Book Review: The Accidental Life
An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writer
by Terry McDonell
Opening a new memoir by an editor is a bracing experience, like feeling the first tickling of an oncoming bout of gastroenteritis. Editors are almost impossibly needy creatures, ragged around the edges, posturing and yet vaguely parasitical, prone to opportunistic coattail-riding and long muttered monologues delivered to the bathroom mirror on crapulous mornings-after. Book contracts are voided when an author bolts or dies; magazines go belly-up when their publisher decamps; no intellectual enterprise of any heft or merit ever even paused, let alone stopped, because it lost an editor. And editors know this in their black, rancorous little hearts, which is why the few who emerge from rehab sufficiently coherent to write their memoirs so often portray themselves as invaluable knights-errant, the sole remaining guardians of a mystical portal of prose. Every man is a hero to his valet, the old saw went; editors are the valets, about whom no old saw was ever made to stick.
Editor memoirs tend to fall into one of two categories: volumes in which the editor is content to stay in the background of his stories and let the stars of those stories – the authors – take center stage (“And of all the honors which are mine to relate, the greatest was to be present at the grand dinner the Athenaeum held for Nathaniel Hawthorne that year”), and volumes in which the editor portrays himself as one of the stars, indeed the brightest of them, if only the foolish general public had but eyes to see (“I was having drinks at the Tink-Tonk with Bucky Fuller when Ernie Hemingway turned to me with an admiring glint in his eye and said …”). In other words, as is the case with so much of life, the dividing-line here is between honest accounts and great big heaping piles of sheep-dip.
Longtime editor Terry McDonell’s new memoir, The Accidental Life (that’s the young version of himself in the cover’s extremely blurry photo – you can tell he’s cool because he’s smoking) tries its yeoman best to straddle the line between these two types of memoirs. It’s true that the book is full of don’t-you-wish-you’d-been-there anecdotes about our author chumming around with authors like “Ed” Abbey in Denver:
We drove to one of the bars on Colfax Avenue, and ate pickled eggs and drank boilermakers. Ed spent the night at my house, and we were up late, talking radical talk about what was wrong and maybe a little right with blowing up dams to save rivers. The Monkey Wrench Gang was about that, and so was Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die, an earlier novel Ed admired.
But the book is also filled with McDonell’s observations about the editor’s craft, which he pursued for years at a long string of A-list publications like Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Newsweek (he also helped to found the literary website LitHub, mentioned here by way of a mitigating factor). These observations are never less than fascinating; they motor the book along, these ruminations on all the staples of an editor’s wretched existence, from finessing authors who are finicky about being edited to working out the money side of things to that omnipresent reality of the job, the deadline:
Deadlines are meant to be close calls. Working better and faster when you’re running out of time is a sign of professionalism, whereas getting ahead and closing an issue early always spooked me. What was I missing? Shouldn’t I try to turn up the volume on that flat display copy, one more time? When I was on (remember those Looney Tunes?), it was hard not to start changing everything. But deadlines are about tying up details and avoiding mistakes, and good editors know when to take their foot off the pedal. Some even soften up – like old pillows – and say “thank you” more than usual, but not many.
As with most editor memoirs, the parting impression of The Accidental Life is of a sporadically decent minor egomaniac you wouldn’t want to share an elevator with but whose retailed bits and routines are in their way priceless. That the whole thing is sexist almost goes without saying (about his getting fired from Esquire, he charmingly writes, “That job was suddenly like the girl you loved but never touched in college telling you at a party twenty years later that she waned you desperately then but not now – You should have just come over”), and the persistent whiff of the B-list about so many of the literary luminaries captured in these pages is perhaps too delicate a topic to dwell on. It’s clearly McDonell’s intent to recall a wild ride of a professional career, one in which he both hob-nobbed and learned a thing or two. Readers who find the nob-nobbing tiresome will nonetheless appreciate the pragmatic details of the job. And readers who find the pragmatic details of the job boring are well on their way to becoming editors themselves.