Looking back at a literary life
Roger Angell, now 94, has had an extraordinary life. A longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker and one of the best-ever writers on baseball, he is the only writer elected to both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Baseball Hall of Fame. His wonderful new collection, This Old Man: All in Pieces, is, he says, a grab bag, a portrait of his brain at this point in his life. The title piece, a moving and personal account of aging, received the 2014 prize for best essay from the American Society of Magazine Editors.
“Getting old is the second biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love,” Angell writes. “We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming home at night.”
Some of my favorite selections are about writers. Angell reflects on the 20,000 or so manuscripts he has rejected over the years and addresses many misunderstandings about fiction, pointing out that there is no one way to write a story or to edit one for publication. He notes that his fellow fiction editors were very much alike in their passion for their work, but each went about the job differently. His own approach is to constantly ask tough questions about such things as clarity and tone, and, at the end, to ponder “Is it good enough? And is it any good at all?” In a postlude he writes, “[E]diting, I think remains a mystery to the world. Sometimes it even mystified me.”
“Writing is hard,” he says, “even for authors who do it all the time.” He remembers his stepfather, E.B. White, rarely being satisfied with what he had written, sometimes commenting after sending his copy to The New Yorker: “It isn’t good enough. I wish it were better.” Angell need not worry about his own writing in this eloquent collection. It shares and illuminates and entertains in a variety of ways and is a reader’s delight.