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"Avid Reader" by Robert Gottlieb


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Gottlieb's memoir is helpfully organized for skipping around (there's an index, too), so I skipped right to the “Dancing” chapter. If you’ve read Gottlieb’s writings on the subject over the years you will not find a lot that’s new and I for one was hoping for something a little more detailed and candid – okay, juicier - about backstage occurrences at NYCB and MCB, but it’s still worth checking out. It's also a pleasure to read about the great dance books that Gottlieb shepherded to publication. I have all the books he writes about here and wouldn't be without any of them.

 

I am now attending to the rest of the book. So far, mixed feelings, but reading with interest.

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I skimmed through it, found the Miami Ballet background interesting, also Gottlieb's experience at the New Yorker and his gentle but firm portrait of Shawn. I was curious about his fallout with Candida Donadio who used to be an important agent. But on the whole it was a bit too discreet and you wanted to hear more behind-the-scenes details and some stronger literary judgments. There's less of the sharpened quill he uses in his NY Observer columns.

Edited by Quiggin
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True.  And there's an awful lot of my-great-friend-Nora-Ephron sort of thing.

 

I was curious to see what he would say about his rejection of A Confederacy of Dunces, which was not much, as it turned out. He didn't quite get the book then and still doesn't, one gathers. Thank heaven Toole's mother found that dusty copy. Also not at home with experimental fiction, as he admits.

 

I enjoyed reading about his back-and-forths with Robert A. Caro - he's right, Caro is fond of repetition, which makes you wonder what he'd be like if he didn't have Gottlieb arguing back.

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I agree that this memoir is rather airbrushed and has none of the acerbic wit of his writings on dance or his articles in NYBooks. Everyone's a "great friend," a "cherished partner," etc. I also think that his chapter about working at Simon & Schuster is the best but his tenure at Knopf is a lot of name-dropping. I'm disappointed overall.

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I agree that the Simon & Schuster chapter is better, but then rising to the top tends to make a livelier tale than life at the top. I enjoyed the photo section of memorable book covers, which made me wonder how important book covers are in today's publishing - do they still put as much thought and energy into them, or have they mostly gone the way of album cover art?

 

Great Moments in Gender Relations: Gottlieb informs his new wife, Maria Tucci, that his ex was an excellent cook and he's used to good food, so she better get cracking at the stove. He also gives her a copy of Julia Child's 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking.' Tucci seems to have accepted the book politely instead of beaning him with it. Times have changed somewhat.

 

I was impressed that Gottlieb can rattle off the apostolic succession of Three Girls on the Make movies. My only quibble is that he left out The Greeks Had a Word for Them, starring Joan Blondell, lovely Madge Evans, and the great stage star Ina Claire. Also How to Marry a Millionaire, and of course there would have been no Girls without Sex and the City. 

 

I will also see his Helen Twelvetrees and raise him an Ann Harding.

 

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I'm only halfway done and haven't got to much of the ballet part, but so far, I am loving reading a description of work, workplaces, and colleagues in which they were having a blast. I particularly love the part where without bosses, they just made it up as they went along!

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In this past Sunday's New York Times Book Review:

 

Robert Gottlieb's roundup of silly romance novels:

 

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/books/review/macomber-steel-james-romance.html?action=click&contentCollection=review&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=sectionfront

 

Vivian Gornick on Adam Gopnik's new memoir, which begins in generic praise mode and then shifts tone into something very serious:

 

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/29/books/review/adam-gopnik-memoir-at-the-strangers-gate.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fbook-review&action=click&contentCollection=review&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=5&pgtype=sectionfront

 

Gottlieb and Gopnik barely mention each other in their respective memoirs, yet they worked closely at Knopf and at the New Yorker. According to Renata Adler's account in Gone - The Last Days of the New Yorker (which generally squares with Gornick's review), Gopnik didn't have much use for Gottlieb after Gottlieb left the magazine. Odd though to see them appear side by side in same issue of the Sunday Times.

Edited by Quiggin
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I don't get the impression that Gottlieb finds them all that silly.  And he's paid attention:  my favorite quotes is "(I’m absolutely certain that lawyer Connie is going to end up with Jonathan of the Bolognese.)"  What could be more romantic than that?

 

$.99 to $28.99 is a pretty big spread.

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Gottlieb’s article is affectionate but also condescending. Possibly a younger writer and, yeah, a woman, would have been able to bring a different perspective to the topic. Some time ago I saw a piece on how romance novels have changed with the changing status of women that was most interesting. Gottlieb talks about that a bit, but only superficially. I will say I hope I have his energy when and if I get to his age.

 

(It’s not that romance novels aren’t silly – by and large they are – but like other forms of mass culture they reflect the culture in occasionally illuminating ways. Of course, a lot of genre writing aimed at men is silly, too, but it doesn't get dinged for it the way writing intended for a female audience does.)

 

Thank you for the links, Quiggin. Interesting reading. Gopnik, like Talleyrand, seems to have a talent for surviving through regime changes.  Probably any editor would find his astonishing glibness useful. That (very flattering) photo reminds me of the famous one of young Truman Capote reclining seductively.  

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12 minutes ago, dirac said:

(It’s not that romance novels aren’t silly – by and large they are – but like other forms of mass culture they reflect the culture in occasionally illuminating ways. Of course, a lot of genre writing aimed at men is silly, too, but it doesn't get dinged for it the way writing intended for a female audience does.)

Which was how he concluded:

 

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This retro venture, flatly written like all Steel’s books, is just further evidence of how romance can swing any which way. Regency, psychopaths, wedding planners, ranchers, sadists, grandmas, bordellos, dukes (of course); whips, fish tacos, entails, Down syndrome, recipes, orgasms — romance can absorb them all, which suggests it’s a healthy genre, not trapped in inflexibility. Its readership is vast, its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And its effect? Harmless, I would imagine. Why shouldn’t women dream? After all, guys have their James Bonds as role models. Are fantasies of violence and danger really more respectable than fantasies of courtship and female self-empowerment? Or to put it another way, are Jonathan’s Bolognese and Cam’s cucumber salsa any sillier than “Octopussy’s” Alfa Romeo and Bond’s unstirred martinis?

 

I think my father read every Louis L'amour book ever printed.

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40 minutes ago, dirac said:

That (very flattering) photo reminds me of the famous one of young Truman Capote reclining seductively.  

 

I didn't think of that – but of course! I immediately thought of doe-eyed Susan Sontag, especially the photograph by Peter Hujar (who you can see laid the groundwork for Robert Mapplethorpe's square format aesthetic):

 

http://mwr.nytimes.com/2015/09/10/t-magazine/1970s-new-york-history.html

 

My beef with Gopnik is that he takes up the space in the New Yorker that used to be occupied by more serious writers and writing in the past. Instead of hearing about current intellectual or political ideas in France, we merely hear that Jean Baudrillard, "the terror of West Broadway" (a block away from NYU???), is not so formidable in person – merely a mundane "stocky little guy" in his fifties. Also with Gopnik all high art is approached through low art and giggles first – Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein is not related to Ingres' Mons Berlin but to crude comic book sketches, etc. 

 

Good interview with Renata Adler at the Guardian, mentions the break with Gottlieb:

 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/07/renata-adler-new-york-author-interview

 

And thanks for your good comments on romance novels.

 

 

Edited by Quiggin
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See the romance novel roundup has some of the wit and bite that is so sorely missing from "Avid Reader." Consider this:

 

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No orgasm, solo or in tandem, we should note, graces the pages of the most prolific and successful romance queen of all time, Barbara Cartland, step-grandmother of Princess Diana and author of 723 novels, 160 of them unpublished at her death (just before her 99th birthday) in 2000. Her son is still doling these out, one a month, as “The Pink Collection,” and they are without benefit of sex. The formidable Barbara knew where her readers wanted the line drawn: No Cartland heroine ever came into contact with a hardened rod.

 

It's witty, it's funny, and at its heart one senses someone who is a real fan of books and of writing, even if it's silly. The same spirit dots his dance reviews. I don't always agree with them, but I know I am reading someone who LOVES dance, who as an octogenarian is still so excited when the ballet season starts.

 

The Gottlieb of "Avid Reader" often sounds like he's checking the boxes of people he has to air-kiss. Toni Morrison? Check. Bill Clinton? Check. And so on. 

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I would expect the editor of Bill Clinton and Toni Morrison to include them in a memoir, not to put affect false modesty and skip them.

 

I loved "Avid Reader" like I love many books about work.  He loved his work and his jobs for many years, which is more than most people can say, and "Avid Reader" didn't read to me like he loved his job to be able to name drop.  I found it infused with energy.

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I'm not saying he was name-dropping. Just that his memoir came across as slightly workmanlike. Gottlieb appears to be one of those writers who is uncomfortable actually talking about himself. The wit and love he shows for writing and dance in his reviews IMO is more fun to read because of the unbridled enthusiasm. 

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I wanted more from Gottlieb about working at the New Yorker. Renata Adler (who was there) said he was "almost comically incurious" – compared to William Shawn – about the workings of the magazine. He talked mostly about himself and wasn't interested in the staff. His voice was "bored", his manner "languid." He said he, Adam Gopnik and Martha Kaplan (his "girl Friday") could probably edit the magazine by themselves.

 

I agree with canbelto that Gottlieb's dance writings are far more involving. Sometimes with artists their more "personal" work is their least personal and their impersonal work tells the most about them. Avid Reader seems like something Gottlieb promised himself one day he would do and one day he did.

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I'd also add his shortish biographies of Sarah Bernhardt, George Balanchine, and the complicated family life of Charles Dickens IMO are also more revealing about who Gottlieb is as a person: sharp, witty, insightful. He obviously admired Mr. B enormously but his book doesn't shy away from talking about Mr. B's harder side. 

Gottlieb's book sort of reminds me of many politicians' memoirs that don't reveal much about said politician. Exhibit A: Bill Clinton's My Life. The complex, charismatic man is lost within volumes and volumes of him reciting his presidential calender.

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Whereas I think he writes with passion about working in book publishing and, a rarity, his female colleagues.

 

He also describes an unusual (second) marriage:  I don't know many people whose spouse was busy or uninterested who could head to Europe or any other destination with a female friend and have a great, unencumbered time with all parties fine with it.   He almost made marriage sound appealing to me.  That alone was worth the read.

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