Who is Harold Bordkey? What is he?
"Despite our ambivalence," he said, referring to the fact that the venture was not his idea nor to his liking, "I see no reason that it should not be prosecuted with taste and wit. It is a commonplace that a magazine cannot be edited by committee, but I do want this to be a group effort. The list we arrive at should be both defensibel and ingenious, responsible yet not obvious, contain surprises and conviction . . ."
Mr. Margin was too good at this sort of thing. There were times when he got caught up in his own rhetoric. Finally, he came to the point: "So I want each of you to make up your own list of the twenty-five best writers in America today. And, please, submit your choices alphabetically. We'll have to worry all too soon about the one, two, three of it. At present I merely want to see the shape of your thinking. One thing: because we should do this with a minimum of external influence I suggest we keep it inside the office." There was a stirring, and Mr. Margin looked carefully around the conference table. "Do I gather that some of you have already been busy on the phone?
There were no demurrers.
"So be it," he said with a sigh. "Frank here," and he nodded to me, "has been detached from his regular duties to bring this matter to a speedy and satisfactory conclusion. Please get your lists to him as soon as possible."
Sure enough, the next day "Page Six" of the New York Post announced that Belles Lettres would soon choose the twenty-five best writers in America, adding--maliciously, I think--that nominations could be made by phone or in person to Jonathan Margin, editor.
The day after, Ed McDowell wrote a story in The New York Times saying that contrary to rumors in the publishing industry, Belles Lettres did not--repeat, not--plan to pick the twenty-five best writers in America. However, the next day he wrote another story to the effect that Belles Lettres was indeed publishing such a list, the confusion having arisen from the vehemence with which the editor, Jonathan Margin, in an interview, had denied soliciting nominations from readers.
New York's "Intelligencer" column ran an item saying that Belles Lettres, "the influential literary weekly, definitely is, as denied and then confirmed by The Times, naming the 25 top American scribes. The brass at Protean Publications, owners of Belles Lettres, are counting on the idea to liven up what they feel to be the lackluster performance by staid editor Jonathan Margin. The choice will be under the direction of new assistant editor Frank Page, whom the biggiest at Protean like the looks of."
Alexander Cockburn, in his Nation column, said: "Jonathan Marginal, editor of Belles Lettres, the literary snews magazine, hopes to wake us all with his version of the twenty-five best writers in America. No need, Marginal. We can name them in our sleep. Start with Bellow, end with Updike, and one gets you ten that Charles Bukowsky doesn't make it. Snews on, O faithful readers of Beautiful Letters."
Within a few days I had all the lists and brought them to Mr. Margin.
"How are they?" he said.
"Not really. Take a look!"
He did and for rhetorical purposes read out the list of Ed Bodoni, the office manager:
John Ashbery, Ingrid Bengis, Paul Bowles, Rita Mae Brown, Susan Brownmiller, Guy Davenport, Marilyn French, Marilyn Hacker, Jill Johnston, June Jordan, Paule Marshall, James Merrill, Kate Millett, Robin Morgan, Marge Piercy, David Plante, Adrienne Rich, Paul Robinson, May Sarton, Alix Schulman, Kate Simon, Valerie Solanis, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Edmund White.
Mr. Margin looked up in wonder.
"It's a document, I agree," I said.
"Yes," he said and seemed to sink into thought for a few seconds. "Well," he then said, "you know, of course, that Ed Bodoni is a radical feminist."
"I didn't know that. She seems so pleasant."
"The thing about radical feminists," Mr. Margin said, "is that they start in fear and convert it to hatred, which they finally turn into contempt. When all the fear has been transformed into contempt they can be quite pleasant, like Ed. Watch her sometime when there is an argument between two of the men editors. A little involuntary smile plays around the mouth. I see Stalin smiling like that when Roosevelt and Churchill had words. But if you wonder why I'm interested, my second wife was a radical feminist."
"Is she no longer a radical feminist or no longer your wife?"
"Oh, no longer my wife," he said. "I'd like to keep in touch with her, but she's still working on some of the hatred. Do you realize that Virginia Wrapper's list doesn't share one name with Ed's?"
"I noticed that," I said.
Again for rhetorical purposes, he read Virginia's list aloud:
Nelson Alregn, Louis Auchincloss, James, Baldwin, Hortense Calisher, John Cheever, Edward Dahlberg [Mr. Margin paused, then went on], Joan Didion, J.P. Donleavy, William Gaddis, William Gass, Paul Goodman, Elizabeth Hardwick, John Hawkes, Lillian Hellman, James Jones, Jack Kerouac, Harper Lee [he paused again], Alison Lurie, william Maxwell, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, J.D. Salinger, Diana Trilling, Lionel Trilling and Robert Penn Warren.
"Frank, didn't you tell Virginia that this was a list of living writers?"
"I thought that was understood."
"Ah, Well," Mr. Margin said. "On the other hand, Chuckle Faircopy's list is almost dead center. Bellow to Updike, as that chap in The Nation said, the one with the nasty name."
"Chuckle's list really surprised me," I said. "I thought it would be the most eccentric of the bunch. By the way, what does he do over there in the corner besides write headlines for the reviews?"
"That's all he does," mr. Margin said and leaned back. "Chuckle predates me, but I understand that at one time he contributed a great deal to Belles Lettres. Headlines were only part of his duties. But what with time and age, he fixed on the headlines. Every now and then he shows me his worksheets--twenty pages for one headline. He tells me that sometimes after working all day and at home through the evening the final version comes to him in a dream. He'll wake and write it down and then won't be able to get back to sleep from the excitement of it."
"Are the headlines that good?" I said.
"They seem quite ordianry to me," Mr. Margin said. "He recently showed me one he had worked on for two days. It was for a review of a history of New York City. It was 'New York Was Like that.'"
"What do you make of his immodest proposal?" I said. "Is it based on his headline writing?" Between Ralph Ellison and Allen Ginsberg, Chuckle had named himself as one of the twenty-five best writers in America.
"Some years ago," Mr. Margin said, "he published a few novels. They came and went. When I was appointed editor here he gave me signed copies. I put off reading them, but I could see that he wanted comment, so finally I todl him that they were beautiful and profound."
"Did that satisfy him?" I asked.
"I think so, although he added, 'and funny.'"
"But you never read them."
"No. But, for God's sake, don't tell him!"
"Of course not," I said. Nor would I have. Chuckle was obviously a sad case. He looked to be in his late 50s, a tall, thin, balding man with half glasses and a weathered face. I knew he wrote the headlines for Belles Lettres, but I had no idea taht he spent the whole week on them. The way he arched over his typewriter, suddenly pouncing into composition, I had been sure he was up to more than headlines.
"Well, what do we do, Frank?"
"We have to make up this list ourselves. Let's take Chuckle's names, smooth out the bumps, add three or four eye-catchers, tell the promotion department to warm up the suspense and publish the damn thing under a short, humble, pompous introduction."
mr. Margin nodded and sighed philosophically.
The temptations from publishers who wanted to influence the list (Mr. Margin had expected them to be irresistible) were not forthcoming. A cutie-pie publicity girl asked me to lunch, saying that she wanted to discuss one of her authors. I pointed out to her, as she must have known, that Belles Lettres's editors could not accept lunches from publishing people. She asked if that included lunches made from leftovers and served by amateur cooks in their abodes. I said I didn't think so, and we made a date. More for his amusement than anything else, I mentioned the lunch to Mr. Margin.
"Who is the author?" he said.
I told hime.
"He'll be ont he list."
"I more or less told her that," I said, "but she wants to talk."
"I suspect she wants to add you to her list," he said, and on the morning of the day of the lunch, he told me that I had been working too hard and should take the afternoon off. It turned out that not only did she really want to talk about her authro but she was marrying him the following week.
I prepared a list from Chuckle Faircopy's, adding ten or so names so that Mr. MArgin and I could move around, and considering the difference in our ages, we had an easy time of it. We struggled some over John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Mary McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon. Without telling who was for whom, I can say that we traded off gracefully.
I showed the list to Chuckle, both to tell him that the choices were basically his and also to warn him that his name would not be on it. He said that since he doubted that either Mr. Margin or I had read his books he did not take it as a slight.
Mr. Margin called the staff into his office. His secretary, Claire Tippin, had made copies of the list and distributed them like menus.
"First of all," Mr. Margin said, "I want to thank you for your extremely conscientious choices. Your lists constitute some of the most interesting reading I've done in recent weeks. Each was a brain scan. I seemed to see not only leanings and backgrounds but hard strivings to understand this often confusing American scene. The list you have in your hands is a weighted consensus. The 'weight' comes from Frank and me and represents perhaps two or three names that did not appear on any of your own lists. I'm sorry the list is not longer, that is does not include each and every writer that each and every one of you put forth. Such a list would be an invaluable document, far more interesting than this 'essence' that we shall show to the public. Such a list would have revealed the true tast of the editors of the most influential literary publication in the language. And consider: suppose, just suppose, we had such a choice from a similar group of London intellectuals in 1616, the year of Shakespeare's death. What a contribution that would have been to the history of ideas!"
Mr. Margin went on like this for a while and finally asked for comments.
"Why is Mary McCarthy, who has lived in France half the time, on a list of the best writers in America?"
"By 'in America,'" Mr. Margin, said, "we merely mean 'American citizen.' Just as I.B. Singer is on the list although he came here as a young adult and doesn't write in English."
"In that case, George Steiner is an American citizen livng in England. Why isn't he on the list?"
Mr. MArgin nodded for me to answer.
"Many reasons," I said.
"If by 'best' we mean 'most important,' surely Michael Harrington should be on the list."
"'Best' only means 'best,' I'm genuinely sorry to say," Mr. Margin said.
"I feel we have pointedly excluded engaged writers. Surely Norman Podhoretz is as influential as any writer in America."
"Then we'd have to include Irving Kristol and Hilton Kramer," I said. "You wouldn't want that, would you?"
"There are no critics on the list. I want to nominate Alfred Kazin again."
"Again?" Mr. Margin said.
"Are we avoiding experimental writers?"
"As I understand it," Mr. Margin said, "an experimental writer is a writer whose experiment has failed."
"Where is Renata Adler?" someone asked.
No one seemed to know.
We gave the list to Mary Tooling, the wife of the publisher of Protean Publications. She called us to her office the next day. "Do you want to know what my husband said?"
"My husband said--and pardon my French--my husband said, 'Who the fuck is Harold Brodkey? And where the fuck is Herman Wouk?'"
"About Brodkey," Mr. Margin said, "we thought that a few offbeat names might add aa certain--Spin to the list."
"And Herman Wouk?" Mrs. Tooling said.
"There are many writers in America," Mr. Margin said.
"O.K., but for myself," Mrs. Tooling said, "where the fuck is . . . ," and she mentioned five American writers she thought should be on the list.
"If you wish," Mr. Margin said.
"I wish," Mrs. Tooling said. "And don't put them at the top. Slip them in. And another thing: This is alphabetical. We were talking one, two, three, four."
"Tool," Mr. Margin said, "that's impossible. Who is better, Bellow or Updike? Mailer or Roth? It's impossible to decide."
"Decide!" she said and rose in dismissal.
What we did was to take the last twelve names on the alphabetical list and atlernate them with the first thirteen. Then we took the last eleven on the intermized list and placed them above the first fourteen. A cryptographer would have discerned what we had done, but no one less.
Of course, the rest is history. The list, as Mrs. Tooling had prophesied, was reproduced and commented upon around the world. I reprint it here for meditative purposes:
Allen Ginsberg, John Updike, John Hawkes, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Hoagland, Eudora Welty, John Irving, Richard Wilbur, Mary McCarthy, Herman Wouk, Normna Mailer, Woody Allen, Bernard Malamud, Donald Barthelme, James A. Michener, Jacques Barzun, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Lewis Mumford, Thomas Berger, Philip Roth, Peter De Vries, I.B. Singer, E.L. Doctorow and Anne Tyler.
The Times of London said: "A startling affirmation of America's riches! Here is a roster that shouts 'Vigor!' England, thy child hath surpassed thee."
L'Express: "The twenty-five names hold few surprises to devotees of American literature. But the order! The ranking contains such play of point and counterpoint, such wit, so sardonic and yet so correct! That Ginsberg, the holy man of the 1960s, should emerge as the premier American writer! And that he should precede the great Updike! What outrage! What wisdom!"
Literaturnaya Gazeta: "Twenty-five writers of assent. Where are those who have asked the quesions? Where are Robert Coover, Gore Vidal, Seymour Krim?"
After it was done and a great success, I again congratulated Chuckle Faircopy on his original list.
"You want to know something," he said, "I got it from the biographical entries in this," and he picked up a copy of the American Heritage Dictionary. "There are about thirty-five living American writers here, and I picked twenty-five."
"Twenty-four," I said.
He smiled serenely and said. "There'll be other editions."
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|Title Annotation:||an imaginary literary magazine chooses the best writers in America|
|Date:||Nov 17, 1984|
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