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The pen and the credit card: a publishing tale

By Christopher SwanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1987

New York

YOU don't win many popularity contests by being smart, young, and brazenly successful. Certainly few people in the New York literary establishment had much use for Gary Fisketjon, his quick success, his unabashed love of salesmanship, his reputation for editing with a credit card.

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Esquire described him as ``part New York lit, part Hollywood hustle,'' the very model of an acquiring editor who buys more than he reads. The New York Times called him the ``flashy, successful'' Gary Fisketjon.

At the age of 30, Mr. Fisketjon conceived a line of paperbacks that gave new prominence to such established writers as Thomas McGuane and Raymond Carver, as well as bringing out new works like Jay McInerney's startlingly successful ``Bright Lights, Big City.'' He revised industry thinking on the life cycle of a serious novel by leapfrogging over the normal hard-cover edition of such books.

Now, three years later, he is about to bring out his first line as editorial director of the august Atlantic Monthly Press - an established fellow with a firm of his own and a revered company name underneath him.

In the process of getting to this point, Fisketjon has become perhaps the most discussed and written-about editor in the business, all but eclipsing Gordon Lish of Knopf. The New York Times Magazine called his collaboration with McInerney ``the writer-editor legend of our time.''

All of which runs contrary to the media image of the fast-living editor Wunderkind who is supposed to use the lunch check more than the editor's pencil - the parvenu with cherubic cheeks and golden hair, who bummed around the country with his buddy, McInerney, after they made a literary splash at Williams College; worked on the family mink farm in Oregon; then plunged himself into New York publishing and the city's heady night life, writing a column on publishing for the Village Voice.

Well, meet the hardworking Gary Fisketjon, bent late at night over a manuscript, asking himself questions about every sentence and most of the semicolons, worrying about the narrative flow, trying to free an author's voice from a particularly tangled passage.

``Publishing is hard work,'' he insists. ``I don't know any other way it can get done. I live with a book. It takes me five hours to do 40 pages. I don't understand the people who say you just go to lunch and then say `I love it!' into the phone. You have to get into the voice of the book and look to see where it wavers.

``The book is in the writing; it's in what's being written about; and either it comes together or it doesn't.... You're looking at sentences. You're looking at how sentences fall together. Then, you look back and see whether there are any tics in the style.''

The evidence suggests that, in these matters, Fisketjon can not only talk the talk, but walk the walk as well; that he's not a card-carrying member of the book-of-the-lunch club.

``Gary edits with a credit card? That's a lie,'' says Richard Ford, whose book ``The Sportswriter'' was published by Fisketjon. ``Gary is the most meticulous line-by-line editor I've known; and I've had good editors at Harper & Row and The New Yorker.''

``He was in my publishing class at Harvard-Radcliffe,'' recalls Little Brown executive William Guthrie, ``and he stood out. I taught there for 10 years and, without question, he was the star ... radiantly intelligent, imaginative, and with a keen mind. He certainly is the man of the moment.''

``I don't think there''s any question about it,'' says John Blades, literary columnist for the Chicago Tribune, ``if I had one line of books that I had to read, it would be the Vintage Contemporary line that he started.''