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'A Good Talk': Conversing with Daniel Menaker

Daniel Menaker, a former fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine as well as executive editor in chief at Random House, is a bona fide member of the so-called "chattering classes." So consider him an expert on the subject when he produces a book titled "A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation" (Twelve, $20). Menaker, 68, also is the author of "The Treatment," a novel about psychoanalysis - the "talking cure." He spoke with us by phone from his home in Manhattan.

 

You suggest that some of the famous conversationalists of history - Socrates, Samuel Johnson - weren't, in fact, much fun to talk to.

People who are famous for talking are generally performers or, in the case of Socrates, interrogators or almost lawyers. It's contrary to the aimless pleasures of improvised conversation. I think the unsung heroes of conversation are probably the friends whom we most like to talk to.

 

Americans, you say, often distrust talk.

We're a nation deeply SSRI'd - so many antidepressant prescriptions are filled in this country - but being serious and getting underneath the surface seems to disturb a lot of people. They don't really want to go underneath.

 

And yet we're overwhelmed with talk shows and talk radio.

There's a difference between yakkers and conversationalists. When we really like to hear a lot of verbiage, we tend to go toward the yakker, toward "The View," toward the more crazy and polemical people like Michael Savage. Entertaining complexity is difficult.

You enumerate three important principles of conversation: Curiosity, humor and impudence. Why impudence?

In order to get the rewards of conversation, you need to make contact with the person inside the formality of most new encounters. One of the ways to do that is to be like a child and say something unguarded about yourself or ask a question that might seem just a little untoward. I'd rather have a more improvised and spontaneous exchange, and I think one of the ways to do that is to be a little teasing, a little mischievous.

 

What's your advice for handling bores?

I would aim my advice at the bore, not at the sufferer. I have a very arbitrary limit based on somebody I know, somebody who is a dear friend but who just goes on too long - and that's five minutes. If you've used up your five minutes, and it's clear that there's a sincere desire for you to continue telling the story, then fine.

Is conversation endangered in the age of text messaging?

There are so many seemingly timesaving and practical substitutions for face-to-face encounters. They're useful, they're important - but I don't think they have that essential, primal usefulness that sitting down with somebody has.

And yet--New York is the yak capital of the world, and Long Island not far behind; you see people in restaurants and they're talking to each other. On the ground, as they so lamentably say, there is a great deal of conversation surviving.

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