Paperback Writer

The Most Underrated Novels I’ve Edited

The veteran New Yorker and Random House editor, whose new memoir is My Mistake, picks the most under-appreciated books he’s edited.

In book publishing, in which I was in for 15 years, eventually becoming Editor in Chief of Random House, about five out of six books don’t “work.” (Or six out of seven, seven out of eight, etc., depending on what kinds of accounting shell games are or are not being played in the back office.) That is, they don’t earn back their advances, their sales are negligible, and/or their reviews are scanty and ignorant. But almost every book, except those that are published most cynically and graspingly, has the passionate support of its editor. The only people sadder than the editors to see book after book sink into the mire of disregard or financial and critical failure are the authors. For an editor, it’s as if you were a parent sending child after child out into the world only to see most of them stumble at the first curb, lose their lunch money, fall down in the playground and scrape their elbows, get into trouble for something they didn’t do, and develop eczema. So I consider this gracious invitation from The Daily Beast an opportunity to speak up for some literary children of mine who went under-appreciated when they stepped out the door of Random House.

ZoliBy Colum McCann

This is the novel that preceded Mr. McCann’s National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin. It’s about a Gypsy poet who wanders through Europe during the fascist and communist upheavals of the 1930s. Distrusted by her own people, manipulated by political forces, Zoli and her story represent not only the trials and endurance of an individual artist but an entire era in European history. Moving and instructive. One sentence (well, two sentences): “She stepped towards me, placed my hand on the curve of her hip. Her back against a tree, our feet slipping in the leaves, her hair across her face, she seemed dismantled.”

Serpent GirlBy Matthew Carnahan

Carnahan, TV producer, Emmy nominee (and maybe even winner) and boy friend of Helen Hunt and father of their child, with an Hawaiian name, got blurbs for this book from Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard. Or maybe I got them. It’s about a ne’er-do-well named Bailey Quinn, 23, who takes up with the circus, in pursuit of some no-goods who have stolen from him. He ends up having sex with the serpent girl, Eelie. (In fact I wanted to call the novel “Sex with the Serpent Girl” but was overruled.) The freaks are cooking the books, and the carny world turns into a funhouse mirror of the allegedly real one. The book is “in production” for a movie, according to IMDB. Sentence: “I touched one of her flippers, right alongside a breast.”

SafelightBy Shannon Burke

About an EMT in Harlem in the 1990s, when New York was in a shambles: unemployment, crack wars, delinquent landlords burning down buildings and cashing in. Frank Verbeckas is the EMT—serving the desperate and sick and wounded, all the while taking photographs of what he witnesses. He falls in love with a fatally ill woman named Emily, and it remains to be seen whether this relationship will redeem or ruin him. A social document as much as a story, this book is hard to take but more than worth it. Passage: “I began taking pictures. Of his slumped body. Of his head. Of his face. Of his blank eyes. Of the entrance wound. The exit.”

The Old LeftBy Daniel Menaker

OK, I didn’t publish it. I wrote it. Obviously. It got some very nice reviews, my friends liked it or said they did, quite convincingly, it lives on in the memories of I’d say eight, maybe nine people, but it’s what the French call something like a soosay de steam, not a soosay de sales or a soosay de prizes or really a soosay of any other kind. I asked that a picture of an old man—who is the main subject of the book—not be put on the cover, but there’s a picture of an old man on the cover. Love the author photo, with the Isro and all, sitting on a radiator cover at The New Yorker. This is the literary child who becomes a carpenter, does good work, and grows up to have a happy if very quiet life. Sentence: “Only artists and Communists wear brown berets.”

Editor's note: In an earlier version of this article, Daniel Menaker included the novel Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey, but he was not actually the editor of that novel. It was instead Molly Barton at Viking/Penguin. We apologize for the error. Menaker explains: "Arterial plaque has struck again. I did not work on Ceridwen Dovey's Blood Kin. I just interviewed her. Profound apologies to Molly Barton, the brilliant editor, and to Viking/The Penguin Group. All I can say is, ‘72.’”