The Roast Issue
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H. Aram Veeser

The Disquieting Jeff Williams

Jeff Williams has many fine qualities, and one of them is generosity. I felt it the first time at around 1 am, when I parked in front of his house in Greensville, North Carolina, a comfortable house where I planned to crash for the night.

Let me confess my misgivings. He was a little younger than me—no more than a couple of decades—but even so slightly younger a man always feels like a standing reproach for all that I myself have failed to accomplish. Worse, this one was funny, athletic, and brilliant. His features could express many thoughts and moods, and his smile was dangerously winning. I suspected him of conquests, and it was with unease that I walked up to his white front door.

He seemed really happy to see me. The kitchen looked like a rebel’s den. An underground newspaper was being laid out on the formica table and countertops. This turned out to be the galleys of the forthcoming minnesota review. Two people even younger than him were toiling over fresh copy. “Do you guys know Hap Veeser?” Jeff asked them. “He’s one of the great writers in the mr stable and he is the author of The New Historicism.” I weakly protested against these lies while inwardly basking in his mendacious light. In this way was I introduced both to his daughter Virginia and to his disarming and natural generosity. Instead of competing with this awesome Young Turk, I began to consider him as a friend.

Many other acts of kindness ensued but the greatest one was the most recent one. March 14 of this year, a Sunday night, I got a call.

“Hap? This is Jeff Williams. Hey, Routledge sent me your manuscript for the Edward Said book.”

Jeff had received the MS the previous Thursday. Not only did he read it cover to cover, but now he was also ready to spend two hours talking me through it. He told me he was sending a positive reader’s report to the publisher and that he wanted to send the copyedited MS directly to me.

The copyedit that I got two days later went through the whole 304 pages line by line. It was house-to-house fighting: every phrase stood for his scrutiny and many were tagged.

“Necessary?” he would write, or, “You need simple, if pithy, guideposts for the reader—say in ten years in a library.” Often he wrote some version of “Too deflected—you need to stay on point,” or else, more frequently than I like to admit, at the end of my paragraphs, “Draw the point.”

This phrase struck a chord, and now I use it on other people all the time.

But there were also lots of comments that only someone of his stature could provide.

Jeff knows more or less everything about Edward Said. He’d bio’d him for the Norton theory anthology. When Jeff wrote, “Wow—this is a real scoop that I’d not heard,” I blushed and thought, Well if he thinks so it’s gotta be true.

He had bad things to say: “This seems desultory” appeared often, as did his occasional note, “totally peripheral.” Readers of the Chronicle know he is a chaste plain stylist himself, a writer to whom grace and clarity come with infuriating ease. So he often wrote in my margins, “OK, but a bit of a flourish” or “a flourish, but its yours”—this comment was a generous licensing of my own incorrigible bad taste.

And, Jesus, the man even edited my footnotes. He detailed which were to be cut, which condensed, which incorporated in the text. The other anonymous readers were good, but neither of them had devoured the whole MS at two sittings. His willingness to read every word empowered him to say with real authority: “I think you say this too many times.” He dug deep and prodded me to theorize about charisma, the book’s central conceit, and he sent me to the writers who might help me do it. On top of all these beyond-the-call-of-duty edits, he also provided a stunningly complimentary reader’s report. At the end of it, he came up with the title that now appears on the jacket.

His canny persuasions left Routledge few options. After the Williams assault, they had to publish my book.

Why then the addition of that two hour phone call? One cannot know what passes through the mind of another. But I now believe he called me that same Sunday night to make sure I’d actually do it. He knew just how long I’d been ruminating this book. An onward-spurring pep talk was called for. The conversation was all about the book and the ideas, but its hidden purpose was to fire me up and push through to the end. The combining shoving of him and my toughest editor, Hertha Schulze, finally got me over the finish line.

Funny, brilliant, forceful, and young: the man, I tell you, is an incomparable menace.