The importance of being Neal

This month, Mosaic’s founding editor, Neal Kozodoy, officially stepped back from his duties and handed the reins over to Jonathan Silver. He will stay on as editor-at-large. (Read more about the change here.) To commemorate his editorship, Mosaic asked several of its regular writers to reflect on what Neal has meant to them and what they accomplished together. Below is my contribution. Go here to read the contributions by Eric Cohen, Ruth Wisse, Hillel Halkin, and Meir Soloveichik.

Neal Kozodoy has been editing me for a very long time. I published my first review in Commentary in 1981, and my first full-length article in 1993, when Neal was number two there. I continued to write for Commentary during his editorship, and then I followed him to Mosaic.

There, since 2014, I’ve published, by last count, 31 pieces, each one an editorial dance with Neal. I keep returning to him for a simple reason: Neal vastly improves everything he touches. That makes him a magnet for serious writers, who become addicted to his sound judgment.

I’ll offer just one example, but a telling one. Neal edits with a reader’s eye. Authors, especially academic ones like myself, tend to write for other authors. But when Neal edits, he becomes an advocate for readers who aren’t authors, and who certainly aren’t academics.

This was obvious at Commentary, a mass-circulation print magazine. But when Neal moved to Mosaic, I thought to myself: “Ah, here’s a chance to slip into a more scholarly mode. Internet publications have hyperlinks! Now I can do what I could never do at Commentary: provide a pyrotechnic display of my erudition, through elaborate links.”

And so I did. I wrote a monthly essay, my first, laden with hyperlinks, sending the reader to the source of every amazing fact and every remarkable quote. When Neal returned his edited version, he had worked his customary magic on the text. But much to my consternation, he’d cut out the vast majority of the hyperlinks.

I objected. After all, the advantage of the Internet over the paper journal is its marvelous ability to source everything at a click. Why not exploit that advantage to the full? It was here that Neal shared with me the wisdom he’d accumulated not just as an editor, but as a reader.

To read an article on the screen, he explained, is a very different experience than reading it on paper. Yes, the text is more readily accessible, at any place and on any device. But it’s embedded in a medium which, by its nature, is rife with distracting temptations. The reader is never more than a click away from straying off in another direction.

One never knows where that exploration might lead, and that is the Internet’s appeal. But if an author is to keep his reader with him for the duration of an extended essay, it’s crucial to banish temptation, in the guise of the flashing hyperlink. Such a link isn’t comparable to a footnote in a printed text. That footnote won’t send the reader very far away—just to the bottom of the page or the back of the book. But a hyperlink may send that same reader to another world, perhaps never to return.

It’s not just that Neal was right—he usually is. It was his philosophy: we must write for readers, not for writers; and the reader, like the proverbial customer, is always right. As an editor, Neal is the author’s ally, but he is also the reader’s best advocate.

I later republished that first Mosaic essay in a paper book. There it has 125 footnotes, and that’s where they belong. As hyperlinks, each one would have been a landmine, ready to go off under my own foot. Ever since then, in my writing for Mosaic and elsewhere, a hyperlink has to make a very strong case for inclusion. Only a handful do.

Not every editor has successfully transitioned from paper to pixel. Neal did, because he grasped something timeless about authorship and readership: it’s a romance. It flourishes best in a quiet room, behind a closed door. Mosaic, his concept and creation, has become a model for delivering long-form writing in a medium engineered for distraction. It is a work of pure genius, and only he could have invented it.