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An Editor's Personal Enterprise

November 09, 1986|RICHARD EDER

Writing is a profligate act. Sooner or later, what was there will be used up. Even in journalism's seemingly bottomless well, the buckets give out, though the water doesn't. The turn of phrase turns too often; the questions lose their bite; the inside sources retire to Maine; the polemical voice goes avuncular.

An Irish writer spoke for all writers when he told us what the hen is really clucking when she lays an egg: "Oh God oh God now there are to be no more eggs."

Publishers and editors wear out too, individually or corporately. But they are more like the poultry farmer than his hen. He gets new hens; they get new writers. This is all to the good, of course. But there is something special and, if I can use such a word, inspiring, about an editor whose enterprise is so personal that he conducts his publication in the same spirit of mortality with which a writer conducts his talent.

The secret of Grand Street, which in five years has become one of the most distinctive literary quarterlies in the United States, is that, unlike its fellows, it is not a worthy enterprise. It is not an enterprise at all, not even a philanthropic one. It is a personal gesture; the shadow of a man whose own shadow is lengthening.

In 1981, Ben Sonnenberg was a restless aesthete, a leftist by choice--of friends, mostly--a traditionalist by instinct, and a former expatriate, intermittent seducer, and lackadaisical American spy. (The more libelous of these categories are set out in his own bittersweet memoir published in Grand Street.) He had just inherited some money, perhaps $1 million or so, from his father. He was also, at 39, a victim of multiple sclerosis, living in a wheelchair and facing an abbreviated as well as a confined life.

When pressed hard, you punt. Sonnenberg decided not merely to dip into capital but to spend all of it putting out a magazine whose editorial guideline would be that it should please him. It was a special variation on the theme of a short life and a merry one. "I firmly expected that I and my money would run out at about the same time," Sonnenberg said not long ago.

The difficulty was that this guideline is also the only known recipe for starting a successful magazine, though hardly ever are magazines started that way anymore. Nowadays, they are launched by market studies and reader surveys trying to discover the hypothetical desires of a hypothetical readership.

Sonnenberg's entirely concrete desires have produced something that not only pleases him but pleases several thousand others as well. "Grand Street has a liveliness and variety unmatched by any comparable publication in the United States," the London Times Literary Supplement wrote.

It is not making money, but it is losing it more slowly than intended. Sonnenberg, whose editorial office is in the dining room of his New York apartment, is weaker than he was. He is no longer certain that his strength will last long enough to accomplish what he calls "my suicidal impulse to spend down everything I had."

Sonnenberg's father was a pioneer in New York's public relations business; a man of exuberant temperament, an eye for art, and a love of grand parties. In many ways, Grand Street is a son's reply to a father who overwhelmed and at times estranged him. Public relations is the art of making language do your work. The taste that chooses Grand Street's fiction, poetry and memoirs arises from a belief on a belief that literature consists in doing language's work.

As particular as the elder Sonnenberg was, no doubt, about the cut and quality of his wine glasses, the son made it his first concern to construct a seemly vessel for the language. After interviewing several designers, he found Deborah Thomas. Thomas, who is now the magazine's publisher, gave it its distinctive look. A sturdy book shape, heavy cream stock with big margins, a plain cover in alternating colors, a table of contents printed on the cover in finely cut type, and a large pen-and-ink billy-goat, looking angry and defending his rock pile.

"Deborah designed such a beautiful magazine for me," Sonnenberg said, "that I said 'Oh, now I must fill it up.' " It sounds frivolous, but it isn't.

The understated but sprightly look of the magazine is a key to its temperament and Sonnenberg's. He has spoken of himself as a host. Not only does he make sure that his guests are witty, but he sees that they are given good food and handsome surroundings to be witty in. It is literature's hospitality.

Hospitality extends further. Sonnenberg pays extremely well--$1,000 and more--for a literary magazine; and he does so whether the authors are well-known or first-timers. He will correspond with authors after he has printed their work, to encourage them and maintain a sense of community.

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