Segal Shares Thoughts on Biographies

Jonathan Segal, a vice president and senior editor at Knopf, will receive BIO’s second annual Editorial Excellence Award on Wednesday, November 4, at a special New York City event, “How Great Biographies Get Made and Why They Matter.”

James McGrath Morris, a founder and past president of BIO, interviewed Segal on his work as one of the industry’s most noted editors of biographies.

You have had a long career and edited almost every genre of books. What is different about editing biographies?
I don’t think editing biographies is really different from editing any other kind of book. I think Bob Gottlieb made that point in his address to BIO last year. You push so the writing can be raised to the highest level. In all nonfiction, you want the writer to acknowledge other points of view, while proving his or her own. You want the facts to speak for themselves, not be wedged uncomfortably into an argument.

What do you look for in acquiring a biography?
I look for fine writing, which can pretty much be identified in the first page or two of a proposal. I look for care in the presentation of facts.  I look for something genuinely new, either new research, new available materials, people interviewed for the first time, a well-argued reinterpretation of events—even the passage of time can allow for an important new context. T. J. Stiles proved that in The First Tycoon, writing about Cornelius Vanderbilt. Just because someone has been written about a lot (which wasn’t the case with Vanderbilt), doesn’t mean he or she can’t be meaningfully written about again.

In Paul Hendrickson’s masterful book on Hemingway, Hemingway’s Boat, he shows Hemingway not only as the boor and egotist that others have seen, but as a man who, while battling the kind of devils that would eventually cause him to put a shotgun in his mouth and pull the trigger, was also capable of great warmth and kindness, not to mention writing accomplishments.  Hemingway, in the hospital shortly before his death, being treated for mental illness, was able to write the most beautiful, supportive letter to a young boy facing a grave illness. As Paul wrote, “amid so much ruin, still the beauty.” After so many books about Hemingway, we were able to see him in a genuinely new light, as James Salter pointed out in The New York Review of Books. That’s the kind of biography I look for.

How has that changed over the years?
I don’t think it has really changed that much over the years. Each publishing generation has faced different challenges—chain stores, the Internet, Amazon—but I think the editor’s job has remained pretty much the same. Perhaps there is more celebrity bio now. And sadly now, a radical political point of view is allowed too often to distort the facts, but perhaps that was always so.

In the years you have done this, can you provide a telling example of how editing improved one of the biographies you published?
I almost never describe what goes on in the give-and-take relationship of editor and writer. All that matters, all that should matter, is the finished book, the words on the page. What went into that process is immaterial, as I see it. The writer’s name is on the jacket and no one else’s, which is of course how it should be. One editorial colleague of mine at Knopf argued that an editor shouldn’t even be thanked in the author’s acknowledgments, that no one needs to know that an editor was even involved. If a writer wants to reveal some aspect of what went on in the creation of a book, that is his or her choice to make. I have only discussed such things when the writer has asked me to for one reason or another, such as in a classroom. Though I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say I hope what I did helped some authors over the years.

One hears regularly about editors in major trade houses who find the only time they are given for editing is the time they are away from the office. Knopf may be the exception, but from your perspective has the support publishers give to editing faded over the years?
I edit in the office and at home. At Knopf, Sonny Mehta expects the books to read as well as they can (and to look just as good as they can, inside and out). Editors are expected to edit, where they do it is up to us. I have always taken for granted that editing at home is sort of part of the deal. You have to edit where and when you have an opportunity for concentration over a period of time without undue interruptions. Some writers have told me through the years that they didn’t receive the editing they were hoping for at other publishers. I can’t speak to that directly, though I know there are some wonderful editors out there. But each publishing house has a culture, and perhaps editing is less valued elsewhere. I think editors should edit, that it is as important as acquisition and publishing. The marketplace is tough enough as is; a poorly edited book oftentimes makes success even more elusive. I don’t think that is fair to the writer. If an acquiring editor is not encouraged to edit, then some level of job should be created where some serious editing can be provided. Personally, I love the editing process. That is when you get closest to the writer’s heart and mind, that’s when the collaboration is at its richest. I would miss doing that.

What does getting this award mean to you?
Getting this award means a great deal to me, because I respect the organization behind it, its leaders, the members I’ve met, its reason for being. I would hasten to add, however, that were it not for the opportunity Sonny Mehta gave me at Knopf, were it not for the support, freedom, and encouragement I was given to publish the biographers I have, were it not for those wonderful writers, and were it not for all I learned from my colleagues at Knopf and elsewhere, I would not be receiving this award. Of that, I am certain.

At the November 4 event, Segal and five esteemed biographers who have worked with him will explore how major biographical works are conceived and crafted, and how a gifted editor can make the difference between a good biography and a great work that has a significant impact.

Carl Bernstein, journalist and author of the best-selling biography of Hillary Clinton, A Woman in Charge, will present the award. The evening also includes a panel discussion with:

  • Paul Hendrickson, author of Hemingway’s Boat and a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and two Heartland Awards
  • Eric Lax, former president of PEN USA, a BIO Advisory Council member, and the author of Woody Allen
  • T. J. Stiles, BIO Advisory Council member, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and the author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt and the new Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America
  • Panel moderator Kate Buford, BIO Board member and the author of Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe and Burt Lancaster: An American Life, both edited by Mr. Segal

The event is at Temple Israel, 112 East 75th Street (Park/Lexington), New York, and begins at 6:30 p.m. It is open to the public. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased here.

Light refreshments will be served, and the books listed here are available for purchase prior to the event at the Corner Bookstore, 1313 Madison Avenue at 93rd Street. Books will not be sold at the event.