When Worlds Collide

From East Hampton to Westhampton, one question dominated America's literary establishment last week, and it had nothing to do with the Supreme Court decision on the Masson-Malcolm libel suit. From the Grill Room of The Four Seasons to the Pool Room of The Four Seasons, agents, editors and writers suddenly put aside their rivalries and, with mouths still bloody from one another's backs, united to shout with one voice: Who does this Jacob Weisberg think he is, anyway?

The simple answer is that Weisberg is a 26-year-old senior editor (i.e., writer) at The New Republic, author of a cover story several weeks ago on what's wrong with American book publishers. None of his observations was especially novel, and some, such as the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of an industry willing to publish Joan Rivers's memoirs, were beyond dispute. But in making his main point - that book editors, whose rewards come primarily from signing big-name writers, increasingly neglect the humble task of improving manuscripts--Weisberg had the temerity to choose as his leading example one Alice Mayhew, editorial director of Simon & Schuster. The response - contained in five pages of letters from some of America's most distinguished writers, including Taylor Branch, J. Anthony Lukas and Garry Wills - indicates that Mayhew is one of the most beloved and honored functionaries in the publishing industry. Or, as Weisberg suggests, just one of the most powerful.

Mayhew, who has edited many important Washington books, may have been vulnerable to criticism as the editor of Kitty Kelley's biography of Nancy Reagan, a book many critics believe might have been improved by some judicious cutting and pasting, if not shredding and flushing. (One writer who has just finished a book for Mayhew insists the editor was so embarrassed by the Reagan book that "she got hives standing next to Kitty Kelley.") But Weisberg's charges are something less than incendiary. He refers to books being rushed to publication, presumably for commercial reasons, when a more leisurely approach might have caught errors such as the two misspellings Weisberg found in the acknowledgments of E. J. Dionne's "Why Americans Hate Politics." (Weisberg's case was weakened, although not fatally, when he referred to Milan Kundera's new novel "Immortality" as "Immorality.") But when have book editors ever been exempted from the need to sell books, as well as produce them? He accuses Mayhew of not actually editing - and in at least one case, not even reading - all of the 30 to 40 books she brings out in a year. He mentions a "first time" author who got his manuscript back with "superb" editing, but was crushed to discover that the comments were those of a free-lance editor retained by Mayhew. If books carried the names of their editors on their covers, this might be construed as misleading the public. But in this case it's hard to see what damage was done, except to the novice writer's ego.

But, hey, who is this "first time" writer, anyway? The very luminosity of those who rallied to Mayhew's defense proves Weisberg's point about the clubbiness of the book world. His response to the letters says they have "all the spontaneity of a pre-glasnost Soviet May Day rally." Mayhew, who won't comment on the article, denies having orchestrated the tributes. But it is clear, from letters such as Quinn's or the agent Morton L. Janklow's ("I have no idea who Mr. Weisberg is, but his is not a name that I or any of my colleagues have come across in our many years of intimate involvement with the publishing industry") that Weisberg's offense was made immeasurably worse by the fact that it came from an outsider. And the reaction illuminates nothing so much as the distinctive culture of the book world. Writers, accustomed to such fine calibrations of malice as go into the choice between, say, "fleshy" or "paunchy," react to full-blown criticism with the sensitivity of a hamster dropped into a hot frying pan. And Weisberg, a Rhodes scholar who has been writing for publication since high school, has already been told by innumerable callers that if he ever tries to write a book, the reaction is going to be, Who is this Jacob Weisberg, anyway?