A Lover of the Long Shot

LINCOLN CAPLAN

December 11, 1992|By LINCOLN CAPLAN

Washington. -- In 1979, six months after The New Yorker ha accepted a piece I'd sent in for the ''Talk of the Town,'' William Shawn asked me to meet with him. At 72, he had been editor of the magazine for 27 years. In a detail as strange as it turned out to be favorable, he had read only that one piece of writing by me -- though I'd sent the magazine a pile of clips.

Shawn asked me a question: Even though he wasn't offering me a job and wasn't sure he'd have one to offer any time soon, would I be interested in joining the magazine as a ''Talk'' writer?

There was more to the meeting -- it was among the longest we had in the course of eight years. During it, he told me that the two ingredients he hoped to find in reporting for the magazine were passion for the subject and traces of humanity. He believed that a writer should pursue what interested him, and, if Shawn was correct about the writer's ability, that what the writer had to say would be important to readers.

The New Yorker of William Shawn, who died this week at 85, existed inside the heads of the magazine's contributors. The challenge he had as an editor was to liberate the work that eventually got published. Shawn trusted his sense of what to print, and when, and put no stock in editorial meetings, opinion polls, lunches with newsmakers, focus groups, or other means that are now often used in determining the contents of magazines.

Above all, Shawn was independent. He believed that writers should be, too. He expected a writer to immerse himself in a subject, to know it intimately, but ultimately to stand back and judge it from a critical distance. Subjects were mysterious and changeable, but they contained a truth that was worth pursuing. writer fulfilled his responsibility by making a subject his own. Shawn was remarkably open to discoveries of writers, all the more so because his devotion to the magazine and various phobias rooted him in New York City. He was not often prejudiced by first-hand observation of a topic in the magazine.

Shawn's emphasis on independence led some people to consider the magazine imperious, stand-offish, and as having a variety of other regrettable traits. But Shawn's New Yorker simply went about its business, taking on pieces that seemed too ambitious, slight, intellectual, or obscure for many other journals. Part of the reason was self-confidence, and the magazine's self-confidence made it, as J. D. Salinger once wrote, a lover of the long shot.

I was 28 when I met Shawn, and I was a long shot. When I didn't go after the ''Talk'' job that Shawn had mentioned (I'd gotten a White House Fellowship and viewed the one-year experience as a valuable apprenticeship before I turned full-time to writing), I learned that Shawn's sense of time was other-worldly.

A few months were too brief to worry about accounting for and a year was a short span. Five years were sometimes what it took to get a good magazine piece finished. At the end of my fellowship year, Shawn didn't seem to notice the passage of time, and, with his backing, I began to write regularly for The New Yorker.

In the old offices of the magazine, in Manhattan, there was a large map of the New York subways on one wall in the corridor. It was easy to imagine the magazine as a staging area for missions of an inquiring sort into the outside world, by writers, reporters, artists and poets. But the offices were spare and extremely quiet, and they were daunting in the fashion of places devoted to intense, hard-to-define brainwork.

William Shawn ruled the institution. Small, alert, with an oval face that seemed ageless, he wore dark wool suits even in summer and came across as unfailingly polite. He had a high, soft, quavering voice, and, while he spoke in simple, wonderfully open sentences, he struck almost everyone who met him as private, shy and somehow vulnerable.

He also asserted enormous power. Part of it came from his skill, because he was a fast, gifted, truly inventive editor. A conversation with Shawn about a piece of writing was as delicate and focused as a seance: direct, intimate, dream-like in its lingering guidance. He hated (his word) writing that was hyped, breezy or snappy (his words), and disliked dutiful exposition, easy phrases that slid into cliche. He helped writers find confidence. With it, they took risks that sometimes yielded art.

Much of his authority came from a moral force. He made me and many others feel that our work was a mission. He inspired original work from two generations of writers that led me, among many, to fall in love with the magazine as a reader. He nurtured work from another generation of writers, as well.

Perhaps the best measure of Shawn's effect on me was the deal I accepted from him. Because of the opportunity that writing for The New Yorker represented, I took a vow, not a job, when I became a regular contributor. I received no salary, no benefits and no guarantee that the magazine would buy my work.

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