The book editor who loves to read, loathes to write

Robert Gottlieb’s long-awaited memoir is titled Avid Reader.
Robert Gottlieb’s long-awaited memoir is titled Avid Reader.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • For the past 20 years or so, Mr Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has been pressing renowned editor Robert Gottlieb to write a memoir.

Over and over, Gottlieb refused. Writing about himself felt selfaggrandising and unseemly.

"I had no interest in writing a memoir," he said during a recent interview at his airy, Midtown Manhattan town house to discuss Avid Reader, his new memoir. "First of all, I dislike writing. I was never the editor who wanted to be a writer. Writing is hard."

As the title of his book makes plain, Gottlieb, 85, is a voracious reader, even by the standards of his profession. But he is a deeply ambivalent writer, particularly when the subject is himself.

I had no interest in writing a memoir. First of all, I dislike writing. I was never the editor who wanted to be a writer. Writing is hard.

EDITOR ROBERT GOTTLIEB, who caved in to requests for him to write a memoir

"I don't think about myself very much, which for someone who has written an endless book about himself, seems odd," he said.

He finally relented when his daughter, Lizzie, a documentary film-maker, badgered him to write about his life's work. She wanted his grandsons, 13-year-old twins, to be able to read about his life and work - a career spent shepherding literary classics by John Cheever, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison and Ray Bradbury, among others.

It took him about a year of writing in fits and starts to finish the manuscript. In moments of despair, when he felt incapable of setting down words, Gottlieb took his own advice, which he has doled out to countless blocked writers over the decades: Don't write, type.

It was not just an intense aversion to writing that made Gottlieb wary; after all, he has written extensively on other topics, including jazz and dance.

He also felt squeamish about taking credit for his role in the creation of some of the 20th century's enduring literary masterpieces.

Without his nudging and tinkering, Toni Morrison's Sula, would have an entirely different opening chapter; Joseph Heller's Catch-22 would have been titled Catch-18, and John Cheever's novella Oh What A Paradise It Seems would have had a completely different ending. But Gottlieb feels weird acknowledging that.

"It's inappropriate for editors to be glamorised and revered," he said. "I don't want to be the person in the spotlight."

He might have to tolerate the attention, at least for the moment.

Avid Reader, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux published this month, has generated the kind of rapturous praise that has often been lavished on Gottlieb's authors.

The Washington Post called it "splendid". Kirkus Reviews pronounced it "endlessly captivating".

In The New York Times, Dwight Garner described it "an indispensable work of American publishing history, thick with instruction and soul and gossip of the higher sort".

A Manhattan native, Gottlieb got his first publishing job at Simon & Schuster in 1955, as an editorial assistant.

Within a decade, he climbed the ranks to editor-in-chief. He left to become the editor-in-chief of Knopf in 1968, and in his nearly 20 years there, edited works by Bob Dylan, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie and Michael Crichton, who "wasn't a very good writer", according to him.

From Knopf, he took the helm of The New Yorker, succeeding William Shawn, a shake-up that made the front page of The New York Times.

A highlight reel of Gottlieb's juiciest revelations includes swipes at Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul (a narcissist and "a snob"), historian Barbara Tuchman ("her sense of entitlement was sometimes hard to deal with"), William Gaddis ("unrelentingly disgruntled"), John Updike ("I was disturbed that he wouldn't accept advances") and Roald Dahl (an "erratic and churlish" author who made "immoderate and provocative financial demands" and anti- Semitic remarks).

When describing his relationships with living authors, Gottlieb treads more carefully around eggshell-thin egos.

An exception is his savaging of Rushdie in a section where he describes a heated exchange the pair had about the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses.

Many of his fights with authors over the years seem to have involved punctuation.

He and Morrison often bicker about commas; he loves them, but she uses them sparingly.

"I am right, and he is wrong," she said in an e-mail. "He uses commas grammatically. I deploy them musically." He usually wins, she noted.

Gottlieb and Robert Caro, the author of The Power Broker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Robert Moses, and an ongoing, multivolume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, fight about semicolons, which Caro finds indispensable and Gottlieb uses only as a last resort.

Often, their shouting matches erupted into the hallways of Knopf's offices, when one of them slammed the door and stormed out.

"The truth is, we both have a terrible temper," said Caro, who will receive this year's National Book Award medal for lifetime achievement. "He's willing to spend an entire morning fighting over whether something should be a period or a semicolon."

Other prominent authors speak about Gottlieb in worshipful, star-struck tones, flipping the usual writer-editor power dynamic.

"He wasn't just an editor, he was the editor," David Cornwell, better known as the best-selling espionage writer John le Carre, said.

"I never had an editor to touch him, in any country, nobody who could compare with him."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2016, with the headline 'The book editor who loves to read, loathes to write'. Print Edition | Subscribe