An Elegy for the Literary Lunch

“Algonquin Round Table” by Bill Breck


How I yearned to be a fiction writer. Not to write fiction, mind you. Not to invent plots or breathe life into characters. I much preferred digging around in the real world. No, what I wanted was for a literary editor to take me to lunch.

In New York. Someplace with white tablecloths. In an era where it was still expected that a bottle of wine be ordered with lunch, and lunch last at least two hours.

It all sounds young and shallow and vain, but when you look across the table, above the Domaine Laroche Chablis, pan-seared-whatever, and caramelized cheesecake, you see the encouraging, hopeful face of someone who believes in you. Someone who will read every word of your manuscript and think about how to make it better. Someone who is sensitive to your occasional despair, your stumbling blocks and quirks and quicksand.

A good editor-writer relationship is finer than many marriages.

I had a taste of one—the less glamorous, journalistic sort—as a reporter for The Riverfront Times. My editor, Safir Ahmed, was civilized, intelligent, thoughtful, and far more deliberate than the pace of a newsweekly ought to have allowed. Plus, in those years, people still read to the end of a nine-thousand-word investigative piece. So every time I hacked one together, Safir and I would cross the street to a great little restaurant called Riddle’s, one of those places so rustic and casual that its excellent food surprises you, like a royal infant in the bulrushes. There, at a quiet table in the back, we would eat lunch, drink Merlot, and go through the piece word by word. Then back a sentence or a paragraph and word by word again, testing a shift in structure or tone.

When you have poured yourself into—well, anything—sitting down to have it critiqued rivals a tax audit. But Safir, while not lavish with praise, was always gentle with criticism, and I trusted his instincts. I also trusted him, as a human being. We tested opinions, exchanged questions, described experiences, explored ideas. However controversial the piece, he had my back, which gave me courage to prod those corrupted by power. For my part, I met deadlines, which let him relax and focus on the words.

Without that mutual trust, I would have stuck with coffee and kept my guard up. And the words would not have improved. A close, thoughtful edit is a luxury and a godsend—and in commercial publishing and newsrooms, it is now a rarity.

Meanwhile, the latest health reports are in, and this time, all alcohol is being vilified. Cancel the reports of red wine being good for you, and cancel all those 104-year-old people who tell tv reporters the secret of their longevity is a glass of port every evening. The pendulum has swung. Nonalcoholic alcohol is the new mode—yet another pink envelope meant to substitute for pure pleasure.

For anyone who drinks too much, this is good news. And I am sure alcohol poisons the rest of us in various ways, at least when overused. But the specific aspect of alcohol that interests me—the ingredient in those loose, witty Algonquin Roundtable lunches back when the literary world was fun—is the disinhibition. Because I cannot help but notice that those boozy lunches stopped right around the time that people stopped trusting one another.

An overstatement, a sweeping generalization. But I have lived it. People used to marry without prenups or even separate bank accounts. They used to make promises without signing them in triplicate with a lawyer present. The world wised up; suddenly we knew too much about bad actors, betrayals, con jobs, and cheats. Friends advised each other to hire an attorney, to get it in writing, to make demands, to sue.

Some of that suspicion has spilled over, invading even the old-fashioned world of publishing. Editors are now conduits from the corporate owners, and firms are so big that the individual writers and reporters have ceased to be personalities one learned and nurtured. Instead, they are profit centers, judged by how much money they will bring and how soon. A sameness has descended, because everyone’s writing has to fit the latest formula. Who needs a lunch to follow a template?

And who dares get tipsy when meeting the emissary of those eager to axe any writer not getting sales or monetizable clicks?

Nostalgia for the literary lunch is even sharper in the U.K. A recent slice of memoir by Paul Theroux in the London Review of Books recalls “the seedy 1970s,” before “big money entered the British book world….an American intrusion that upended the business.” Small money had kept everyone on nearly equal footing; writers and editors were all squeaking along together. Literature was a cottage industry that relied on “rituals of gratitude and expressions of friendship” in lieu of cash. “Long lunches were bonding ceremonies and a form of homage,” Theroux writes wistfully. Having spent his previous nine years in Africa and Southeast Asia, “places where eating together evoked sympathy and understanding,” he immediately grasped the social value of those long, dizzying lunches with his editor.

And then they ended. As had the vicious wit of the Algonquin Round Table and similar literary salons. When former member Edna Ferber returned to the Algonquin, she found a family from Kansas sitting at the group’s round table. What happened, she asked, and the hotel owner shrugged: “What became of the reservoir at Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street? These things do not last forever.”

These days, everyone is too busy for wit or earnest collaboration. Money and power float past writers and editors like neon fish darting around scuba divers; only the big commercial nets can catch them. And in that churn, words are no longer the point. It is helpful—for prizes and publicity—if the words are good when they arrive. But there is no time to wallow in the manuscript sentence by sentence and make them good. There is barely a chance to catch typos.

Trust and shared purpose are irrelevant.

People go home and drink alone.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.