Archive for Sunday, April 29, 2001

A master of words

Editor reflects on her work with Updike, Child and others

April 29, 2001


— In John Updike's "More Matter," an anthology of nonfiction prose, the author recalls attending an awards ceremony at Carnegie Hall. He was seated next to editor Judith Jones, who had undergone gum surgery earlier that day.

"'This is some editor,"' Updike remembers thinking. And he should know, because she was his editor, and has been for 40 years.

Judith Jones, 77, symbolizes the unstated loyalty that once defined publishing. She has been with the same house, Alfred A. Knopf, since 1957. She has worked with Updike, Anne Tyler and others for decades. She's also a pioneering editor of cookbooks, starting in the early 1960s with Julia Child and continuing with James Beard, Marion Cunningham and Nancy Verde Barr.

You have to knock twice before Jones answers the door on a recent afternoon, her attention momentarily taken by the Schubert CD that plays at medium volume. She is stylish, composed, well-spoken, almost a literary essay in human form.

"I remember that at our first meeting, I was struck by Judith's looks," Tyler, who rarely talks to the press, said in an e-mail. "She was very delicate and graceful, almost weightless. Which proved significant because, as it turned out, that's what her editing is like."

"She's quite New England," Child confides, "a little reserved but a marvelous person."

A vice president and senior editor at Knopf, Jones has an unusual position in the publishing business. A couple of years after she joined Knopf, it was sold to Random House, now owned by Bertelsmann AG. The one-time family operation is currently run by a multinational corporation, not the sort of business known for abiding the Judith Joneses of the world.

"It's one more step in the direction of publishing becoming a business," she says.

"How can you sit and do a profit and loss projection sheet for a book you're about to buy that isn't finished? Agents begin to get the idea that the more you pay for it the more seriously it's read."

But Jones says her own work is unaffected, an opinion seconded by her boss. Sonny Mehta, publisher and editor-in-chief of Knopf, acknowledges that more attention is now paid to "sales and marketing," but says that he usually defers to Jones' "distinctive taste."

"I don't think Judith is a person you have actual disagreements with," he says. "If she has reservations, she goes away and thinks about it. And she still wants to acquire a particular book, she'll probably get the go-ahead."

Reviving a reject

The daughter of an attorney, Jones was born and raised in Manhattan and majored in English at Bennington College. She worked as an editorial assistant at Doubleday while still in college and in her early 20s she was a reader for Doubleday in Paris. Among her achievements was rescuing a masterpiece from the rejects: "The Diary of Anne Frank."

"One day my boss said, 'Oh, will you get rid of these books and write some letters. He went off to have some lunch with some French publishers," she explains.

"I curled up with one or two books. I was just curious. I think it was the face on the cover. I looked at that face and I started reading that book and I didn't stop all afternoon. I was in tears when my boss came back. I said, 'This book is going to New York and has got to be published. And he said, 'What? That book by that kid?!"'

Jones eventually joined Knopf as a reader of French translations. Run by founders Alfred and Blanche Knopf, the company was eccentric, old-fashioned, even puritanical, the sort of place where women were warned against attending meetings because strong language might be used. She soon became an editor, her early clients including a promising young author named John Updike. His first book with Knopf was "Rabbit, Run," the beginning of his famous "Rabbit" series and already controversial because of its explicit content.

"Alfred got on the telephone with John and said, 'You'd better come right away.' He said to me, 'I don't think you should attend the meeting; the language may be a little raw.' Of course, I had seen the language," Jones recalls.

"We did an expurgated edition and every subsequent printing put a little bit back and now it's all there."

Another author she worked with was Elizabeth Bowen, although in the beginning they didn't quite "work" together. Blanche Knopf would take suggestions from Jones and pass them off as her own in notes to Bowen. The Anglo-Irish novelist, whose works include "The Death of the Heart" and "The Heat of the Day," was suspicious.

"Alfred had me to a lunch with Elizabeth. And I can still see her watching me," Jones says.

"At the end, we went to the coat room and we were putting on our coats and she said, 'YOU! You're the one. Those notes came from you!' She knew Blanche didn't write them. She said, 'Let's have lunch together!' So we went off on another day and had a four-hour lunch."

Working with writers

Jones understands diplomacy, knowing when to give advice and when not to. With Tyler, she's a voice for privacy. With Updike, it means a suggestion when needed, silence when needed or encouragement when needed.

"One of the endearing and helpful things about Judith is her attitude that publishing books is fun," Updike says. "And it is fun if you have an editor like Judith whose judgment you trust and who generally says only encouraging and soothing things."

"She may raise a query or make a suggestion," Tyler adds, "and she does voice very definite opinions, but she never loses sight of the fact that it's the author's book, not hers."

Sometimes, a tougher approach is necessary. Jones remembers being asked in the 1970s to take on the "Fanny Farmer Cookbook," which helped establish Marion Cunningham. Jones was not pleased; she considered the writing unimaginative and the recipes the sort of thing you find on a box top.

"I didn't want to do it at all because I thought they (the Fanny Farmer people) wouldn't listen," she recalls. "I said, 'This book has to be redone from top to bottom.' But they said, 'Just tell us what to do'."

When she began working on cookbooks, 40 years ago, she believed the problem was the absolute dullness of the recipes. Jones was among the first to realize that all those soldiers returning from Europe might be ready for more sophisticated cuisine.

"She was at the very beginning of the cookbook revolution," says Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine and author of the best seller "Tender to the Bone."

"She's one of those people who recognized food would be important before most literary intellectuals did."

Harping on bad writing

Jones' most famous discovery was Julia Child, then an unknown American chef who had lived for years in Paris. She was seeking a publisher for "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," which had been rejected by Houghton Mifflin.

"She was just a big, straightforward woman, very American, very Smith College," Jones recalls. "She came in with her husband, Paul, and I realized this was a 'folies a deux' (loosely, a real team). Paul was the one who gave her confidence and said, 'Julia you can do it, submit it to the test, that's all you've got to do."'

Jones took on "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." It is among the most influential cookbooks of the past half century, the book that made French cuisine accessible to millions. She later edited Marcella Hazan's "The Classic Italian Cookbook," which did the same for Italian food.

"'The Classic Italian Cookbook' is a huge gift to the cooks of America," Reichl says. "If you asked 100 people who care about cooking in America what are 10 books they couldn't do without, Marcella Hazan's book would be one of them."

Jones says the problems these days is more the writing than the recipes. She dislikes some of the health food books "A tablespoon of butter!" Jones says in mock horror. "You're going to die!" but otherwise believes cuisine is more diverse than ever. Instead, she worries about the rise of celebrity cookbooks and their impersonal style.

"They're not the voice of someone really trying to share his or her own experience. They're written in a hideous formula," Jones says.

"One line I always quote is, 'In a bowl combine the first mixture with the second mixture.' It's hideous. Whereas Julia would say (Jones imitates Child), 'Pick it up and plop it in the bowl and get your hands in and squeeze it."'

"I don't necessarily agree with Judith's feeling about the writing," Reichl says, "but that's Judith. She has standards. And when she says there is so much bad writing coming out, she is saying other people don't make the demands she does."

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