My latest book, “Memoir: A History,” has gotten a lot of nice reviews. But it has also elicited a couple of not-so-nice phrases, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they have stuck in my mind. In “Bookforum,” Philip Lopate commented that I have “a lively, resolutely nonacademic, clever style, bordering on the glib, but never less than intelligent.” And in the New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn called the book “fact-packed but not terribly searching.” (I will say in passing that fact-packing can itself be a form of searching, as I believe Mendelsohn implicitly recognized when, in his 6,000-word piece, he used so many facts, incidents, and quotations that he first discovered in the pages of “Memoir.” But I digress.)
As you can see, I’m getting t-shirts printed up.
These phrases stay with me because they’re true. Or, more precisely, they refer to a quality of my writing that I recognize. Lopate uses the word “nonacademic.” I recognize that as well and it is odd, as I have been a fulltime professor (at the University of Delaware) for eighteen years. But I’m a little different from my colleagues. I have no PhD, I didn’t start teaching till I was 38 years old, and I have never been peer-reviewed for a book or article.
Let me back up for a minute. In my teen years, I developed an amorphous idea that I wanted to be a writer; by college, it became recognizable and nearly solid. One reason for this ambition was aptitude—an interest in and facility with language. Another, to some extent related, was a sense (which I could not have articulated then) that writing could neatly compensate for two deficiencies I’d otherwise have deeply felt. The first: Ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty all were such inevitable qualities of the outer and inner world, it seemed, that talking about them was a fool’s errand. Yet sitting down with a pen or typewriter and proceeding, word by word and sentence by sentence and strikeout by strikeout, was a game-changer. I could actually figure out some things that I thought and express them with precision and sometimes even elegance or grace.
To emerge with a completed piece of writing, to have it accepted by some gate-keeper and then published with my name on it, addressed the second compensation: writing as a recognition and validation of self. In a word, ego.
To be sure, I’d loved my history, literature, American studies courses in college—and the magazine stuff I would write limned those very fields—but a traditional professorial career, with graduate study and then a career of scholarship and college teaching, wasn’t in the offing. How could it be, given my needs? After all, it would require an investment of five-plus years in grad school that were more or less defined by anonymity. Then if all went well, and you got a PhD and a job, you could hope to publish a few monographs that would be read by dozens, be respectfully reviewed in your field’s journals, and advance the discipline by an inch or two.
My post-college student, pre-college professor professional life (1976-1992) centered around magazines. I was employed by three of them as an editor and writer, and I freelanced for dozens (most now defunct), possessing titles that started with every letter of the alphabet except K, Q, X and Z. (A few years ago, I kvetched about the hack’s life in an article for Slate.) Given the motivation I outlined above, this gravitation made sense. Magazine writing favored the well-turned phrase, prose that flowed (as my first boss used to say) “like water,” a facility and fluidity that at its worst sometimes did approach or even go over the border into glib or slick. At its best, it implied a stylistic solicitousness to the reader that I approved of in principle and also (secretly) deployed as an offering to them—implicitly saying, “I will not be boring or excessively complicated or difficult, I will be concise and provide helpful transitions, and in return, please keep listening to me and do not turn the page or put down the magazine till I am done.” So ego, again. It almost goes without saying that this was and is a resolutely unanonymous kind of work. To have a something accepted by Newsweek, and then for the piece to be on newsstands and coffee tables across the country, with my name attached, was doubly gratifying. Plus you were paid for it!
And another important thing about magazines was that they were a middle ground, and I was starting to realize that different sorts of middle grounds were natural habitats for me. This particular one was between the definitely valuable but undeniably formulaic, time-clock-punching and sometimes grunt-ish world of newspaper work, on the one hand, and the heights of Literature, on the other, where you have to sit in a garret for years and bet your all your chips on your talent and vision, with the inevitable risk that you would sometimes or perpetually be scorned or ignored. I was and am not a pot-better. Magazine writing is craft, not art, and like any healthy craft (it was healthy then) it plied a visible and robust market, where you knew right away of your wares were acceptable. It encouraged intelligent design, mastery of the tools of the trade, and small but strategic and ingenious variations in established forms. Instead of the Hollywood Western (say), magazine hacks have the Celebrity Profile or the Trend Piece.
But eventually, the limits began to be noticeable. I was doing a series of 200-yard dashes, and I felt like trying something longer, with a little less built-in breathlessness. So, a book. I settled on a biography of Will Rogers, and looking back on it, I see all sorts of borders and middle grounds. For a popular book, it had a lot of endnotes and scrupulousness (about sourcing and accuracy); for an academic book, it displayed an odd interest in pacing, conciseness, anecdotes, and water-like prose. Also—and this wasn’t so much of a middle ground as a fluctuation—I found a comfortable rhythm in going back and forth between narrative and analysis, a feeling that each one took on more heft and legitimacy from the presence of the other. I took the same approach in two subsequent books—Memoir and About Town, a history of the New Yorker magazine—and to a certain extent in almost everything I’ve done.
I can observe another trait of mine, connected to the others and not pleasing to some reviewers of Memoir: A History, who wanted much more Memoir: Boon or Menace? and What It All Means. I don’t do pronouncements. Once again, it’s a mix of philosophy and psychology. Except in the hands of hall-of-fame thinkers (and not always even for them), nothing ages faster than philosophizing in print. Facts, on the other hand, can have solidity and permanence. The idea is not to pack them in, as Daniel Mendelsohn would have it, but, in to troll assiduously for meaningful and relevant ones, consider them with carefully, and order and set them in an artful pattern, like a series of gems. Another word for the pattern is “history”—a fact or happening cannot fully make sense absent the context of what has come before. The psychology comes in via my fear of being boring or wrong, which produces measured, fairly ironclad prose and assertions.
How is that working out for me? I get published and respectful reviews. I don’t get hatchet jobs. I don’t get raves either. I’m in the comfortable middle.
Writing Will Rogers was a boon, not at all menace, including in helping me getting my mid-life teaching job, which has turned out the be, for me, the most capacious middle ground of all. My professionals friends are about evenly divided between journalists, who write for newspapers, magazines, corporate clients, and trade publishing houses, and professors, who write for the Publication of the Modern Language Association, each other and, they hope, posterity. As usual, I’ve got a foot in both camps. As anyone who’s tried to live in two worlds knows, you can never really be a fullfledged member of either one. But I’ve made my choice and I’m sticking with it.
So I’ll just keep on patrolling the border of the glib. See you there, I hope.