Caro’s Writing Style

This is not a style ideally suited to the chaste, narrow paragraphs of The New Yorker, especially in 1974, when it serialized “The Power Broker” in four installments that were long even then, when the magazine was so flush with ads it sometimes had trouble filling all its columns. I was a proofreader at The New Yorker then, and my office was across from that of William Whitworth, the editor of the “Power Broker” excerpts. I remember him wearily shuttling back and forth, like some Balkan diplomat, between the office of William Shawn, the magazine’s editor in chief, and one that Caro was borrowing while its occupant, Howard Moss, the poetry editor, was away for the summer.Caro complained that the magazine had tampered with his prose, and he wasn’t wrong. Instead of merely lifting some excerpts from the book manuscript, as was usually done, Whitworth tried to condense the whole thing, and this entailed squeezing out great chunks of writing, running the beginning of one paragraph into the end of another, pages away. “They softened my style,” Caro says. Shawn, on the other hand, had the magazine’s standards to uphold: The New Yorker insisted on its own, sometimes fussy way of punctuating; it didn’t approve of passages that were too leggy and indirect; it didn’t approve of repetitions; and it especially didn’t approve of one-­sentence paragraphs. A description of the situation in vigorous Caro-ese might read something like this:

“In the editorial world, William Shawn was a man of immense power. He wielded it quietly, softly, almost in a whisper, but he wielded it nonetheless. Not for nothing did some of his staff members privately call him the Iron Mouse. For writers, Shawn’s long wooden desk was like a shrine, an altar, and in the passing of proofs across that brightly polished surface — pages and pages of proofs, stacks of proofs, sheaves and bundles of proofs, proofs from the fact-checkers, the lawyers, the grammarians, proofs marked with feathery hen-scratch and with bold red-pencilings — they discerned something like magic, the alchemy that renders ordinary, sublunary prose free of impurity and infuses it with an ineffable, entrancing glow, the sheen of true New Yorker style.

“But that style was not for everyone.

“It was not for Robert Caro.”

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