Med Vehta's Remembering Mr. Shawn

Interview regarding life at the New Yorker

Ved Mehta: “I often wrote with Mr. Shawn in mind."
  • Ved Mehta: “I often wrote with Mr. Shawn in mind."

Author: Ved Mehta was born in 1934 in Lahore, Punjab, India. At age four, after a bout with meningitis, Mehta lost his eyesight. He would never recover his vision. He came to the United States in 1949, attending the Arkansas School for the Blind from 1949 to 1952. He received a B.A. from Pomona College in 1956; a B.A. from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1959; an M.A. in 1961 from Harvard University; and an M.A. from Oxford University in 1962. But the formative event in Mehta’s life, other than his blindness, was his association from 1961 to 1994 as a staff writer with The New Yorker. The majority of Mehta’s 26 books first appeared as installments in that magazine and were edited by William Shawn. Mehta, who lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughters, continues to teach and write.

Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing, The Overlook Press, 1998; 414 pages; $29.95 Type: biography cum memoir

Time: 1900 to present

Place: Manhattan; Cambridge, Massachusetts; England

“Mr. Shawn,” as most of The New Yorker’s writers called him, came in 1933 from a public relations job at J.C. Penney’s to The New Yorker as a freelance writer. Harold Ross, the magazine’s founder, named Shawn managing editor in 1939. After Ross’s death in 1951, Shawn became editor and remained in that position until 1987, when the magazine’s new owners forced Shawn, then 81, to retire. Shawn died in 1992. During Shawn’s almost 50-year tenure in editorial positions, The New Yorker published pieces that later would become classics — Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Jonathan Schell’s Village of Ben Sue and Fate of the Earth, John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Shawn was fearless about publishing pieces that ran for many, many pages. He was so confident of his taste that he was willing to publish what he admired, even when he guessed that the majority of the magazine’s readers would not share his admiration.

His writers, for the most part, worshipped him. Almost 50 books were dedicated to him, including J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, where Salinger celebrated Shawn as “lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific.”

Mehta, a Shawn favorite, in Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker, merges the history of his own development as a writer with a biography of Shawn. Anyone interested in how a writer works or how a magazine is edited will find Mehta’s book usefully instructive.

Jamaica Kincaid, who worked for many years at The New Yorker and later became Shawn’s daughter-in-law, once told me in an interview that Shawn was her ideal reader. “I really didn’t care,” Kincaid said, “who liked my writing as long as he read it. And if he liked it, it was great. But just as long as he read it.” While Shawn still edited The New Yorker, Kincaid said, about the magazine’s staff writers, “Our whole life, our whole way of looking at the world was, ‘Boy, this would be great to tell Shawn.’ And to tell him in writing. I never realized how I took it for granted until it was taken away from me.”

On the morning that we talked, I asked Mr. Mehta about the notion of the editor as ideal reader.

“Often writers, certainly I, need to have a sense of an ideal reader out there. Because when you’re writing, you don’t think of demographics, you don’t think about your mother. You want somebody who would get the exact nuance of meaning that you’re intending in what you’re writing. And who will respond to if the way you would want him to or her to respond to it.

“Now, most editors don’t have that capacity, because they bring their own baggage to a piece of writing. They respond to it with their own prejudices and preconceptions. The remarkable thing about Mr. Shawn was that he became almost your Siamese twin. He responded to a piece of writing as if he could see into your brain, see what your intent was, see what you hoped the piece would be — and in its best possible aspect. So that was just one kind of invisible ghostlike presence that was always with me when I was writing. That was an invisible aspect.

“But then there was the very mechanical part, if I can put it that way, which was, of course, his reading the same sentence over and over again to see if it could be improved, not as he would like it improved, but how it might be improved if you, yourself could improve it. In other words, he never imposed his taste on a piece of writing that belonged to me. So, really, it was some kind of a spiritual experience almost. That’s the best way I can describe it.

“I often wrote with Mr. Shawn in mind. I’ve published 21 books, and I think, except for the first one, I wrote each of the books with him in mind as the ideal reader.”

Mr. Mehta talked then about reading. “I’m talking about serious books. Not best-sellers and so on. I think a reading is an act of imagination. It’s like, in a little way, psychoanalysis. However good the method, however good the text may be that a writer has written, a reader will only get out of it as much as he puts into it. So an ideal reader is actively engaged and actively participates and gets your nuances and meaning.

“We all know there are many ways of reading. Sometimes you just skim the surface, and other times you dig deeper into a text, and other times you still dig deeper. So a good text is written at many levels and has very many levels of meaning. An ideal reader, you hope, will get all those meanings — those implicit meanings, the metaphors, the feats of imagination that you yourself had in mind when you were writing it. Of course, the burden is on the writer in the sense that he has to make sure that it’s clear, it’s not ambiguous. But once you’ve produced the best text you can, you hope that the reader would get out of it what you put into it.”

I said that Shawn seemed to encourage writers to undertake difficult, even daring projects.

“That’s true. He simply created ideal conditions, and you were then left alone to work out your own destiny as a writer. He didn’t impose deadlines, he didn’t impose assignments, he didn’t say you have to produce this, produce that. But of course, the monetary reward that we all needed in order to pay our rent and doctor bills and grocery bills was really determined by what we produced. But there was no pressure of any kind except the pressure of money, which is just a realistic pressure that we all have.”

I said that Jamaica Kincaid had said that when she writes, she still has Shawn in mind as her reader. Did Mr. Mehta also feel this way?

“1 think his standards and values in my case are internalized. So I don’t really think of Mr. Shawn. He taught me certain things, which are now part of my mental life. So I don’t have an image of Mr. Shawn as a reader, or image of Mr. Shawn when I’m writing. I just have absorbed his principles and standards.

“I haven’t worked with many other editors. There was nobody like him. There are many more writers than there are great editors. In my experience, there have only been three great editors: Maxwell Perkins, Harold Ross, and William Shawn. But I don’t need as much editorial help now as I did when I was younger. The thing is to become your own good editor. I think Mr. Shawn taught us to be our own good editor.”

About his one and only meeting with The New Yorker's present editor, Tina Brown, who did not renew Mehta’s New Yorker contract, Mehta writes: “We exchanged one or two amenities, then neither of us could think of anything more to say. Actually, most of our meeting, which couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes, was taken up with an embarrassing confusion over which chair she should sit in and which chair I should sit in. Oddly, 1 ended up sitting in her chair.”

About the “new” New Yorker, under Ms. Brown, Mr. Mehta said, “I don’t really know the new New Yorker. I’m not part of it. I don’t read it much. I have so many books that I’m reading. I don’t read magazines anymore.”

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