Jim Holt

Jim Holt

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 26 1997 3:30 AM

Jim Holt

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       Editing a magazine is really the perfect job for one who is lazy and spottily educated yet wishes to make a decent living. Editors are like PR people and investment bankers, in that it is somewhat mysterious just what they do. But whereas an investment banker can at least say, "I float new issues," there is no such pat but obscure self-justification available to the editor.
       I had always imagined that the task of the magazine editor was to choose between Trilling and Fiedler to do the new Roth, say, or between Kissinger and Brzenzinski on the meaning of détente. Great thinkers would propose, I would dispose, and the rest was up to the printer. Occasionally there would be a jolly party. The reality is very different, though scarcely less agreeable. Most of my time is spent at a desk with a mechanical pencil and an eraser. Using these implements, I effortlessly trim manuscripts of their rococo excrescences, so they are not embarrassing to publish. Sometimes an author's prose simply needs a good rinsing, so I go into the bathroom and do that. On rare occasions a truly execrable submission shows up on my desk. Then I generally spend two hours trying to wish it into the world of Unbeing, and another hour or so butchering it. When I am finished, it fits the designated page perfectly. It has become a "good piece."
       In the interstices I do a bit of woolgathering. I think of the problem of theodicy. We live in a world that is supposedly the handiwork of a God who is all-powerful and all-good, yet is filled with evil and suffering. Either God is willing but unable to prevent this, or he is able but unwilling. How to resolve this dilemma, other than by plumping for Leibniz's lame inference that ours is the best of all possible worlds?
       The answer, I decide, is simple. The world is not presided over by a deity who is all-good and all-powerful, but rather by one who is 100 percent malevolent but only 80 percent effective. That explains everything.
       Now that I am an editor, I must acquire gravitas (even though I am at a magazine whose most famous past editor was Levitas). This must be done by gradation. From now on, I resolve, when I would ordinarily blurt out, "No way!!" I will compose myself and instead say, "I think, perhaps, not."
       Taking the subway home in the evening, I am suddenly seized by alfear, uncontrollable anxiety caused by elves. But it passes in a moment and I am content again.

Jim Holt is the editor of the New Leader, a political biweekly.