You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Invisible Ink

One of the most influential editors of the last century finally shares the secrets of a literary life.

Wikimedia Commons / Getty Images

For too many years I’ve hoped Robert Gottlieb would write about his long career in book and magazine publishing. As far back as 2009, as part of an online book club about, of all things, a Dan Brown novel, I wished Gottlieb, the man who may well define editing for the second half of the twentieth century (and a good part of the twenty-first), would “stop dithering and write his memoirs.”

AVID READER: A LIFE by Robert Gottlieb
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pp., $28.00

Most books about book publishing are long-winded, too full of self-absorbed bombast, or show why their writers were better off being editors or publishers or some other industry-related job. But Gottlieb’s memoir, here at last, is the exception. He waited to tell his life story because he was so busy working on the stories of others. The chapter headings reminiscent of Henry Green book titles—“Reading”, “Learning”, “Working” “Dancing”, “Writing”, and “Living”—suggest the perpetual motion of the present. Avid Reader, a delightful concoction of well-told vignettes from his stints at Simon & Schuster and Knopf, plus five years as the editor of The New Yorker, did away with my years-long impatience.

Gottlieb also hesitated to write a memoir because such books, in his estimation, “basically come down to the same thing: ‘And then I said to Leo, don’t just do war, do peace, too’.” That reasoning makes sense. Showing what goes into making a book often results in a commensurate loss of magic. The current publishing climate demands we peek behind curtains. We ask authors how their novels resemble their real lives or about their research process. Writers are practically strong-armed into promoting their books on social media, taking in effusive praise and scathing criticism (or, in this volatile climate, near-hate speech.)

The best editors’ memoirs revive the magic without devolving into nostalgia. At Random, the posthumous 1977 autobiography by Random House co-founder and media personality Bennett Cerf, is required reading not only for Cerf’s droll style in talking about his authors, but because of how he chronicles his life against the backdrop of great changes, from the family-owned smaller businesses of the 1920s to the first wave of consolidation in the 1960s.

Avid Reader succeeds on both counts. While Gottlieb glosses over technical details of being a publisher (though he relished every aspect), his career could not have existed without further waves of corporate mergers, the dawn of blockbuster advances and book launches, and the rise of the digital marketplace. Yet it is fitting Gottlieb finally tells his life story at a time of stasis, where digital sales are flat or declining, print sales are only “up” if you read the data the way you want, and Amazon is the mightiest corporation in the book space. A perfect time for reflection, then, until the next unknowable disruption.

Gottlieb dispenses with his early life (“Reading”) with brisk efficiency, running through the salient points: secular Jewish middle-class Manhattan upbringing, English literature education at Columbia and Cambridge, first marriage hastened by pregnancy and doomed to divorce, an early obsession with chronicling bestseller lists, the seeds of his lifelong love for the world of dance.

The “Working” chapters, beginning with Simon & Schuster, where Gottlieb rose to editor-in-chief, provide the substance of Gottlieb’s life. Long hours, editorial meetings he says he enjoyed (!), manuscripts edited on weekends and holidays, moody authors, and moodier bosses. S&S introduced Gottlieb to Nina Bourne, doyenne of advertising copy, and associate publisher Tony Schulte; the conviviality of this trio emerges with the requisite happy sparks. Which is why, when Gottlieb, Schulte, and Bourne defected to Knopf at the beginning of 1968, those sparks caught the fire of the larger world, meriting front-page news on the New York Times and other newspapers.

There are several circulating versions of how the defection happened. Michael Korda, in his biography Another Life, claimed chairman Leon Shimkin’s refusal to put Gottlieb in charge of the entire trade division was the deciding factor. Gottlieb’s version goes like this: “The simple truth was that as time passed, everything had become all too easy and comfortable for me—life in the office was like a daily party—and I was growing restive.” Moreover, further corporate mergers seemed imminent (Simon & Schuster is now part of CBS, itself spun off from Viacom) and it makes perfect sense Gottlieb, Bourne, and Schulte did not want to stick around for the result.

They were taking over a moribund house founded by a married couple, and the transition was by no means smooth. Blanche Knopf (“a tiny woman who looked as if she had gone straight from Dachau to Elizabeth Arden”) had been gone two years, but her husband Alfred A. Knopf still lived. Gottlieb recounts a time when Bourne burst into his office, a scorching memo from Knopf in hand “blasting her for daring to deface to Knopf name, history, aesthetic that he had spent a lifetime establishment.” Gottlieb was all ready to tell the old man where to go; Bourne’s alternative proved more effective, as, minutes later, Knopf appeared in her doorway with profuse apologies. After that, Gottlieb “began to see him differently: not as a brutal tyrant but as a spoiled baby who flew into tantrums when the nipple was plucked from his mouth.” They all got on enormously thereafter.

Gottlieb looks back on the Knopf years as “a time of accomplishment, fulfillment, and most of all, a good time.” His memory is selective, as is his right. He shouts out the women who made Knopf what it was in the 1970s, from Jane Friedman (publicity director, later HarperCollins chief executive), Vicky Wilson (still a VP, executive editor), Carol Janeway (the foreign rights director and translator who died in 2014), to Kathy Hourigan (who celebrated her fiftieth anniversary as managing editor last year.) But failures are completely elided; the writer and translator Sophie Wilkins, brought in as editor not long before Gottlieb’s arrival and fired in 1971, is not mentioned at all—unsurprising, perhaps, as Gottlieb admits he disliked firing people.

Drama accompanied Gottlieb’s arrival at Knopf in 1968 and his departure in 1987. He does not even devote forty pages to his half-decade at the New Yorker. Yet those pages convey all of the tumult and befuddlement that marked his time running the magazine. His initial meetings with Si Newhouse, who would be his boss, and William Shawn, whom he replaced, teem with awkwardness and passive aggression; they are men who can’t quite articulate what they want.

New Yorker staff, meanwhile, reacted to the previous editor William Shawn’s dismissal with outrage. More than one hundred of the magazine’s staffers and writers welcomed their new editor with a letter asking him to step down and reinstate the beloved Mr. Shawn. Gottlieb claims he did not take any of this personally: “I had forgotten The Letter within a week of my arrival.”

He also confirms a long-standing rumor about what happened in his final meeting with Newhouse, the one where he was fired. Gottlieb, in his telling, said Newhouse was upset, unable to sleep the night before, and was ready to outline financial plans when Gottlieb interrupted. Would he protect Martha Kaplan, his executive editor, and Chip McGrath, his deputy, in the manner he proposed? Newhouse would. Would Gottlieb accept the financial plan, which would “in essence make me financially secure (and beyond secure) for the rest of my life, and the same for Maria if I predeceased her”? He did.

So when Gottlieb returned to Knopf in 1992 to stay, as editor of Toni Morrison, Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Nora Ephron, without the responsibility of being the publisher—that became, and remains, Sonny Mehta’s domain—he did not take a salary. The media scrutiny fell away. The books, the work, sharpened into focus in a gentler second round, a round that hasn’t ended yet.

Avid Reader errs on the side of congeniality. Gottlieb, for all of his blunt prose, is a smoother-over, chiefly concerned with what needs to be done but careful to manage the feelings and egos of his authors and the agents who represent them. He speaks warmly of most authors, especially those who made the leap to genuine friendship (Gottlieb’s account of hosting Nora Ephron and her sons for months following the breakdown of her marriage to Carl Bernstein, the genesis for Heartburn, brims with affection) but even when the relationship is entirely between the author’s words and the editor’s red ink cross-outs.

One of Gottlieb’s most enduring friendships is with Janet Malcolm. “Because Janet’s writing is so formidable, people assume that she’s that way too, and she can be. But for us she’s nearest and dearest.” Charmingly, Gottlieb and Malcolm met through their daughters, who are six years apart in age, and cemented their friendship over Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners, early deaths (of Malcolm’s first husband, Donald) and despairing diagnoses (of Gottlieb’s son Nicky, whose early developmental problems were later diagnosed as Asperger’s Syndrome). This glimpse into his fondness for Malcolm gives us a sense of Gottlieb’s personal life, and his deep value of friendship as a strength and virtue.

When Gottlieb does venture into negative opinion, the judgment feels earned. On V. S. Naipaul: “I sensed a streak of narcissism in him, and too much (barely) repressed anger. He was also a snob. But what a superb writer!” On Roald Dahl: “secretaries were treated like servants, tantrums were thorough both in person and in letters” and when Random House head Bob Bernstein didn’t accept Dahl’s demands, “we sensed anti-Semitic undertones in his angry response.” And on Salman Rushdie: “From the moment he won the Booker, he seemed more demanding, less cordial.”

Candida Donadio, literary agent to Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth, and once a close friend, garners the most severe condemnation. “I found it very distressing that someone so talented and wise was reduced to what you might generously call fantasy or, less generously, lying,” Gottlieb said about Donadio’s insistence that the “22” in Catch-22 derived from her birthday. Nearly all of Donadio’s marquee clients would leave by the mid-1980s, leading Gottlieb (who himself broke with her after “a far more serious lie in a negotiation involving millions of dollars and a very famous writer”) to conclude that “like most boys, these ‘children’ of hers wanted to get away from Mom.”

I took heart, as someone steeped in genre, at Gottlieb’s lack of snobbery about popular fiction. Rather he understands, from decades-long work with the likes of Michael Crichton, John Le Carré, and other category masters, that bestselling fiction writers are, in essence, their own genre. “Detective novels are a genre, but so is Agatha Christie. Spy novels are a genre, but so is John Le Carré. And something I’ve always found heartening is that the reading public usually gets it right. Yes, there are inferior genre writers who become highly popular, but on the whole the most popular ones are the ones who are the best at what they do.”

Testing this theory by reading through a number of romance novels by Nora Roberts, Jude Deveraux, and Sandra Brown, Gottlieb was delighted to discover that Roberts, “by far the biggest seller of them all, was by far the best writer of them all.” In the long run, Gottlieb concludes, the public knows and responds accordingly with continued sales.

It is why, sixty years into a publishing life, Gottlieb is equipped to chronicle how the book business became more commercial and consolidated, even as the focus remained on the author. Much as we want to think of book publishing as a lofty ideal, it is hardly that, as any field with profit margins and budgets must be. But Gottlieb, as both editor and publisher, recognized you could make money, even a little, off books about dance, while making obvious blockbusters by Bill Clinton or Nora Ephron or Michael Crichton all the smarter.

That is because, of course, Gottlieb never forgets it is the reader who matters, since he himself is foremost one of those people. Throughout the whole book, but especially at its close, Gottlieb reflects without sentiment that “the end may very well be hard, but perhaps fate will be kind, and at least let me keep on reading for a while.”