8 Million Stories: Blunder at the Book Review
“This is Michael Anderson from The New York Times Book Review. Are you available for a rush assignment over the weekend?” he asked.
I’d written “In Short” critiques for other Book Review editors but didn’t recognize his name. Like The New Yorker, there was no masthead, as if they belonged to a secret society only insiders understood. Editors there seemed to pass around freelancers the way high school football players passed around easy cheerleaders. But in the summer of 1989, his cold call thrilled me; it meant that somebody must have told him I was good!
“I’d be honored,” I said, forgetting the Hamptons weekend I’d planned. For a young Manhattanite with literary aspirations, The Book Review was God.
“Good. We’re really under the gun. This Little, Brown hardcover showed up without warning. The pub date’s in two weeks.”
He was telling me more than other editors usually did. Was saying it was a “Little, Brown hardcover” a code? Did sending me a book coming out in two weeks mean the publisher submitted it late?
“Have we met before?” I asked.
“No, I just started here in July,” he said.
“Really? Welcome!” I said. Good, he wouldn’t know I was a Times neophyte since he was greener than I was.
“Becky gave me your name,” he said.
Rebecca Sinkler, the editor-in-chief. New to book reviewing and the Times, I was thrilled “Becky” knew my name. How cool was that! Mr. Anderson assigned me a review of Harrison E. Salisbury’s new book Tiananmen Diary. Could I get him a thousand words by Monday morning?
“Of course. Thank you, sir,” I said, stunned. Salisbury was a Pulitzer Prize winner! They were trusting me with a Times icon chronicling an important political tragedy. The massacre of Chinese students was three months before, which explained Little, Brown’s rush to publish the first book. But why were they giving me—an expert on Judaism, poetry and feminism—a long review of a prominent China book?
I’d feared my conservative Midwest doctor father was right about going to law school. But this call seemed an omen from the writing gods. Did Mr. Anderson, a Chicago native, know I was also a Midwesterner? My beloved brother’s name was Michael; his name had good karma. It was a good way to meet a new mentor.
I called my parents in Michigan, shrieking: “This new editor at Book Review gave me a rush assignment for a major book!”
“That’s wonderful, dear,” my mother said. “Jack, a new editor just gave your daughter a rush assignment for the Book Review.”
“Which book are you reviewing?” Dad asked, picking up the line.
“Tiananmen Square, by Pulitzer Prize winner Harrison Salisbury!”
“Do you even know where China is?” my father asked.
“Jack! That’s not nice to say to your daughter! What the hell’s wrong with you?” my mother yelled.
“Why would they give her a book on China?” he grumbled.
I guessed it was jealousy. My father was a history buff who’d practically memorized Salisbury’s other works and tried to interest me—to no avail. I admit I’d also been wondering why they gave me a China book. Most Manhattan critics were out of town August weekends. Of the few left in the sweltering city, maybe they’d chosen me because I’d done a terrific job on other nonfiction. Plus, I’d turned around copy fast. (I wasn’t the smartest so I figured I’d be the quickest.)
I quickly read the 178 pages of the tacky-looking little book: Tiananmen Diary in red lettering and Thirteen Days In June in yellow. Although I have strong reading and comprehension skills, I didn’t understand Salisbury’s day-to-day diary. By coincidence, he’d been in China with a camera crew, making a TV documentary on the 40th anniversary of the People’s Republic. He witnessed the slaughter of Tiananmen Square students from his window at the Beijing Hotel. He described the military action, interweaving interviews with local workers, newscasts and historical analysis. I tried to draw a time line of the events but contradictions abounded. I worried the subject and author were over my head.
Friday at 7 p.m., I rushed to the library to look up Salisbury’s other books, which were more lucid. I Xeroxed pages, along with encyclopedia articles on China, and newspaper microfilm accounts of what had happened in June in Tiananmen Square.
Comparing them to Salisbury’s book, I was at sea. I had a career-making assignment, yet I was choking. I couldn’t call Mr. Anderson until Monday, too late to make my deadline. I phoned my dad, a night owl, like me. I blurted out my problem, expecting “I told you so.” But he was pleased to help. I read the confusing passages and asked, “What does this mean?”
“Arteriosclerotic dementia, I’d guess,” he said.
“How old is Salisbury?”
“About 80,” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“The onset of dementia. There’s 50 different kinds. Could be Alzheimer’s, strokes, alcohol. Does he drink? Don’t all journalists drink?”
“Dad, don’t diagnose him!” I screamed. “Just tell me what that passage means.”
“It doesn’t mean anything. It’s mishmash. He seems old, sleep-deprived, out of it.”
“Really? That’s what I thought! But I was afraid I was missing something.” I lit a cigarette.
“Trust your own judgment,” said my father, lighting his cigarette; I heard him inhale long-distance.
“I can’t write that it’s a mishmash,” I lamented. “I can’t trash a famous 80-year-old journalist’s book in the newspaper that made him famous.”
“Maybe that’s why they gave you the book,” he said. “They figured you’d be young, malleable and afraid to kill it.”
“Dad, stop insulting me.”
“I’m not insulting you.”
“Look, it’s the biggest assignment I’ve had, so I can’t screw up. He’s got the angle right politically, trashing China’s corrupt, scared and geriatric leadership. He’s sympathetic to the students. He asked a Chinese supporter of democracy ‘What’s the news today?’ The man replied, ‘The news is that 1.1 billion hearts are dead.’”
“Use that quote and make your piece about what happened in Tiananmen Square,” my father said. “Like those boring professors who use The Book Review as a platform for their own issues. At the end, stick in that the author was in too much of a rush.”
Well, when had Dr. Disease become an expert at book reviewing?
“Thanks, Daddy,” I said.
Taking dad’s advice, I handed in 1500 words on Monday, apologizing that it came out long. Mr. Anderson quoted Samuel Johnson: “I’m sorry I’m writing you a long letter, I didn’t have time to write you a short one.” I assumed my piece would be cut to shreds but soon I got an early copy of The Book Review, with 1,500 of my words, hardly any edits, and a check for $350, the most I’d made from the Times thus far. The clip helped me get assignments from The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, People, Us Weekly and The Village Voice.
Sixteen years later, researching my mentor book, I googled the late Harrison E. Salisbury (who’d died in 1993, at 84) and stumbled on press for Tiananmen Diary—very negative press. The New York Review of Books called it “The Lost Weekend.” The worst slam, in The Nation, was by journalist Judith Shapiro. She said the book was a mess, riddled with mistakes. I looked up this other Shapiro. Wow, she’d authored After the Nightmare: Inside China Today, Son of the Revolution, Mao’s War Against Nature and Return to China. Man, she was the ultimate Asia expert: Why hadn’t The Times given her Salisbury’s book?
Aha! In a flash, I realized they’d meant to. I filled in the blanks of what had happened in 1989, with the first assignment Michael gave me. New at the Book Review, he’d obviously mixed up the two female Shapiro critics. When Michael called me, he thought he was speaking to the Shapiro who was a China expert. It wasn’t such a good way to meet a mentor after all.
After my 1,500-word Salisbury review ran, Michael kept giving me assignments—but at the piddly 300-word length. I didn’t get another 1,000-word review for 10 years—from a different editor.
“When you gave me that first China book, did you confuse me with the China expert Judith Shapiro?” I finally asked him.
“Yes. That assignment was a big mistake,” he admitted. “There was a whole interrogation about it at work. Someone had confused the two of you and gave me the wrong name. Becky threw a shit fit.”
“Were you mad at me?” I asked.
“No. I actually thought it was nice that the old guy got a good Times review for one of his last books,” he said.
This is an excerpt from Susan Shapiro’s recent memoir, Only As Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons From My Favorite Literary Gurus available from Seal Press.
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