Stranger in a Strange Land: Jon Pott
Editor's Note: This is a guest column by Jon Pott, who was the longtime editor-in-chief of the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
At a memorial gathering on August 20, 2005, on the detailed instructions of the honoree, the ashes of Hunter S. Thompson were shot skyward in a canister from a cannon atop a specially constructed 150-foot tower to explode, amidst fireworks and cheers, over the mountains of Owl Farm, Thompson's spread in Woody Creek, Colorado. In attendance, along with a number of locals, were Johnny Depp (who paid for the extravaganza), Jack Nicholson, and then-Senator John Kerry, a veteran of the Vietnam War who had turned critic against it. Thompson had taken a .45-caliber handgun to his head on February 20 of that year.
While doubtless the most manic and iconoclastic of the lot, Thompson is only one among the many writers and editors who bang around this bang-up publishing memoir by the shrewd and entrepreneurial editor who was also their friend. And Terry McDonell seems to have been up to their every rumbustious move.
It is something of a cliché among editors to say about themselves that they didn't so much intend a career in publishing as fall into it. And publishing certainly does, in that sense, have its share of accidental lives. But while he did enter his life of editing through the side door of photography and reporting, both of which served him well over his long editorial career, this is not the "accidental" life McDonell has in mind with the title of his book. It was his editorial life itself, once he was talked into it by a mentor friend, that kept so serendipitously changing on a ride through some of the glitziest and most influential magazines of recent decades, from San Francisco Magazine to Rolling Stone to Esquire to Sports Illustrated, with other stops along the bumpy, but enthralling, way:
It wasn't always easy. Ideas got broken and jobs didn't work out. Friends faded. Love failed. But the thing was, no matter how strange or rocky it got, there was redemption in the work. That was not accidental …. It was a way to live. Don't get locked in. Take life as it comes—the future and past together in the same moment. Mortality becomes a gyroscope, the wheels within wheels of growing older. Expect angels pulling chariots across the sky. Enjoy the ironies …. The accidental life was good that way. There was something edifying in the randomness of the people you met and worked with who then passed on, sometimes to stranger connections or to unforetold madness.
It is also something of a cliché to say about editors that they edit because they can't write, to which McDonell seems pleased to give the lie in this zippy and stylish account. And generous-spirited, too—no score-settling here, whatever the bumps (he was fired from Esquire) and whatever the faded friendships (Jann Wenner). Actually, he has published a novel of his own and has written screenplays for shows like Miami Vice.
Some of the writers McDonell the editor has published in his many journalistic lives (and they have all been in journalism, not in book publishing) are known mainly for their fiction, among them Richard Ford (The Sportswriter and the sequel Frank Bascombe novels); Thomas McGuane (The Sporting Club, Ninety-Two in the Shade, and most recently Crow Fair, a collection of short stories, of which he is considered a current American master); and Jim Harrison, the prodigiously prolific creator until his death this year—while writing, pen in hand—of novel (or novella) after novel, including Legends of the Fall. (Harrison, be it noted, professed to love his poetry most.)
But a number of McDonell's authors and friends began in, or at least had a foot in, the world of reporting. Peter Matthiessen, for example, while he won the National Book Award for fiction in 2008 for his novel Shadow Country, had earlier won a National Book Award (twice, in two different categories) for The Snow Leopard, a Zen Buddhism-infused meditational travelogue of a trip to the Himalayas. And before that had come, along with still other reportage, Life in the Wilderness, which, as McDonell notes, grew out of a Sports Illustrated assignment to report on the connection between extinction and loss of habitat.
The two genres of fiction and reporting famously came together in the 1960s and '70s in the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, and others, bringing the techniques of fiction to bear on the stories being covered so as to better reveal their social and political fabric and the inherent human drama. The "facts" could be a little hard to distinguish from the "fiction," some writers (e.g., Gay Talese) tending toward the former and others (e.g., Tom Wolfe) tending toward the latter. The picture got even more complex when the writer actually became part of the story in so-called "participatory" journalism.
Enter Hunter Thompson, whose gonzo journalism—he didn't invent the term, but enthusiastically embraced it when it was used on him— threw out the window even the pretense of any objectivity. His Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, along with other books and the accompanying exploits and guru mentoring, helped to define and fuel the counterculture movement at its most vehement.
Enter also his nattier friend George Plimpton, who, beyond editing The Paris Review, pursued his own participatory journalism by (along with other investigative forays into alien professions) suiting up for a pre-season Detroit Lions scrimmage (Paper Lion); having his nose rearranged in the boxing ring by Archie Moore (Shadow Box); and, in a departure from sports, playing the triangle with the New York Philharmonic under the beady eye of Leonard Bernstein. According to Plimpton in an interview, Bernstein accused him of destroying a performance of the Mahler Fourth.
Thompson and Plimpton met, as McDonell relates, on a Lufthansa flight to Zaire to cover, on separate assignments, the Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle," which Thompson, in his version of participatory journalism, then proceeded to miss entirely by getting high on hash in the hotel pool. Both Thompson and Plimpton were themselves athletic, which, as McDonell points out, made Plimpton a just plausible enough candidate for a little action in professional sports. McDonell's account of a twilight par-three hole of golf with the two of them, all three loosened up by LSD and a well-stocked cooler, will gladden the heart of any howling putter-thrower. Along with his mashie niblick, Thompson carried a 12-gauge shotgun in his bag.
In the '60s and '70s cultural divide between Norman Mailer's "outlaws" (the good guys) and "sheriffs" (say Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon), the writers who show up in McDonell's pages seem pretty much in their own ways the former, though Hunter Thompson, in one of his more quixotic moves, did actually run for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado—on the Freak Power ticket! But the Vietnam War and the condition of the American body politic were not the only issues in the air. There was also the early concern for the environment and the love of field and stream that often went with it. This coincided with McDonell's own editorial stops at magazines like Outside, Rocky Mountain Magazine, Sports Afield, and even the less outdoorsy Sports Illustrated.
Whatever the publishing pull of New York (and The New Yorker and Elaine Kaufman's fabled bar—she too is in the story), a fair bit of the action in this memoir happens in the American West, increasingly congenial to the expansive spirits and personal and writerly interests of the likes of Matthiessen, McGuane, and Harrison. Jim Harrison, who like Tom McGuane was a native of Michigan (their lifelong friendship began when they were classmates at Michigan State), eventually gave up his part-of-the-year life in the Upper Peninsula, about which he often wrote, to settle permanently in the West. Livingstone, Montana, nicely situated for fishing on the Yellowstone, became home—or a rambunctious home-away-from-home—for a growing number of writers, Hollywood types, and other adventurers, including McDonell himself. Not all of the pursuits were of the rainbow trout, and some of the marriages—not to mention sobriety—seem to have suffered there.
I have noted a handful of the writers who show up for a portrait by McDonell. There are others, including Kurt Vonnegut (truculently), James Salter (modestly but dauntingly), and Frank Deford (modestly and winsomely). Influential editors and publishers are here too, none more important to McDonell's career than the difficult but brilliant Jann Wenner, creator and demanding publisher of Rolling Stone, for which McDonell served for a time as managing editor:
I never knew anyone to bring out as much bad feeling and envy as Jann Wenner. People said they hated Jann. But they loved him too, and if you worked with him on ideas you knew how smart he was and that went a long way. His passion, too, was obvious, and made him vulnerable.
There was also, interestingly, Liz Tilberis, the English fashion editor who had come over to rejuvenate Harper's Bazaar to better compete with Anna Wintour's American Vogue. The idea was that she would help McDonell with Esquire's fashion and he would help her to "get on" in America. The "getting on" started at a lawn party at Jann Wenner's house. Sadly, she died only a few years later of ovarian cancer, but not before transforming Harper's Bazaar into the hoped- for competition to Vogue. Anna Wintour came to the memorial at Lincoln Center.
Before the chapter on Liz Tilberis comes a chapter on the so-called women's magazines, which, with precious few exceptions, are still the only major magazines for which women are the editor-in-chief, though they often fill the most important positions under it. And until the '60s, even the dominant women's magazines, McCall's, The Ladies Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping, were top-edited by men. Helen Gurley Brown's Cosmopolitan helped sensationally to change the scene. McDonell rues the sexism that still endures, but not quite enough to distance himself from the money-making annual swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, over which, serving a succession of editors, he presided.
Editing is about ideas," says McDonell, "but it is mechanical, too. You have to get under the hood of the language, and editors use many tools." Yes, indeed, and McDonell gives us a number of looks under the editing hood. Salter, McDonell recalls, talked about liking to rub words around in his hands. Then, again, you run the danger of fussy over-polishing, as in Renata Adler's story, also quoted by McDonell, of a raccoon that, given a piece of sugar, "would in its odd fastidiousness wash that sugar in a brook until there was nothing left."
But much of the peering in the book, sporadically and sometimes with a wink, is into the inner workings of publishing in particular. Word Count: Important to be tough-minded about the appropriate length so as to shape the work accordingly. McDonell accents the point by announcing at the front of each chapter the number of words to follow! Type: "If you've got good images you win easily, but typography can save you if you're stuck with bad ones." Or this: Never insert a drop cap that overpowers your lede paragraph. Editorial Judgment (quoting a quip by William E. Rue, onetime editor of Outdoor Life): "An editor is a man [sic] who doesn't know what he wants but recognizes it instantly." Not quite, but some truth in this. Editor-Author Relations (quoting, for fun, columnist George V. Higgins): "Only a seriously disturbed person would sincerely wish to have an editor for a friend." Au contraire, as this memoir so winsomely demonstrates.
On Knowing When To Keep Your Editorial Mitts Off: Here's Tom McGuane as he "thought of incessant-angler pal Richard Brautigan, who relinquished his fly rod as he spooled up for suicide. Fishing, for many, is an indispensable connection to earth and life, and it matters little that the multitude that practices it is incapable of translating its ambiguities to another idiom." Says McDonell, "That's not writing you edit." And, while we're at it, here's a little something McDonell quotes from Salter, in a letter to a friend, to bring a tear of recognition and idealism to the writerly and editorial eye:
I mailed off the revised Solo Faces two days ago. Endless fretting and worrying about things that are at their best imperfect anyway. I added a chapter, changed the ending, and did innumerable small things throughout. It's a bit better. It's astonishing how the crossing out of a line, sometimes a phrase, or the substitution of something right for something false can suddenly let light in an entire chapter. My typist accidentally left out seven lines at the end of Chapter 16 and I said, wonderful, it's much better without them. I'm already ashamed of the first version.
On Titles, Headlines, and other Display Type: "Writing good headlines on deadline was like a loony toon producing a pistol, anvil or stick of dynamite from behind his back." His own favorite, for a Rolling Stone tribute to the late Jim Morrison, was "He's hot, He's sexy and He's dead." (The closest we got to that at Eerdmans, thanks to a brain wave from our colleague Allen Myers, may have been Jodi Magness's Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus— not sexy, but frisky enough for the Society of Biblical Literature.)
Good stuff, if you're interested in the intersecting ways of writers and publishers. What you don't get to do in this fast-paced, on-the-fly memoir is linger long at any particular place. To reverse how McDonell puts it in his Author's Note, his life bounced around a little, and so does the book, being neither strictly chronological nor very systematic. Intriguing points come up along the way, only to be hastily, if sometimes suggestively, left behind. Tom McGuane, reflecting in later years on the excesses of his earlier ones, "was asked if he thought it possible for a person to write like an angel and yet in every way be despicable. He said it was highly probable and in many cases a fact." Interesting point, but end of section and end of discussion. Hunter Thompson, much of his career having been spent in moral outrage against a bloody war and the people who perpetrated it, invited his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson to visit him for a weekend on Owl Farm — and on Sunday evening, while they were still there, blew his brains out. Not even a hint here of a moral irony to contemplate?
What the book doesn't give you either is much of a sustained look under the hood into the deepest publishing motives one hopes so splendid an editor as Terry McDonell has had. An editor needs to be many things to many very different people, and not get in the way. But an editor is her own person, too, choosing and investing by convictions and ambitions that go beyond meeting deadlines, identifying the perfect lede paragraph, and ensuring the care and well-being of every sentence and phrase—along with the well-being of the publishing bottom line.
Nor do we go very deeply and directly into a reflective personal life. No soul-baring here, except for what occasionally shows through the cracks of McDonell's description of others. Here, by contrast, is his old friend Jim Harrison—feisty, boozing, gourmandizing, womanizing Jim Harrison— opening himself up to mystery in a letter to Garrison Keillor, not long before he died in March:
With age all my opinions drift away. Who am I to say for sure? My people thought they'd see Jesus when they died. Now that we know we have 90 billion galaxies, I'm not inclined to discount anything. How can I say what is not possible in this universe? You can disembowel reality all you want and certainties are hard to find, the towering reality being death. I don't mind. I was never asked. On death, a tour of the 90 billion galaxies would be flattering. Yes? Our curiosity is still in the lead. Wittgenstein said that the miracle is that the world exists. (From Garrison Keillor, "A Hymn for Jim Harrison," Chicago Tribune, March 31, 2016)
McDonell himself has spent many a night under the Montana skies, sometimes even in the company of Jim Harrison, but rarely, if ever, does he get anywhere near such language of self-disclosure. Still, for what it does, this is a beautifully written memoir of a colorful and influential career. Almost always, goes the maxim, it is bad form to criticize a book for not being what it never intended to be, a rule that a former editor like myself, of all people, has good reason to remember.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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