Wednesday, March 03, 2004

A way with words
Judith Jones wrote the book on editing, earning through her wise and gentle touch the trust of luminaries such as Anne Tyler and John Updike.

By Mary Carole McCauley
Sun Arts Writer

February 26, 2004

NEW YORK - A small, pointed nose and a pair of shining eyes peer out between two towering piles of book, making Judith Jones look for all the world like the City Mouse, eyeing a tempting morsel of cheddar.

Granted, Jones has been asked to pose with her books by a photographer in the Manhattan office of Alfred A. Knopf, where she is a senior editor and vice president - but not until after the shutterbug had listened to her talk for nearly two hours. There is something about her small, neat presence, her blend of modesty, inquisitiveness and boldness, that makes the analogy to Aesop's fable fit.

During her 46 years in the publishing business, Jones has become the mouse that roared. If any single human being possesses unerring taste, it is possible that she is that person. Her publishing "finds" include a manuscript by an unknown teen-ager named Anne Frank, a cookbook by an unknown chef named Julia Child and a book of poetry by an unknown scribe named Sylvia Plath.

Katherine Hourigan, Knopf's managing editor, wishes she knew the secret of Jones' impeccable taste. "It's a certain, wonderful instinct," she says. "She can see how a particular manuscript can be worked into something fabulous, and I'm not talking about appealing to the masses. Her critical judgment is superb.

"It's hard to imagine what the world would have been like without Anne Frank's diary. You can say, 'Oh, someone would have published it,' but that's not necessarily the case."

Jones has edited all 16 of Anne Tyler's novels, including The Amateur Marriage, which was published earlier this year. Who but Jones would dare to argue with Tyler about her titles and endings, to tell John Updike that some of his sentences are too complicated, or to discreetly suggest to Arthur Rubinstein that in the rough draft of his autobiography, he came across as pretentious?

Over Jones' busy and interesting life - she will turn 80 in March - she dated a former fighter in the French resistance, briefly ran an unlicensed cafe in Paris and befriended such luminaries as the poet Ted Roethke and the French surrealist painter Balthus.

While fostering the careers of other writers (including Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, for whom she edited the English translations), she also has written three cookbooks with her late husband, Evan Jones.

Authors say that part of Judith Jones' success is that she understands the intimate and fraught relationship between author and editor. Writers have to trust editors to see the secret flaws that lie outside their own field of vision, the bald spots on the back of their heads. But because editors have individual responses to what they read, it can be difficult for writers to sort out which comments are valid, and which arise from that particular editor's world view.

Tyler is struck by Jones' gentleness and diplomacy, her willingness to swallow her ego and become an invisible collaborator. "I can't imagine that there's anyone else out there with anything like her combination of perspicacity and tact," Tyler writes in an e-mail.

"She reads critically and very, very intelligently, but she never forgets that the book is, finally, the author's. Whenever I hear someone say something like: 'John Doe is such a good editor; you can always tell a John Doe book,' I shudder and say a little prayer that Judith will never, ever take it into her head to retire.

"That isn't to say that she doesn't voice strong opinions. She and I have disagreed several times about titles, and she once persuaded me that a female character with, I believe, seven consecutive husbands might better be restricted to three. But she has unfailingly been so delicate about it - another word that comes to mind when I think of her. You know how delicate she is physically - like a ballet dancer, I've always thought. That same quality shows up in her editing."

Jones, for her part, says that the very best writers (Tyler and Updike included) are such consummate craftsmen, are so particular about every word and rhythm and shade of meaning, that their first drafts require just minor changes to be ready for publication. For that reason, these writers do not necessarily welcome an editor's suggestions, however light her touch.

"With Anne, it's very small things," Jones said. "I have come to understand that she so creates her characters in a specific world that when she lets them go, it's hard for her to go back in. I've told myself, 'She really can't do it, so leave well enough alone.'"

Jones says that Updike is so protective of a fledgling book that he won't even discuss it with his editor. But fortunately, he occasionally drops clues.

"He'll never waste paper," she says, "so he'll write me a note on the back of a manuscript page that he's thrown away, and I'll snatch it up and get a glimpse of what he's working on.' "

Jones' family hails from New England on her father's side and Old England on her mother's, so naturally, she became a devout Francophile. In truth, she finds commonalties between her relatives in Vermont, where she still summers, and the French. Her father's people, the Baileys, "liked food, liked to drink, and were raucous as opposed to the reserved British side of my family."

One of the three cookbooks that she co-wrote with her husband draws on this hearty heritage: The L.L. Bean Book of New England Cookery. (The other two books written by the Joneses are The Book of Bread and a book for children called Knead It, Punch It, Bake It!)

After graduating from Bennington College, where she became a student and friend of Roethke's, the young woman went to work for Doubleday in New York. She took an extended vacation to Paris (staying 3 1/2 years), and discovered virtually all the reigning passions of her life.

She began her food apprenticeship while dating the former resistance fighter. They and a third friend ran a tiny restaurant called Le Cirque du Cirque in the apartment they were borrowing from an elderly relative. The resistance fighter knew how to cook. Jones and their friend "were his little slaves," chopping and sauteing away under his supervision.

Alas, the apartment's owner found out about the bistro and shut it down. But the neophyte chef's taste for ingredients and flavors had been whetted, and she furthered her education when she met her future husband. Together, they scoured the local markets and practiced in their kitchen. The couple married in 1951.

It was at Doubleday, when she was working as a secretary in the Paris office, that Judith Jones was given a pile of books and told to send rejection letters to the authors. One was Anne Frank's The Diary of A Young Girl. A limited run of 1,500 copies had been published in Amsterdam in 1947, but now Otto Frank wanted to tell his daughter's story to the world.

"There was something about the face on the cover," Jones says. "I picked it up. I read it all afternoon and into the evening. My boss was so surprised. He walked in the door, and I was still there. I said 'We have to get this to New York!'"

Jones' boss disagreed. So the secretary went over her supervisor's head and wrote to her contacts in the Manhattan office, arguing as hard as she knew how that the diary must be published. Needless to say, Doubleday is glad that she succeeded.

A memory that still moves Jones is her meeting with Otto Frank, who asked hesitantly if he could retain the movie rights to his daughter's story.

"He had tears in his eyes," Jones recalls. "He said: 'I just want to be sure that I will have the right to approve anybody who plays my Anne.'"

Shortly thereafter, the Joneses returned to the United States and settled in New York, where Judith went to work for the then-husband-and-wife publishing team of Alfred and Blanch Knopf. It didn't take long for her to prove that the Anne Frank diary was no fluke.

One day, a cookbook that had been rejected by Houghton Mifflin landed on her desk. Jones knew immediately that it was a winner.

The author "had this wonderful, analytical mind, and she knew how to translate all the techniques: how to dry the meat, what to brown it in, that you couldn't have too many pieces in the pot," Jones says.

"I wrote a rave review, and said, 'We must buy this! Alfred said, 'What? Publish a cookbook by a Smith College woman?' Finally he said, 'Oh, all right, let Mrs. Jones have her chance.' Afterwards, he was very gracious about it."

He should have been. The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child was a phenomenal success.

Jones went on to edit all of Child's books, plus works by such revered food writers as James Beard, the so-called "Father of American cooking," and Marion Cunningham, author of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.

Still, Jones shows no signs of being burned out. "Judith looks and acts younger today than when I first came to work for her 20 years ago," says Hourigan, Knopf managing editor. "She's going to be 80, and she just started weight training."

As she begins her ninth decade, Jones also continues to work part-time. If anything, her relationships with the writers whom she has nurtured have become even more important and sustaining in the eight years since she was widowed.

"It's like having a family, your writers. You take care of them. You want to be there for them, and not say goodbye."

Besides, who knows what choice, neglected manuscripts are lying in the reject pile, just waiting for the City Mouse to sniff them out?

Who: Judith Jones

Age: 79

Raised: Manhattan

Education: Bennington College

Professional: Editor to such literary lights as Anne Tyler and John Updike. At one time, ran an unlicensed cafe in Paris.

How she would have scandalized her proper British ancestors, had they been alive: "They would have been appalled if they'd known that I'd started a little restaurant with a Frenchman. Not because of the Frenchman; they'd be upset that I was cooking."

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun - A way with words

Sunday, February 29, 2004

OBITUARY: 01/07/04

Borders Bibliophiles, the reading group I started at Borders in Boca Raton about six years ago, has been summarily killed. One week prior to the January meeting, a terrific discussion of Montana 1948 by Larry Watson attended by a dozen people, I was informed that Borders no longer was interested in hosting the reading group.

As usual with Borders management, they don't see the forest for the trees. The new general manager claimed that Borders could no longer afford to pay for the approximately three hours per week of payroll that it cost them. Despite the fact that the store usually sold 25-50 copies of each title we selected. Despite the fact that the people who attended every month generally purchased an additional 2-3 recommended books each after every meeting. Despite the fact that many other reading groups in the area eagerly anticipated seeing our new titles for their own reading groups. I may not be a math major, but even I can add up those numbers and see profit.

Reading groups give bookstores a certain caché. Borders has been seeking to disassociate itself from that since the change in corporate management swung to the former CEO of Jewel Osco, a supermarket chain. That big box retail mentality has turned Borders, which once proudly claimed to be "a collection of unique bookstores" into a large retail establishment that oh, yeah, sells books. The mantra at the daily sales meetings has been "You don't have to read to sell books." Borders has turned into just another Barnes & Noble wannabe, which is about as far from the "unique bookstore" concept as Mars is from Earth. But in my neighborhood at least, B&N understands that bookstores are more than just superstores that sell books rather than linens or toys or computers. B&N has made themselves a part of the community, offering several reading groups, children's events and author signings each month, while Borders has reduced their community involvement to a weekly 15 minute story time for kids and a rare author appearance.

Most people don't notice that there are 30% fewer bookcases in the Boca Raton store than there were two years ago, but they do notice that Borders no longer carries the school reading books that are assigned every fall. They do notice that any book that is the least bit out of the mainstream must be special ordered with a wait of several weeks. They do notice that there are fewer and fewer booksellers available and those that are have an appalling lack of knowledge about the product they are selling, and there are no music sellers at all. The stockholders notice that music sales keep slipping every quarter, but management doesn't see the correlation between those last two facts. Management has seen the sales of this particular store drop by more than 50% in the past few years. They blame it on B&N, they blame it on the economy, but they never look at themselves and the changes they've wrought.

I have been mourning the loss of the Borders I went to work for back in 1996 for a couple of years now. Those first few years I had the most fun I've ever had at a job. The money always sucked, but no one was working there for the money. The employees were a group of quirky individuals who had a common bond; we worked there because we loved books and music, and we loved sharing that with the community. And our sales reflected that.

I knew that the reading group should have been put in hospice when the new general manager came in. But like most people who are faced with a death, I was in denial, so it was a shock to be told in a casual, cavalier manner that by the way, after seven years with this company, my services were no longer required. After the fact, it was almost a relief - it had become somewhat painful for me to be in that store every month, seeing the changes, and knowing what it had been, knowing what it could be, and seeing it for what it had become.

On a brighter note, the members of the Borders Bibliophiles have come together and have no intention of letting the group be buried. We have arisen from the ashes, and are now the Boca Bibliophiles. Next month we will be meeting at the library, with members offering their homes and community centers for future meetings. So I'm happy to say that the report of the demise of the Bibliophiles has been slightly exaggerated. By me. But this is my site, and my vent, and I thank you all for bearing with me.

Rest in peace.

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