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Editor’s Choice: Terry McConnell’s ‘The Accidental Life’

The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers by Terry McDonnell, Knopf, 368 pages, $26.95. Let’s just snatch a tale of no consequence about someone few of us will ever remember from the coda to this compulsively readable magazine editor’s memoir. McDonnell is throwing a small dinner party at the 21 Club in New York for journalist Richard Ben Cramer in 1992, shortly after publication of Cramer’s “masterpiece of political reporting ‘What It Takes: The Way to the White House.’ ” Cramer was chosen by McDonnell’s Esquire as its political correspondent. “The parties and events Esquire gave at 21 were predictably expensive and well-mannered but that night we were asked to leave when Richard’s wife, the former Rolling Stone editor Carolyn White, excused herself from our private room to conduct a survey in the main dining room: ‘Do you think this pretentious dump is really worth it?’ ”

I’d submit that there, encapsulated (and even without major wattage literary celebrity) is the ideal tone of a memoir about writers. It’s certainly true that as the movie version of Thomas Wolfe’s editor Maxwell Perkins says in “Genius” that literary editing was once a profession of principled anonymity. Thanks to books like this, that’s true no more. Terry McDonnell is a man who has plied the editor’s trade at Rolling Stone, Esquire, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and who co-founded LitHub on the Web. He has, in his time, worked with many woolly mammoths in the editor’s and writer’s trades. He sued Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, came to a settlement and now considers him something of an old friend. Consider these in his writer’s list: Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, Edward Abbey, Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas McGuane, P.J. O’Rourke, James Salter, Richard Ford, and, oh yes, Jimmy Buffett and Steve Jobs too. From his anecdotal chapter on Richard Price (the writer whose work can be seen as we speak on HBO’s “The Night Of” on Sunday Evenings): when the two of them pitched a series to be called “Night” about a club in Tribeca to Aaron Spelling, the producer wore a “power-blue jumpsuit” and suggested Price do standup. As good as the contents are, this thing needed an index. – Jeff Simon