critic, Village flâneur and provocateur par excellence Lionel Abel, who still hung around her, and she had spent a number of years in Paris, where she had been great friends with Henry Miller and Wambly Bald (the original of the priapic Van Norden in Tropic of Cancer).
On the other hand, she was all business. When I brought the marked-up manuscript to her she took it out of my hand, read a little and handed it back. "Ted," she sighed, "this is barely legible, much less readable."
"I thought you could tell me if I'm on the right track. I've still got his original version so I can transpose my changes before I send it to him or have him come in."
"But everything will have to be retyped anyway, my dear. Give this to your assistant to do and then I'll look it over."
"But should it be retyped before the author sees my changes? Isn't that pretty presumptuous? And what about my suggestions to him?"
"Commentary editors, dear Ted, are very presumptuous. It's part of our role. It's how we've managed to publish so many sociologists and rabbis. Also, the ones who write this badly are not as interested in our suggestions as they are in being published in our magazine."
I had the piece retyped and gave it to her. She read the first page, glanced at the rest and said, "I'd say it's about halfway to being a Commentary piece."
"Halfway? There will hardly be anything of Price's left."
"Sure there will," she said. "There will be his information and your presentation of it. As Norman likes to say, 'Put it through your typewriter.' And right away. We close the issue on Friday and Price's piece is in it."
"Without him seeing it?"
"Oh, he'll see it in galleys, and I'm sure he'll be very pleased by how good you're going to make him sound."
"But that's completely rewriting it."
"Of course it is. Just remember, Ted, that you don't have to please the author. You have to please Norman and me."
I did what she advised. I quickly looked over a couple of recent pieces on a topical social issue, picked up what seemed to be a basic Commentary tone and then ran my typewriter like a power mower through Price's remaining verbiage and my cautious trims and borders. Much relieved as well as pleased by the skill I was discovering, I was still hard at work the next day when Sherry came into my office and asked where the piece was.
"I'm just about finished. I'll have it to you by five o'clock."
"But we're closing the issue this afternoon."
As she spoke, she noticed the piles of manuscripts on my desk and other piles on the chair and window ledge. "My, you have a lot of manuscripts. I'll bet you have as many manuscripts as the rest of us put together. Haven't you returned any yet?"
"Of course I have. These are mostly from people I've been corresponding with."
"Corresponding with?" She took it in, turned it over and then said with mock gentleness, "Oh, dear Ted, you've made a discovery, haven't you? You've discovered that behind every manuscript is a soul. But now you must make another discovery. You must discover that some souls are worth a hell of a lot more than others."
The Price piece passed under her blue pencil pretty much as I'd rewritten it. "Not bad," she said. "But you're going to have to be faster and on time."
I could see that unless I wanted to become the Miss Lonelyhearts of the unpublished, I would have to restrain my helping hand, and if I were going to prosper here, I'd have to be more hardheaded. If I was going to be a mensch as an editor, I first had to become an editor.