The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)
At my first job out of NYU working as a New Yorker assistant, the tallest, funniest, and best looking of the editors—Dan Menaker—was also the biggest mensch. When I submitted my early embarrassingly raw, autobiographical pages about my crazy Jewish family, psychotherapy, and insecurities, Menaker read everything and sent me kind, encouraging rejections saying, “Better! Almost! Don’t give up!”
Turned out, while he’d spent decades as an editor at The New Yorker before becoming Random House’s editor-in-chief, the advice Menaker shared was hard-won. His own six acclaimed books, including two prize-winning short story collections, his fascinating novel-turned-feature film The Treatment (2006), and his scintillating 2013 memoir My Mistake, detailed his emotional mishegas. He chronicled his crazy Jewish relatives, the painful death of his older brother when he was twenty-six, the insecurities he felt with a famous boss who disliked him, the psychotherapy that quelled his anxiousness, and surviving a recent bout with lung cancer.
Catching up with him now, the seventy-five-year-old Menaker has returned to his editorial obsession with linguistic errors in his smart, hilarious The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). This hip humor book for grammar nerds and language lovers, illustrated by Roz Chast with a foreword by poet Billy Collins, offers 101 funny favorite faux pas and misspellings that the long-time editor came across, such as “roman o’clay,” “rock and role,” “furled brow,” “naval gazing,” and “above approach.” He includes an introduction edifying his affection for “sveltes.”
Susan Shapiro (Rail): So after someone mistaken wrote “African svelte,” instead of “African Veldt,” did you really start a list of malapropos? Is the title your favorite blunder?
Menaker: Yes. Actually, my favorite blunder is “The terrorist was wearing a baklava,” but “African svelte” was the first one I kept, so I give it title pride of place.
Rail: In the book, you joke that you’re a language snob. Did you correct your authors when they made a verbal faux pas or mistake?
Menaker: I’d hoped I’d made it clear in the introduction that I lost my snobbery. I must have failed. I do correct people when I think they won’t mind. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes I get a thank you, sometimes a glare. Recently someone corrected my pronunciation of “ideation” from “ideation” to “eyediation” and I was grateful.
Rail: My father and brothers were doctors who played “The Disease Game” at dinner, where one said the symptoms and one diagnosed. Your mother Mary Randolph Grace, a Bryn Mawr classics major, was a pioneering magazine editor. Were there word games at home or discussions of books?
Menaker: Not so much as you might think. My mother and father led my brother and me in usage, vocabulary, and pronunciation, more by example than lesson.
Rail: You start with a scene of telling your parents about a mistake a classmate made that wound up in a “Talk of the Town” piece. So you were in The New Yorker at age ten. How did that happen? Was it prophetic?
Menaker: When I repeated a classmate’s mistake (instead of calling Columbus’s ships “The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria,” the girl had said “The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe”), my mother loved it and encouraged me to send it to The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section. Miraculously, they recast it a bit and published it. I guess it set me on the road to authorial vanity and perdition.
Rail: The poet Billy Collins wrote your foreword and cartoonist Roz Chast illustrated The African Svelte. Have your worked with them before?
Menaker: Yes. I published Billy Collins’s poetry at Random House when he was Poet Laureate. When he was at Pittsburgh University Press, I heard him read on “Prairie Home Companion.” I called him up and said, “Can you be poached?” He said, “You bet.” We are now close friends, I’m happy to say. I knew Roz as a colleague and friend and was the first one to publish her future husband, Bill Franzen, a New Yorker messenger at the time.
Rail: You dedicate the book to your wife Katherine Bouton, a longtime New York Times editor. Did you come home nightly and share mistakes and verbal errors, trying to top each other?
Menaker: No—like almost all other couples, we’ve principally competed over thermostat settings. We did occasionally remark on mistakes and brilliances by the writers we worked with, but it stopped short of being obsessive or habitual.
Rail: Did you quote funny lines your two kids said when they were growing up?
Menaker: I did, and still do joke a lot with them—probably too much—but the only thing worse than making mistakes as a parent is making no mistakes as a parent, if you ask me. My son, Will, has caught the irony/humor illness and is part of a successful satirical podcast, having survived five years in publishing. My daughter is a social worker, thus rejecting her father’s mild case of asocial tendencies.
Rail: Mary Norris gave you a blurb. You joked at a panel we did that you were jealous of her bestseller about grammar Between You & Me. Is African Svelte being competitive?
Menaker: I’m very admiring of Mary Norris and grateful for her blurbistic help. Not jealous—the books are so different. And yes, we worked together for a while before I left “the magazine” (as we so pretentiously called it). She was a good colleague, terrific at her job. I am jealous only of her advance, which I think was three times mine for my last book.
Rail: You studied poetry at Swarthmore and have a master’s in English from Johns Hopkins. Were you always a big reader who cared about language?
Menaker: Affirmative. But also an athlete, not just a nerd. Captain of Swarthmore’s soccer team senior year, record of 2-9-1! Professional dishwasher, waiter, camp counselor, truck driver, Thruway toll-taker, basketball coach. Just sayin’.
Rail: When did you start at The New Yorker?
Menaker: In 1969. I was twenty-eight, a fact checker. The salary was about $17,500 a year. But I was only paying $75 rent to share an uptown Manhattan apartment.
Rail: In your acclaimed memoir My Mistake, you write that editor William Shawn hated you. Why?
Menaker: The magazine used to run something called “Department of Amplification,” comments about pieces they’d run. After Shawn published a piece by the Greening of America author Charles A. Reich, I wrote a long one myself, arguing over something he said concerning the Constitution. Though it was heartfelt, apparently Mr. Shawn found it unseemly. He famously never fired people. But he had executive editor Robert Bingham come tell me, “We’re not going to fire you. But we’re asking you to look for another job.” I tried but couldn’t find one. I hung on for decades, like a shade in Hades.
Rail: You said other mentors there saved you?
Menaker: Luckily William Maxwell encouraged me. When I was a copy editor, I suggested a word change, worried he’d hate it. But he told me to keep making editorial suggestions. They pushed Maxwell to retire when he turned sixty-five. I heard one of his requirements for leaving quietly was that Shawn make me a full editor, which he did.
Rail: Did you ever reconcile with Mr. Shawn?
Menaker: Yes, decades later when he was sick I sent him a note, wishing him a speedy recovery. He wrote me back saying, “I hope you’ll get along with the new people,” a phrase I thought showed how contemptuous he was of his replacements when the magazine was sold and he was ousted. Years after he died, I had lunch with his son, the actor Wally Shawn. I said, “I’m so sorry your father and I were at loggerheads.” Wally said, “You were the one mistake my father admitted to.” I felt that he’d come to regret his antagonism towards me.
Rail: After twenty-six years as a New Yorker editor and a dozen at Random House, this is your seventh book. Starting out, did you see yourself more as an editor than writer? Did it change?
Menaker: Editor, slightly, but definitely writer now. Though professor, too! I’m now on the faculty of the MFA program at SUNY Stony Brook, along with Meg Wolitzer and Billy Collins. Professor Menaker. Amazing—not least to me.
Rail: As a memoirist, I loved My Mistake, which was much more serious. I was moved by chapters where you blame yourself for your brother’s death chronicle fighting lung cancer. Does your age or illness make you more preoccupied with mistakes or regret lately?
Menaker: No, the opposite—less preoccupied, though continuingly pleased and amused. I don’t wish what I’ve gone through on anyone. But it has made me love ice cream, my wife, kids, good coffee, and even people more than ever. I no longer take being here for granted.
Rail: You’ve opined that “publishing isn’t a business, it’s really a casino.” Why?
Menaker: I see publishers’ advances for books as not at all different from placing bets in Las Vegas.
Rail: I agree! I have two students who earned $500,000 advances on first books. Why do book publishers keep doing this? Doesn’t it hurt the business?
Menaker: This is a question whose answer is so complicated and unpleasant, I will lose my breakfast if I try to answer it here… I remember after Fifty Shades of Grey sold 125 million copies worldwide, the owner Bertelsmann autistically raised their profit expectations for the next year. They didn’t understand there will always be outliers you can’t predict or count on.
Rail: As a New Yorker editor, what do you think your lasting legacy might be?
Menaker: The fiction in the magazine for some years was often disassociated and alienated. I preferred stories with more full-throated emotionally fleshed-out characters: Jennifer Egan, Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, David Foster Wallace, Allegra Goodman, Matthew Klam. When Robert Gottlieb took over from Shawn, he said, “Why not?” So the lid came off.
Rail: At Random House, what was your biggest success?
Menaker: Primary Colors. It was my idea to keep the author anonymous. Everyone argued against it but it was a major factor in its success.
Rail: Now that you’re not an editor helping others, is it thrilling when your books come out?
Menaker: I like doing readings and panels, but I find hawking my own books on social media to be nauseating and embarrassing. I’m half ambitious and self-promoting, half a hypocritical icon of modesty.
Rail: Which of your own books did best?
Menaker: My Mistake, which only sold about 15,000 to 20,000 copies.
Rail: As the head of Random House, did you learn any special tricks you’re using to promote African Svelte?
Menaker: I asked my publisher to make postcards with illustrations of the book that I sent to managers, buyers, and owners of independent bookstores around the country. I added personal self-effacing notes. Indie bookstores now seem more interested in the book, so maybe it helped. The CEO of Random House, Alberto Vitale, used to call me “professore” because he thought I was academic. He saw me once and said, in his Italian accent: “One thing, professore, you gotta move-a de units.” Ultimately, publishing is a business that has to balance culture and commerce. If we did well commercially, we could sustain a literary culture.
Rail: Working on any new fiction?
Menaker: I write “She opened the door” and then I give up. Because I don’t know what she did next. Writing nonfiction and teaching requires a less altered state.
Rail: What advice do you have for writers starting out now?
Menaker: In terms of writing, Ezra Pound said, “Make it new.”
Rail: What about trying to make it as a writer or editor?
Menaker: Don’t throw all your eggs into one basket, as I did. Network and keep your options open so if something fucks up, you can leave. Never give up. Show up, go to readings, events, and panels. As my grandmother Fanya used to say to me, “Do everything.” Then when I’d be impatient, she’d say—in her Yiddish accent—“Sometink vill hoppen.”