John Palattella: A Writer’s Editor

Last week, an announcement went out from The Nation that, while barely mentioned in the media-obsessed world of the Internet, echoed throughout my little corner of the Internet. John Palattella will be stepping down from his position as Literary Editor of The Nation in September, transitioning to a new role as an Editor at Large at the magazine.

For the last nine years, John has been my editor at The Nation. I wrote six pieces for him. That may not seem like a lot, but these were lengthy essays, some 42,000 words in total, several of them taking me almost a year to write. That’s partially a reflection of my dilatory writing habits, but it also tells you something about John’s willingness to invest in a writer and a piece.

John is not just an editor. Nor is he just an editor of one of the best literary reviews in the country. John is a writer’s editor.

Over the years, I’ve worked with more editors than I can remember. A few were stellar: Alex Star at Lingua Franca (now, at Farrar, Straus and Giroux) was one; an editor at the New York Times oped page whose name I can never recall is another. John, however, is in a class by himself.

Looking over the literally hundreds of emails he and I exchanged about my pieces—from the opening “Hey, Corey, would you be interested” to the final “This is the last change we can make”—I see the presence of an editor unlike any other I’ve worked with.

For starters, John knows his writers. I turn down many assignments, for reasons of time or lack of interest. But I don’t think I’ve ever said no to John. Even when I didn’t have time, I made the time. Not because I felt loyal to him, though I do, but because John knows how to pique my interest and how to avoid anything that would feel like a chore.

Every time we worked together on a piece, it felt as if an ideal roommate, unobtrusive but scrupulous and attentive, had moved into the apartment. An alter-ego who cared about only one thing: the work (and making it better). But without that hectoring, punishing, censorious inner voice that so often accompanies one’s best efforts.

John does more than read your prose carefully; he gets right in there with you, inhabiting the space of your argument (one of John’s writers told me that when she was writing a piece about a novelist, John actually read or re-read the novels she was writing about), respecting the perimeters that have to be respected but also noticing the holes in the fence. Holes that either need mending—or that give you, the writer, the opportunity to light out for new territory.

I can’t remember how many times, after working on a piece for six or so months, breaking promise after deadline promise, I would send John a draft, only to have him notice an un-pursued line of the argument, requiring another month or so of new writing, which he would happily encourage me to undertake. It was work, but it never felt like work. Or perhaps it felt like work as the early Marx—or Sherlock Holmes (“My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants.”)—imagined it.

But as generous as John is with time and space (one of my pieces clocked in at 11,000 words), he’s never careless or indulgent. At one point in a piece I was working on about Hannah Arendt, I wanted to introduce a whole new section on Arendt, Phillip Roth, and comedy. John gently reined me in, reminding me that the stage was already crowded with a cast of characters; introduce one or two more, he warned, and I’d overwhelm the play.

Above all, John respects the writer. That doesn’t mean he caters to the writer; he can be as tough and uncompromising as anyone. But when he is tough and uncompromising, you trust—you know—he’s doing it for the piece.

Other editors serve other gods. Some care only about what their bosses tell them, so they pass on the directives from on high, often as if they were their own, which makes for a crazy-making relationship with writers. Others want to impose their political line on a piece, which has led me to explode on more than one occasion, “If that’s what you want the piece to say, why don’t you fucking write it?” And still others are simply frustrated writers, who view their authors as competition or the enemy.

Not John. John is like one of those editors you read about in those elegiac hagiographies of literary New York—William Shawn at The New Yorker, at least as Ved Mehta described him (“Every New Yorker piece is different,” Shawn said to Mehta, “You should feel free to write any way you want to”) or Maxwell Perkins, “editor of genius” to Hemingway and Fitzgerald—where the point is to celebrate and mourn, in equal parts, the lost art of editing.

John’s art is not lost. This is how he described it in an interview last summer:

You’re trying to put yourself into a state of “negative capability,” in the sense that the poet John Keats meant: a state of being in mysteries and uncertainties without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. For me, in terms of editing, negative capability means becoming preoccupied with the way a piece thinks, the way a writer wants his or her thinking to sound in language….I think good editors are invisible and present, but their presence is undetectable. How are they present? Through what’s been selected and the way a piece has been shaped through the conversation or the exchange that happens during the editorial process.

Ordinarily, when I hear this kind of talk, I get suspicious. There’s a certain liberal sensibility among writers and editors that holds itself to be open to any and all ideas that are good and true and strong, and opposed only to what is bad or false or weak. In my experience, that sensibility is usually a case of monumental self-deception or the flimsiest cover for an inexplicable attachment to a conventional set of not terribly interesting opinions.

Not with John. I’ve never met an intellectual who is so open to other people’s ideas. Just look at this list (at the bottom) of some of the authors and pieces he champions. Try to find a unifying voice, a line of march. Each piece is so much its own, each voice so distinct, you wonder how a single sensibility could have midwived them all into being. John certainly has a sensibility, but it’s a sensibility that wants voices as various as Vivian Gornick, Sam Moyn, Jana Prikyl, David Rieff, and Marilynne Robinson (on William James!) to sing.

And not just established voices, but the unfamiliar voices of newer writers and scholars (many of them graduate students). Writers like Tim Shenk, Jesse McCarthy, Neima Jahromi, Sophie Pinkham, Ava Kofman.

When other media mavens talk—and talk—about public intellectuals, they bask in the halo of an avant garde that has long since become the canon. John, by contrast, truly champions the tradition of the new. When he organizes a panel on public intellectuals, his aim is not to celebrate the voices we know or to mourn the voices we’ve lost. His goal is to examine “the extent to which [graduate] students are involved in launching and sustaining a host of new publications that are also part of the current renaissance in cultural journalism.”

It’s not that John is a literary philanthropist, generously doling out his intellectual charity to the needy. He’s just interested in what is interesting and thinks you should be interested in it, too: “A guiding principle for me,” he tells his interviewer, “is for a piece to tell the reader about something she didn’t know she needed to know.”

That desire to interest you, the reader, explains something I’ve always found so delightful about John. For all his literary abstemiousness—he refuses, almost as an ethical principle, to jump on any bandwagon; buzz is for bees—he has a shrewd eye for marketing an idea or a piece. As I write this post on a Sunday in a week that has seen the death of Prince and the ratcheting up of the war between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, it is a piece by intellectual historian Richard Bourke on the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume—a classic Palattella assignment—that occupies one of the coveted “most popular” slots at the magazine.

When John and I were working on my “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” piece, which generated a tremendous amount of controversy, it was he who made it into an intellectual event: by commandeering a space in literary Brooklyn where he organized three or four critics to respond to the piece on stage, by encouraging me to respond at length to my critics, and by standing by me through all the debate over that piece. Part of that last bit came from his sense of literary ethics: John’s the type of editor who would always stand by his writers. But part of it came from that sense of the intellectual camaraderie and literary conspiracy that are so critical to making a writer, or a piece of writing, into something more. Without pandering, without huckstership, John makes literary happenings.

As an editor, John brings to mind an unlikely comparison: Bertolt Brecht. Not Brecht the poet or the playwright (though John is a poet), not even Brecht the collaborator (though John is a collaborator), but Brecht the impresario of a new kind of theater, a theater that would be both popular and potent.

Make no bones about it, we have our eye on those huge [stadiums], filled with 15,000 men and women of every variety of class and physiognomy, the fairest and shrewdest audience in the world.

People are always telling us that we mustn’t simply produce what the public demands. But I believe that an artist, even if he sits in strictest seclusion in the traditional garret working for future generations, is unlikely to produce anything without some wind in his sails. And this wind has to be the wind prevailing in his own period, and not some future wind. There is nothing to say that this wind must be used for travel in any particular direction (once one has a wind one can naturally sail against it; the only impossibility is to sail with no wind at all or with tomorrow’s wind), and no doubt an artist will fall far short of achieving his maximum effectiveness today if he sails with today’s wind. It would be quite wrong to judge a play’s relevance or lack of relevance by its current effectiveness. Theatres don’t work that way.

A theater which makes no contact with the public is a nonsense.

Like Brecht, John wants an audience. But like Brecht, it must not be an audience created on any old terms. It must be an audience that is fair and shrewd, an audience that will learn, upon reading, that it needed to know what it now knows. John wants there to be a wind: not to sail with it or against it, but simply to sail.

That is what John has managed to achieve at The Nation. He has created a space for writers to find their audience. Not just to find, but to make, their audience.

While I wish John all the best in his new ventures, a part of me hopes there’s some shrewd Brechtian impresario of ideas out there—an editor’s publisher, perhaps, an uncommonly wise and ambitious patron, with cash to spare—who’ll be shrewd enough to lavish upon John the opportunity to build his own epic theater of ideas.



  1. Alice Wolff Ozaroff April 27, 2016 at 12:39 am | #

    The audience is always there (dormant perhaps). The writer aims for it; the editor must secure it.

  2. Roque Strew April 29, 2016 at 10:49 am | #

    Lovely tribute. I remember my first encounter with his work—covering poetry in the Boston Review. Sounds like an incredible human being.

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