In Avid Reader, an autobiographical account of his long life in editing and publishing, 85-year-old Robert Gottlieb says in a prefatory note that he “wanted to set bits of the record straight.” That usually means making sure you get there before others do who may be writing you up in their memoirs, or in a biography. It also usually means that at a certain age, confronting mortality, you want to take an overview of what you spent most of your life doing, examining how you got there and how you’d like to be remembered. And that usually means finessing misunderstandings, finding something good to say about those you clashed with – forgive, if not forget – and giving heartfelt thanks to those who stood with you in difficult times. In other words, a memoir is a premature eulogy written by oneself.
At best, it informs about a profession, pleases as a well-written narrative, generates a sense of being fair and has memorable tidbits. Did you know that Joseph Heller’s
Catch 22 was originally called Catch 18, until Gottlieb renamed it? And wait ‘til you read the dish on some of those Gottlieb was not wild about, among them Kathryn Hepburn, Lillian Ross, Elia Kazan, William Shawn, Roald Dahl. He found them egotistical and mean spirited. But most of those he worked with he’s admired, especially John Le Carré, a true gentleman.
Avid Reader engages as a story about how Gottlieb fell into editing. He was good at it and he never wanted to be a writer. But though he continually praises others and makes a lot of self-effacing comments, it seems at times a bit much. How can so many famous writers have been his closest, best friends and the hardest literary workers? Still, what a roster of stars came into his orbit as he moved up the professional ladder. From editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster, to publisher and editor-in-chief at Knopf and after that, for a few years, as editor of The New Yorker.
There are glimpses into his private life – years of Freudian analysis, an autistic son – but essentially Avid Reader is an absorbing history of publishing in the second half of the 20th century. He notes, along the way, and he’s right, that “the most damaging thing an editor can do to a writer is to try to change a book into something other than what it is, rather than try to make it a better version of what it is already.”
Gottlieb continues to serve on boards, edit for Knopf – working with Toni Morrison and LBJ biographer Robert Caro – and write – mainly ballet criticism for The Observer.
He’s the author of books on Dickens, Balanchine, Bernhardt, and on dance and the lyrics of the Great American Songbook and – get this! – on his life-long fascination with women’s plastic handbags, which he collects. And he continues to be what the book’s title declares, an avid reader. Editing others, he came to feel that the essence of a good memoir, “something that could not be inserted by a hired hand,” was “a strong, appealing, and totally convincing voice.” It’s true of his own book.