great magazine editor is a Diaghilev commanding an executive desk, a miniature aircraft carrier from which ideas launch into the wild yonder, which isn’t as wild as it used to be, but let’s save the wistful notes for the last paragraph. Like the founder of the Ballets Russes or a golden-age Hollywood producer, the ideal alpha magazine editor is an impresario, talent spotter, and snake charmer, a schmoozer extraordinaire possessed of iron stamina (capable of sitting for hours at luncheons and awards ceremonies without losing the last rope-hold on hope), and a master of minutiae who never loses sight of the big picture—the final production. . .then has to whip up another batch all over again. Book editors have their own war stories and victory sagas to tell, but their relationships with authors resemble long marriages that sometimes capsize into bitter divorce (witness the ongoing acrimony of the Gordon Lish-Raymond Carver controversy, even though only one of its combatants is still alive). Magazine editors have to conduct a magic show every week or month, juggling a battery of tender or prickly egos—not just authors’ but also those of art directors, photographers, illustrators, the advertising department, and editorial staffers—and avoiding burnout from the constant churn while staying in tempo with the times. To fall out of fashion may be professionally fatal. The subjects of the biographies and memoirs of magazine editors earning a spot on the Wall of Fame tend to divide into the long-haulers and the blazing comets—the institution builders and the rebel iconoclasts.
For several centuries the pose in a portrait served as a key element, and was often joined chiefly with the sitter’s clothing, and occasionally the background, as crucial supplements. These three elements — the body held, covered, and situated — were enlisted to support the emotional meaning of the work. Moreover, the elements were generally in service to the look on the subject’s face. This look was meant either as an expression of a true identity or as a comment on the world (including the viewer) onto which the subject looked. The resulting overarching emotion might embrace hauteur or graciousness or melancholy, emotions that could possess an ironic cast, but were often presented as pure and unadulterated. This complex of emotions is usually what catches us and holds us, inviting us to return gaze for gaze, to repay alert sensitivity with open absorption.
A year and a half ago, my uncle Chuck died unexpectedly. My family wanted me to have his books because I was a reader like he had been, and I was also a writer. And I wanted the books, especially his Library of America books, which looked so lovely and uniform and canonical. More importantly, I wanted to continue the conversation we’d been having since I’d learned to read—the “what are you reading,” conversation—because we were both always reading something. We were insatiable. We understood this about each other. There were so many things I would miss about him, but I knew I would miss this conversation the most.