Back of the Book
Ten questions for Philip Terzian, departing literary editor of The Weekly Standard.
July 11, 2017 | by Creative Armenia
Philip Terzian outside.
Philip Terzian has been a journalist, commentator, and editor for half a century. This month, he steps down as literary editor of The Weekly Standard– a post he's held since 2005, during which time the Books & Arts section of that magazine was home to some of America's most lively, diverse, independent, and profound cultural criticism. Before arriving at TWS, Terzian was a widely syndicated columnist for twenty years. His work made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Distinguished Commentary, and he has served on the Pulitzer jury. He contributes to a wide range of publications, including Harper's, The Wall Street Journal, and Sewanee Review. He is also the author of Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century(2010).
To celebrate his career, we asked him ten questions about the curious craft of magazine editing, and his experiences as a writer and reader.
1. Do you remember the time when you were “discovered" as a writer?
Probably when a high school history teacher accused me of plagiarizing a book report. I was shocked and irritated by her reaction, of course, but also remember thinking that it was a well-disguised compliment. When, in my early twenties, a few sentences of mine from a book review in The New Republic ended up as a quotation on the paperback edition (of Edward VIII by Frances Donaldson), I thought I had arrived.
2. How have things changed since then?
I've been a journalist for nearly a half-century, but the satisfaction of seeing my writing appear in print – especially in certain venues – has never diminished. I don't know whether other writers, in the online epoch, share this sensation; it may well be a vestige of the printed page. But I also remember, with pleasure and surprise, the first time that my byline appeared in the Los Angeles Times, and my Armenian surname attracted attention among readers. That had never happened before.
3. What is your favorite story of how a writer was discovered?
My favorite, or at any rate most instructive, story about a writer's discovery is the saga of John Kennedy Toole and A Confederacy of Dunces (1980). Toole failed to find a publisher for his novel, and committed suicide. But his grieving mother shopped the manuscript around, in subsequent years, and found a sympathetic reader in Walker Percy. This demonstrates that persistence and faith are almost as important as talent, in the marketplace; but success usually comes at an unexpectedly high cost.
Philip Terzian inside.
4. What piece (or pieces) do you feel a special pride in having published at TWS, and why?
It's difficult, offhand, to name any particular pieces. But I am proudest, I suppose, of having recruited certain writers of eminence – from Gordon S. Wood to Marjorie Perloff to Andrew Roberts to J.J. Scarisbrick – and given fledgling critics the opportunity to gain a wider audience. I have always edited the Books & Arts section with an eye to serving its readers, and have been gratified to know that while they come to The Weekly Standard for politics, they are equally interested in history, music, poetry, dance, education, art, religion, and all the myriad things that give life to a journal of politics and culture.
5. Who are some of your greatest literary influences, and what elements of their work have you sought to absorb?
I discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald when I was about 12 years old and, in a pattern that would repeat itself in subsequent years, I immersed myself in his life and work for months until, prompted by some inner compulsion, moving on to a series of other writers: T.S. Eliot, Max Beerbohm, Anthony Powell, William Faulkner. Fitzgerald was a good writer to impress a dreamy adolescent, and he had the advantage of a family connection to the place where I grew up – just outside Washington, where his daughter Scotty then lived. What propelled me into journalism was an interest in the news, and in history, combined with the realization that I am not much of a storyteller. I was then, and am still, impressed by prose style and was influenced in youth by the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and the spare, succinct voices of George Orwell and (of all people) Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. I still recommend those three to aspiring journalists.
6. Say a young person today wants to become a professional prose writer. How do you advise him or her to proceed?
To read British and American literature, and the great historians and poets and essayists, especially the voices that still speak clearly and powerfully across time. Samuel Johnson is as vivid today – at least to me – as he was two centuries ago. You have to decide, at some point, whether writing is a vocation or an avocation, and understand that the point is not necessarily income or notoriety but the satisfaction of craftsmanship.
7. Is it possible for you to identify any of qualities that — upon reading a submission (or anything else) from a budding writer for the first time — made you think, this one's got talent?
A simple, declarative prose style, a distinctive voice, and narrative skill, as well as the ability – which sounds fundamental, but is comparatively rare – to introduce a subject and get to the point without (as we say in journalism) too much throat-clearing. There are structural requirements in writing a good essay, as important to a good essay as engineering is to architecture, and it's always a pleasure and revelation to read one.
Philip Terzian's office, without Philip Terzian.
8. Relatedly, in the age of anyone-can-do-anything, have you ever felt discouragement might be in order?
Of course – and there are considerably more people who want to be writers than people who can write. As an editor, you have to be candid without being cruel; and as a writer, you have to expect rejection and be surprised by success. A certain confidence is essential to writing for the public, but the market is a competent judge of talent.
9. What are some of the pleasures of editing other people's work?
The satisfaction of seeing an idea realized with skill and flair, and the encouragement of genuine talent. A reputation is not always a guarantee of quality, and a good writer shouldn't care about the size of his audience.
10. You have announced that this month will be your last as literary editor of TWS (where you will remain as a senior writer). What are you most looking forward to now?
I will continue writing for TWS and other papers, which is a great privilege and pleasure. I'm still nervous about whether editors like my work, and the thrill of appearing in print is as strong now as it was when I began writing for publication a half-century ago. There are certain mechanical and administrative responsibilities that go with editing a magazine or newspaper – and the recurring deadlines, of course – and I won't necessarily miss those!