Omission

By McPhee, John | The New Yorker, September 14, 2015 | Go to article overview

Omission


McPhee, John, The New Yorker


OMISSION

Choosing what to leave out.

At Time in the nineteen-fifties, the entry-level job for writers was a column called Miscellany. Filled with one-sentence oddities culled from newspapers and the wire services, Miscellany ran down its third of a page like a ladder, each wee story with its own title--traditionally, and almost invariably, a pun. Writers did not long endure there, and were not meant to, but just after I showed up a hiring freeze shut the door behind me, and I wrote Miscellany for a year and a half. That came to roughly a thousand one-sentence stories, a thousand puns.

I am going to illustrate this with one, and only one, example. A person riding a bicycle on a street in Detroit fell asleep at the handlebars. My title was "Two Tired."

If a writer were ever to look back on many decades of pun-free prose, Miscellany was a good place to be when you were young. Words are too easy to play on. When I joined THE NEW YORKER , in 1965, I left puns behind. Not that I have never suffered a relapse. In the nineteen-seventies, I turned in a manuscript containing a pun so fetid I can't remember it. My editor then was Robert Bingham, who said, "We should take that out."

The dialogue that followed became part of a remembrance of him (he died in 1982):

I said, "A person has a right to make a pun once in a while, and even to be a little coarse." He said, "The line is not on the level of the rest of the piece and therefore seems out of place." I said, "That may be, but I want it in there." He said, "Very well. It's your piece." Next day, he said, "I think I ought to tell you I haven't changed my mind about that. It's an unfortunate line." I said, "Listen, Bobby. We discussed that. It's funny. I want to use it. If I'm embarrassing anybody, I'm embarrassing myself." He said, "O.K. I just work here." The day after that, I came in and said to him, "That joke. Let's take that out. I think that ought to come out." "Very well," he said, with no hint of triumph in his eye.

Robert Bingham was my editor for sixteen years. William Shawn, after editing my first two pieces himself, turned me over to Bingham very soon after Bingham came to THE NEW YORKER from The Reporter , where he had been the managing editor. I was a commuter, and worked more at home than at the magazine. I had not met, seen, or even heard of Bingham when Shawn gave him the manuscript of a forty-thousand-word piece of mine called "Oranges."

A year earlier, I had asked Mr. Shawn if he thought oranges would be a good subject for a piece of nonfiction writing. In his soft, ferric voice, he said, "Oh." After a pause, he said, "Oh, yes." And that was all he said. But it was enough. As a "staff writer," I was basically an unsalaried freelancer, and I left soon for Florida on his nickel. Why oranges? There was a machine in Pennsylvania Station that cut and squeezed them. I stopped there as routinely as an animal at a salt lick. Across the winter months, I thought I noticed a change in the color of the juice, light to deep, and I had also seen an ad somewhere that showed what appeared to be four identical oranges, although each had a different name. My intention in Florida was to find out why, and write a piece that would probably be short for New Yorker nonfiction of that day--something under ten thousand words. In Polk County, at Lake Alfred, though, I happened into the University of Florida's Citrus Experiment Station, five buildings isolated within vast surrounding groves. Several dozen people in those buildings had Ph.D.s in oranges, and there was a citrus library of a hundred thousand titles--scientific papers, mainly, and doctoral dissertations, and six thousand books. Then and there, my project magnified. Back home, and many months later, I sent in the manuscript. Mr. Shawn accepted it, indicating gently that it might need a little squeezing itself before publication.

Mr. Shawn seems to have instructed Mr. Bingham to hunt for a few galleys' worth of information and throw the rest away. …

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