Mary Norris's Voice Rises: Between You and Me

04/06/2015 01:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

In 1960, Time magazine reviewed Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away under the headline "God-Intoxicated Hillbillies." The reviewer described the author as "some self-tutored backwoods theologian." One of the people with whom O'Connor shared the joke and her sense of outrage was the elusive American editor Catharine Carver.

An early editor of Samuel Beckett's letters and an intimate of Stanley Kubrick, Carver was famous not only for the roster of writers who insisted upon working with her but for covering her tracks: Taking editorial self-effacement and invisibility to new levels, she shredded and disposed of valuable manuscripts that bore any trace of her corrections and improvements--an e.e. cummings here, an Iris Murdoch there. In doing so, she ensured, as her literary executor, Dan Gunn, has said, "that the grise in her éminence would be perpetually maintained, just as she surely--so frustratingly--wished it."

Monday marks the publication of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (W. W. Norton), by the New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris, whose own acts of literary service, and servitude, include having once cleaned up after staff writer Lillian Ross's apricot poodle, Goldie, in the magazine's hallowed halls. Ross and her boyfriend--William Shawn, the magazine's editor--looked on helplessly, in full expectation that Norris would carry out what was obviously her duty.

"Mr. Shawn was grateful for my swift application of the paper towel. I imagined he admired my genetic predisposition to spring into the role of cleaning lady," Norris writes. Not yet having attained the status of copy editor in the magazine's complicated hierarchy, at the time she was enthusiastically submitting pieces--known as "letters"--that she hoped would be accepted for publication in the Talk of the Town. Mopping up Goldie's pee, "I had a pretty shrewd idea that Mr. Shawn would have to accept my next 'letter from a friend.'"

In a profession not uniformly known for longevity, Norris has been at the New Yorker for more than thirty-five years. Copy editors starting out, and for a long time after, in some cases in perpetuity, are paid only a little more than what fast-food workers soon hope to earn in the United States. That's why many leave the business, or fill in with other work, or find clients that are not magazines or publishing companies. The editorial pay scale dates from a century ago or more and shows no signs of reinventing itself. The copy editor works in the margins and sometimes lives there, too.

On her first day at the New Yorker, in 1978, not far removed from a night-shift job packaging mozzarella in Vermont, Norris found herself in an elevator with a real editor. Every unspoken rule dictated that she take the ride down silently. But there is an irrepressible, freewheeling side of Norris that wants to make connections, and to identify and name what's around her. She writes, "I noticed his boots--big mud-green rubber boots--and said, 'Those are the kind of boots we wore in the cheese factory.'" It was as if the Velveteen Rabbit had spoken. Gazing into the middle distance, the editor said, "So this is the next stop after the cheese factory?"

Riding the subway home, Norris gets out in Chinatown. It's the night before her birthday, which she plans to celebrate by buying cake and ice cream for herself. "Fireworks were drifting over the snow at One Police Plaza, muffled but dazzling. It was Chinese New Year, the Year of the Horse. It felt like a good omen: soft fireworks and an entry-level position at the New Yorker." Between You and Me is organized around such segues--getting from the elevator to the magic of Chinatown takes only a few sentences--and their artfulness is half the book's appeal. The other half is that Norris is simply funny. The funny things she has to say could fill another book. I hope she writes it.

Her talent for giving voice to the silent is prodigious. True, there are stories of the punctuation and writing habits of the New Yorker's most well-known writers, but the best of these serve to reveal Norris's inner life, which is at least as interesting. "'Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?'" Philip Roth once asked his editor, after Norris found what she modestly describes as "a small inconsistency" in one of his stories.

The fact that Roth's "proposition" is written on a page proof by a third party and delivered by a fourth party does nothing to dim its appeal. For a year or more Norris steeps herself in his books. A trip to Amsterdam becomes the occasion for reading The Ghost Writer. Finally, she has the opportunity to speak with Roth on the telephone--"once, closing a piece about Saul Bellow"--and she even sees him in the flesh at a New Yorker Christmas party. "I suppose all he wanted was a housekeeper, someone to keep track of the details," she reflects. "But if he should ever read this I just want to say I'm still available."

There is more of this--Pauline Kael, John McPhee--but the most wickedly funny of Norris's stories are about the New Yorker's real characters: the staff. Lu Burke is a proofreader and a closet millionaire. After terrorizing newcomers to the copy department for thirty-two years, she retires and moves to an assisted-living facility. "Lu disdained to join the other residents in the dining room, preferring to carry her meals up to her apartment and dine alone. A story that made the rounds after her death was that once, while waiting for the elevator, she beckoned to a fellow resident and asked, 'Would you do me a favor?' And when the woman said yes, Lu told her, 'Drop dead.'"

Norris's gift for storytelling is in seeing, as Catharine Carver did, the largely unseen, and in knowing what to leave out, and how what's left in should be refracted. "Everything you say makes wonderful sense to me," Flannery O'Connor wrote to Carver in 1959. The antagonist of The Violent Bear It Away had been giving her trouble. "Rayber has been the difficulty all along. I'll never manage to get him as alive as Tarwater and the old man but I can certainly improve on him." Carver and another reader had helped to identify the problem in the characterization: "'be sure you haven't made too much of a parody of Rayber, as if you do, you take away from the point and significance of what Tarwater sees.'"

It's matters like these that have always preoccupied editors, and that consume Norris and her characters. As a proofreader, Lu Burke's contribution comes, by definition, at the end of the line, after nearly everyone else has weighed in. She worked hard to disguise her apprehension that she didn't matter: "'Not everyone can read proof,'" she would say. "She had a jeweler's eye for print, and kept a loupe on her desk," Norris writes, but "would never make what she would call a 'wooden fix.'"

Alice Quinn, the former poetry editor of the New Yorker, "once told me," Norris writes, "how Lu had explained the editorial process: '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.'" That the relative obscurity of those who are of secondary and tertiary and quaternary significance to the literary enterprise can be illuminated, and made to reveal larger truths, is at the heart of Norris's achievement in Between You and Me.

Catharine Carver, at the movies in 1980 with a young American poet who went on to become a journalist, suddenly said to him, as the credits for The Tin Drum rolled, "Look, they gave a full-screen credit to Ralph Manheim for the subtitles." Some years later, it's said, she took a vow of silence in a northern Italian monastery.