Literary Alumnus Daniel Menaker ’63 Reads, Speaks at Writing Center on Monday

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The introduction that Daniel Menaker’s ‘63 received at his public talk in the Writing Center on Monday detailed his many accolades. Menaker has worked as the fiction editor of The New Yorker and the Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House and contributed many pieces to The New York Times, Harper’s, the Huffington Post, among other media outlets.

His most impressive achievement, however, was stated as follows: “Daniel Menaker is proof that you can be successful with an English major.”

Menaker’s new memoir, My Mistake, is said to have a “reflective and witty” writing style that is reminiscent of his other writings. My Mistake draws mostly on his experiences and is divided into five parts, each of which is then further partitioned into blocks that function much like weblogs.

The innovative structure of his memoir, Menaker explains, allows for a fluidity that conventional, connected narratives may not necessarily allow. One section is devoted entirely to Swarthmore.

As Menaker opened the book–and in effect his life–to the audience, the light-hearted banter shifted into a more somber and intimate atmosphere. It quickly became apparent that this was not just another memoir written by another pedantic protagonist. Menaker dropped insight on attitudes of his generation with acute observations on the beginnings of a cultural revolution.

He described his time at Swarthmore as “the undergraduate temporariness that was a microcosm of the great temporariness” and slyly threw in an anecdote about “resigning from the Student Judiciary for their fascist policies when they instilled a dress code in the dining hall.” A cynical, dry wit is evident behind his words of wisdom.

Menaker confided that he did not consider writing as a career until he experienced personal and emotional trauma: the death of his brother. Writing, then, became an outlet for emotions too unbearable to be kept in. When asked if he had time to write for pleasure at Swarthmore, he answered, simply, “no.”

Menaker recalled Swarthmore as a campus of “plaid shirts and two brands of jeans: Levi’s and Lee’s.” During his college years, he protested low labor wages of the college’s employees in contrast to the college’s large endowment. In the lecture, Menaker referred to the protest as “training wheels for Students for a Democratic Society.” He also recalled writing for The Phoenix.

The Swarthmore he remembered had a genuine humility that may have stemmed from its Quaker origin. Menaker recalled the attitude shift of the 1960’s, and the shift’s prevalence upon campus. Students left the conformity and domesticity of the 1950’s at home for new and exhilarating values, the ones frequently sung of by Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. “In a radical way,” he says of his fellow students, “we were the same. We believed we have left our families behind.”

Students listen as Menaker speaks in the Writing Center

Menaker recalls leaving the college with an enriched view of life that he claimed only the study of the humanities and a liberal arts education can provide. The descent from the “ivory tower” into the “real world” was scary, but his background in the humanities changed the way that he approached menial tasks by showing the depth of humanity behind seemingly small things.

There was an honest quality about Menaker when asked about his extensive background in the world of publishing. His transition to publishing started from receiving his Master of Arts from Johns Hopkins University, yet when asked if graduate school was a strong foothold into the world of publishing and journalism, he regretfully shook his head. “No, not unless it’s Columbia School of Journalism,” he said.

The conception of the publishing industry as an indie dreamscape of coffee houses and worn-in chairs seemed to be shattered by the commerce and hard business of selling books. As much as he valued his time editing for large publications, Menaker talked about the strangeness of publishing and how literature and the business of literature are tectonic plates shifting against each other. The tension caused by the love of literature and the need to sell was a frequent conflict.

He found himself lying about the quality of books, or watching books with no literary merit triumph over ones with it. Eventually, the thrill that Menaker received through reading for pleasure, especially fiction, was gone. At the end of the day, a job was still a job.

Yet Menaker also offered an optimistic side of his work. “When your taste is validated and a book becomes a success, it’s exhilarating,” he said. He mentioned working with writers and poets such as Billy Collins, David Foster Wallace, Jennifer Egan, Elizabeth Strout, Antonya Nelson, and Michael Chabon as some of the most rewarding experiences of his life.

The future of publishing is not, in his opinion, in jeopardy. “[I] do not think the human need for stories will go away. The need for narrative is evolutionary,” he said.

Although the business of ebooks and online publishing is still in development, Menaker said “the world of publishing poetry is stable.” He then pulled out a piece of writing advice. “Write before you have breakfast, closer to your dreams,” he said.

After a pause, he dismissed the romanticism behind his words. He clarified that the more scheduled writing is, the better the process becomes. “If you’re blocked, that’s okay because you’re still writing. The not writing and being upset about it is part of writing,” he said.

Menaker’s success is validation for all English majors. He proves that pursuing a career in English is not a dead-end street. Menaker’s trajectory also exemplifies the idea that life as you know it now will not necessarily be the life you will always know.

Note: This article has been edited, at the request of Daniel Menaker, to reflect the following corrections: the previous article contained an anecdote which misattributed some private parts to Menaker. That anecdote has since been removed. In addition, “Democratic National Convention” has been replaced by “Students for a Democratic Society.” Finally, the adjective “Woody Allen-esque” has been removed in reference to Menaker.

1 Comment

  1. What a pleasure it was to meet these students! I hope they had even just half as good a time getting together with me as I did with them. In this piece, which is generally fair and good and insightful, and has a nice implicit “voice,” there are a couple of demonstrations of the factual challenges posed by instant journalism. One is that it wasn’t me with “dignity” as a name for that private part but another kid–a kid who went on to be one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society. And it was indeed Students for a Democratic Society, not the “Democratic National Convention.” If only!! Finally–and this is no one’s fault but my own–if I am never again compared to Woody Allen (or Larry David, for that matter, or my looks to those of Ralph Nader) I will be a somewhat happier and less Allenesque/Davidesque/Naderesque man. Why can’t I get a George Clooney or a Muhammad Ali? Don’t answer.

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