Another Life: A Memoir of Other People, by Michael Korda (Random)

Our capacity to absorb mountains of dish about the celebrated icons of our era seems endless, as attested to by the success of countless books and articles stripping bare their failings and eccentricities. In most cases, said stripping is done with little grace, often being the province of tabloids and talent-challenged hack writers without any sense of decency, much less style.

It's not entirely clear that Simon & Schuster editor-to-the-stars Michael Korda can lay credible claim to any superiority in the decency department, but when it comes to style, he is unquestionably on a different astral plane altogether. While authors have always had a powerful dialectical arrow in their quivers when they needed to pull out the heavy ordnance against editors they considered illiterate philistines — "If you're so damned smart, let's see you write a book." — this is not an armament they could bring to bear against this editor: Another Life is non-fiction prose at its elegant best, and Korda's ability to thoroughly skewer the targets of his opprobrium easily rivals that of Tom Wolfe or S.J. Perelman.

The degree to which those targets are deserving of such skillful demolition is a question worth asking, but that's a matter of personal opinion and not one you're likely to be asking anyway as you chortle over Korda's gleeful incineration of an entire cast of twentieth century writers. What he does to the likes of Irving Wallace, Harold Robbins, Ariel Durant and Jacqueline Susanne equates roughly to what Godzilla did to Tokyo. While several reviewers of Another Life have taken pains to underscore the "genuine affection" with which he tempered the poison of his pen, this reviewer does not concur in that assessment, which I cannot help but think is itself tempered by a reluctance on the part of working writers to speak ill of one of the most powerful editors in the business.

As I said, how Korda feels about the private personae of the people he is describing is his business, and who's to say he's wrong? A more troubling problem, though, and one that is somewhat less subjective, is the vaunting self-aggrandizement in which this book, purportedly a memoir about other people as the subtitle suggests, is drenched. To take the author at his literal word is to believe that a disturbing number of best-selling authors were nothing more than semi-literate, psychotics hacks who, but for the brilliant intervention of editor Korda, would have been hard-pressed to produce a decent laundry list, much less full-length works that are still in print decades after their initial appearance. He speaks disparagingly of muddled prose and even more muddled structure, of manuscripts containing the germ of a decent idea but which required Korda to tear them apart and put them back together so completely that they bore but little passing resemblance to the originals. This, coupled with endlessly dropped names and equally endless references to Korda's intellect, creativity, uncanny insight, his easy facility with languages, his business acumen, personal charm and irresistible persuasiveness, don't add to his legend as much as they detract from the theses he tries put forth in this book. Maybe Simon & Schuster was in fact at the very center of the publishing universe, and maybe Korda was at the very center of Simon & Schuster, but when he dives off the edge and tells us that he was personally responsible for the standard "power ties" worn by corporate executives as well as the office design of CEOs too numerous to count, he carries egocentrism to the kind of heights that render suspect everything he's told us before.

But the man can write like the wind, and he has a boatload of terrific stories to tell about a lot of famous people, and his many insights into the history, development and eccentricities of the publishing business are not only valid but wonderfully told, so if you can forgive the unforgivable self-centeredness, Another Life is well worth the read.

-Lee Gruenfeld

 

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