Mary Norris, a senior member of the editorial team at the New Yorker, shares her life at the magazine and other points of interest in her book, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.
Arriving at Rutgers as part of her plot to escape her Cleveland upbringing, Mary Norris came to see that she had only one real question about her future: would it be cows or would it be English? Drawn to the university for its reputation in the agrarian sciences before ultimately enrolling at Douglass College in 1970, she found that the life of writing, not farming, carried the day. With ambitions of being a published author, fanned by the mentorship of Rutgers English professor Barrett J. Mandel, Norris DC’74 could see, however, that assembling prose, romantic as it seemed to be, was no easy thing. Indeed, she would have to wait more than 40 years before her first book saw the light of day.
In the meantime, Norris enjoyed being part of a different kind of literary life. Novelist Philip Roth once invited her to live with him. John Updike invariably seduced her. James Salter opened his heart to her about a subject dear to him. And John McPhee could leave her breathless. For 37 years, Norris has been part of the editorial team at the New Yorker magazine—today a query proofreader, in the argot of magazine publishing, where, in presiding over a manuscript bound for publication, she reconciles all manner of discrepancies that arise between the writer of the story, its editor, and other members of the editorial process assigned to burnish the manuscript. The relentless scrutiny long ago led to the editorial staff developing a reputation synonymous with the regard for the venerated publication and its celebrated writers. Her career and other points of interest are relived in her new book, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (W.W. Norton, 2015), part personal history, part anthropological study of the New Yorker, part treatise on English usage—and all of it highly readable.
“I really did start out to be a writer, ever since taking the class ‘Autobiography’ with Barrett Mandel. He was the first person to make me feel like a writer,” says Norris, speaking from her office at the New Yorker’s new headquarters, on the 38th floor of 1 World Trade Center. It’s one of 24 floors recently occupied by Condé Nast, the publisher of the magazine, which was founded in 1925 by Harold H. Ross, its first editor. If a writer could imagine the perfect reception for a first book, Norris is living it. Between You and Me, published in April, has received two glowing reviews from the New York Times and is holding steady near the top of the newspaper’s best-sellers list. Meanwhile, interview requests have been plentiful, and Norris has been on book tours to promote Between You and Me. She seems amused by all the fuss.
The book grew out of a blog she was writing for the New Yorker’s website that addressed prickly issues of grammar. Matt Weiland, her editor at W.W. Norton, then encouraged her to be more expansive, sharing not only grammar tips, but also aspects of her own life. And that she has: it would be hard to match her segue, for example, from a discussion of the personal pronouns “he” and “she” to the news of her brother’s midlife sex change, making him a “she” and no longer a “he”—and a source of pronoun ambiguity for Norris.
Between You and Me is a charming, playful romp through the editorial offices of the New Yorker—and through the vexing questions of the English language, spelling, and punctuation, where opinions can be as rigid as those regarding politics and religion. But in her disarming, self-effacing way, Norris makes the discussion fun, heading chapters with titles like “A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk Into a Bar” and “Comma Comma Comma Comma, Chameleon.” She is the English teacher we all should have had; our SAT scores would have benefited.
Through Norris’s amusing character sketches of early mentors, we meet the taciturn guardians of proper usage and the “New Yorker style,” who issued withering retorts to Norris’s early inquiries, assuring that the young copy editor wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Among the cast of characters is Lu Burke, a venerated proofreader at the magazine who “patrolled the halls like a prison warden … and she terrorized anyone new in the copy department. She had a jeweler’s eye for print … ” Burke summarized the editorial process at the New Yorker for a colleague: “First we get the rocks out, Alice. Then we get the pebbles out. Then we get the sand out, and the writer’s voice rises. No harm done.”
Unless a factual, grammatical, or usage error is overlooked. Catching her first oversight on a manuscript, changing “flower” to “flour,” Norris celebrated over a lunch of beer and peanuts at the Algonquin, the old haunt of New Yorker writers and editors. “When I started working on the copy-desk, I was terrified,” says Norris. “I didn’t want to make a fool of myself by making mistakes.” Among the thousands of corrections over the years, she remembers discovering an inconsistency in a Philip Roth manuscript, prompting his invitation for cohabitation. And the nettlesome consideration of punctuation, particularly the proper place of the comma, seemingly adrift in a sea of usage confusion, led to novelist James Salter sending her an eloquent explanation for why he inserted a comma in one sentence.
It’s been a career of sidestepping booby traps of embarrassment, requiring equal parts vigilance, skepticism, and acknowledgement that, yes, the writer—and Norris—are going to make mistakes. The scrutiny is all the more important when she handles an immaculate manuscript by a revered writer, an invitation to be lulled into a false sense of complacency, like curling up with a good book and falling asleep in the warmth of a window seat. Norris learned early on to be on guard for a story written by John Updike—or the other John who personifies the New Yorker, John McPhee. When McPhee included the passage “ … new, and far between,” in one story about geology, Norris, feeling a twitch in her copy editor’s fingers one Friday afternoon, was about to change it to “few, and far between.” She decided to leave the phrase alone—and spare herself a sleepless weekend of anxiety. As it turns out, the fastidious McPhee had written the phrase as intended. They would become fast friends.
Norris should have known that she was family at the New Yorker when she observed writer Lillian Ross waiting for the editor (and not-so-secret boyfriend), the late William Shawn, at the bottom of a staircase one evening. Her dog, Goldie (after whom Norris had in the past cleaned up), started barking uncontrollably. “It was an absurd sound to hear in the halls of America’s premier literary magazine,” Norris writes, “and when the trio left, Lu [Burke, the insufferable proofreader] came out of her office and stood in the hall. ‘Arf, arf!’ she said, in imitation of Goldie. ‘Arf, arf, arf!’”
Norris has seen, and copy edited, it all. •
— David W. Major