[bksvol-discuss] The man, the myths, the mag: Ved Mehta book review

  • From: "Shelley L. Rhodes" <juddysbuddy@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <bookshare-discuss@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>, <bksvol-discuss@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>, <jjesso@xxxxxx>, "Sharon Turner" <sharonkat@xxxxxxxxxxx>, "Susan Mangis" <suemangis@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 17 Jan 2005 10:28:21 -0500

Glasgow Herald (UK)
Monday, January 17, 2005

The man, the myths, the mag: Ved Mehta book review

By HUGH MacDONALD January 17 2005

 Remembering Mr Shawn's New Yorker, Ved Mehta, Sinclair Stevenson, £19.99

The myth and mystery that surround the New Yorker is often more interesting 
than what appears in it. If this seems an exaggeration, it would find 
support from William Shawn, the fugitive subject of this book, who worked 
for the magazine for 50 years, most of them as editor.
Shawn once said in an interview: "We sometimes publish something which I am 
convinced only a few people would be interested in. Perhaps a hundred, 
perhaps just six."
Yet Shawn was at the helm of a magazine that sold half a million copies 
weekly and employed the finest writers of fiction and reportage.
Ved Mehta was one of these scribblers and his memoir does much to enlarge 
the myth of the New Yorker by offering tantalising glimpses of the editor 
who kept the most idiosyncratic of magazines firmly in the public mind. 
Shawn, however, is not the dominating personality of the book. As befits a 
man who has written 11 works of autobiography, Mehta is not one to retreat 
at the first appearance of limelight. For the uninitiated, he, too, deserves 
introduction. Blind from the age of four, Mehta forged an extraordinary 
career, working at the New Yorker for more than 30 years and writing 22 
books. The New Yorker assumed an almost spiritual importance in Mehta's 
life. Shawn was his representative on earth.
The Indian-born writer revered the quiet American. He was seduced by Shawn's 
passion for writing. He was caressed by Shawn's limitless attention to the 
artistic ego. The affair was consummated, with little mess, between the 
pages of the magazine. If the relationship remained highly decorous, with 
Shawn's whispered compliments matching Mehta's speechless devotion, there 
was much in the magazine's "cauldron of neurosis and frustration to stir 
So, while Shawn remains an almost ghostly presence in these pages, Mehta and 
the New Yorker assume substantial forms.
Shawn, the quiet family man and brilliant editor, is gently nudged from the 
pages to make room for Mehta's housing difficulties of the writer's coyly 
recalled love affairs. Shawn is further squeezed on to the sidelines as 
Mehta recalls the takeover of the magazine by SI Newhouse in 1987.
This is not altogether a bad thing. Shawn seems to have little in the way of 
a back story. In Mehta's telling, he seemed to enjoy a sedate private life, 
endured several debilitating phobias but reserved most of his life for 
editing. At this, he was brilliant but flawed. He could instinctively grab 
the essence of a complicated piece of writing. But he could also be 
hilariously wrong. He asked Pauline Keal for example, to change "crap" to 
"ordure" in a film critique. The pugnacious Keal told him where to put his 
changes. Presumably, the slot from where ordure emanates.
The largest story is the magazine and its relationship with the writer. It 
is here that Mehta transcends personal memoir and illustrates something more 
universal. The stories of the articles that had to be checked 16 times, the 
profound arguments over the placing of a comma, the assignments that could 
take a year just to research - all these are merely the spice of something 
more profound.
At the book's heart lies this question: how did a venture so 
uncompromisingly artistic and so oblivious to commercial imperatives survive 
in the heart of a culture that proclaims the supremacy of the dollar?
Mehta's answer seems to be that Shawn's injunction to work with "honesty and 
love" paid an unusual business dividend. In that, as in much else, Mehta's 
Remembering Mr Shawn's New Yorker serves not as a memoir but as an elegy.


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