Thursday, April 14, 2022

Avid Reader by Robert Gottlieb

I am in no way an unbiased observer here: let me say that up front. I've been to the circus, spent some time in a side ring, and got left behind when it decamped to the next town at a time when I thought I was a valuable part of the troupe. Bob Gottlieb was one of the biggest ringmasters around, and here's he's talking about all of his favorite acrobats and clowns and lion-tamers - OK, so in this metaphor he would be running a different circus, but you get what I'm saying.

Avid Reader covers roughly sixty years in the world of publishing, with some side-trips into other aspects of Gottlieb's life. It was published in 2016, and Gottlieb began, as the assistant to the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, in 1955. (As often happens in publishing - the same thing hit me on a much smaller scale - he was quickly thrown into work on a higher level just because he was there and willing when the work needed to be done.) It's divided into a few big chapters, which each seem to be attempting to run somewhat chronologically but tend to blur that with the usual publishing-lovey stuff about how wonderful X was, leading to talk about how X was like Y who was also a joy to work with, and how can I forget Z, the greatest dosh-distimer of her generation!

Those chapters are, before I forget: Reading (early life), Learning (school, college, his first marriage), Working: Simon & Schuster, Working: Alfred A. Knopf, Working: The New Yorker, Working: Knopf Redux, Dancing, Writing, Living. The last three are more general, summing up other aspects of Gottlieb's life that don't as directly pertain to his central career: he was on the board of both City Ballet (in NYC) and Miami City Ballet, and became a ballet critic late in life. He also started writing non-fiction books, mostly film biographies, late in life. And he managed to do some living outside of working nearly all hours of a seven-day week - he in fact is still active as I write this, nearing his ninety-first birthday, with a biography of Garbo published last year and reportedly still editing some things for Knopf while sitting waiting for Robert Caro to deliver his next volume of the LBJ biography.

The center of the book covers the years he ran things: Editor-in-Chief of S&S, Publisher of Knopf, Editor-in-Chief of The New Yorker in the tumultuous transition years between the guy an entire world seems to call "Mr. Shawn" and Tina Brown. Those years ended twenty years before the book came out: this is mostly a memoir of the late '50s through the very early '90s. (Gottlieb's running-things days overlapped with my own publishing career almost not at all.)

I don't want to say I hate-read this book. Gottlieb has always been a hard worker and a passionate advocate for good writing and stories - and he's very clear in this book that's he's not a snob, as people that hit his level in publishing generally aren't: he likes books, and always wanted to find, edit, publish and push books that are good of their kind, without as much concern about what kinds those were.

But he's also such a lovey. He does have a funny quick introductory Note basically pre-apologizing for that, admitting that he's going to talk about people he knew and what they did together, so there will be a lot of names dropped. But he more than lives up to that in the rest of the book, in a near-Hollywood-style list of wonderful people who did great things that were super-successful.

The bulk of Avid Reader are those long, trackless chapters about S&S and Knopf and The New Yorker - I note, idly, that there never has been any accepted short way to refer to that very snooty magazine - that cram years of long days and lots of activities into name-clotted lists of stuff. Occasionally a section pops out because it's that big, notably in the early days at S&S (Catch-22 and The American Way of Death in particular). But Gottlieb is almost always relentlessly positive, with a very few muted slight criticisms of just a few people who are probably mostly dead by now anyway.

So, for a book about a guy who was at the center of a lot of publishing for more than half a century, Avid Reader is very light and puffy. Everything was a success, everyone was wonderful, the elephants never shit in the middle of the ring. I spent enough time in that world not to believe that view of things - I know how it's manufactured to public consumption - so I am amused but not convinced.

Gottlieb does seem to have had a great time, though, even as his repeated protestations that the giant piles of money were always thrust upon him by his employers ring exceptionally hollow. And I wonder if there were rumors about his personal life that he "addressed" here - there's an awful lot of really close relationships with women, several of whom he talks about traveling with repeatedly over the years. Also, his second wife was ten years younger than him, and they seem to have first met when she was in her early teens: it seems to have all worked out in the end, but I do have to wonder about that - both the living of it, and bringing it back up fifty years later in a memoir.

All in all, this is a book in which Gottlieb seems to be trying to cram everything he did that he wants to remember, or be remembered for. It is primarily a memoir of publishing, with the other material stuffed in at beginning and end, since his life was mostly spent in publishing. Readers will appreciate it depending on how much they first care about the things that Gottlieb did, and, on perhaps a reverse scale, how much they already know about those things.

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