How do you see the American public?
Since taking the helm of The New Yorker in 1998, David Remnick has returned the magazine to its profitable glory days. A graduate of Princeton University, he began his journalistic career as a night police reporter at the Washington Post in 1982, becoming the paper's Moscow correspondent in 1988. His coverage of the Soviet Union's collapse led to his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 book "Lenin's Tomb." His latest book "The Bridge," is a biography of President Barack Obama. He lives in New York with his wife, Esther Fein, and their three children.
Question: How do you see the American public?
David Remnick: I don’t see the American public. I don’t think about the American public. It’s too large a category for me to think about.
What I think about honestly is: what’s the best we [The New Yorker magazine] can do? What’s the deepest we can go? What’s the most penetrating analysis we can publish? And then publish it and let the chips fall where they may.
And we have a readership of over a million people, which is well less than half a percent of the [U.S.] population. But it’s a lot of people, and that’s what I care about.
I know that fifty million people aren’t going to read the New Yorker. Fifty million people don’t do anything all at once.
So all I’m thinking about is to do what we do and what we do best. It’s not a question of snobbery. It’s not a question of elitism. It’s a question of doing what we know how to do.
When there first were potboilers in the ‘60s; Jacqueline Susann published a novel like “Valley of the Dolls,” and she’d sell a gazillion copies of it. And novelists everywhere who needed to make a living thought, “Okay. I’ll write one of those and that’ll support me for the rest of my life.” And a lot tried and they can’t do it.
And we only know how to do what we know how to do. It’s not a high brow magazine in the sense of Paris Review in the ‘50s at its zenith. And nor is it People or US. It is what it is.
The New Yorker is a very strange animal when you think about it.
If you had a billionaire today and you approached the billionaire with two ideas for a magazine, the first idea for a magazine would be let’s take the most popular television personality in America, and we will call it after her first initial, and we’ll put her on the cover every month. And the magazine will be an emanation of her sensibility, and advice, and the celebrities she knows, and the kind of earnest articles about women’s health. Whatever it may be, that will be one magazine and we’ll call it O for Oprah.
The billionaire nods. “Interesting idea.”
The other idea I have for a magazine is the following. The cover will not have photographs, neither of newsmakers nor women in bikinis. There will be drawings. They might be funny. They might be of a seasonal landscape. And the inside will have black and white cartoons; strange humor pieces by people like David Sedaris, or Andy Borowitz, or Patty; 14,000 words on the war in Iraq, say, or; and then maybe a piece on the scrap metal industry in a short story; and James Wood on [Leo] Tolstoy; and some reviews of current things. And that’ll be that magazine.
Which one do you think the billionaire would choose?
So the New Yorker, the second magazine I described, is a happy freak of nature and we’re lucky to have it. How it survived from 1925 and kept having various wonderful periods, which most magazines don’t have, they usually have one period that’s okay. And then they either die or they kind of drift into obscurity.
How this animal has learned to revive itself and stay vital, and important, and funny, lively is kind of a miracle. And that’s what we try to do.
Question: Can we cultivate more interest in the arts?
David Remnick: I think something that’s very hard to live with – and I’ve asked that question in one form or another all my adult life – is that the reading of difficult books, say, is never going to be the obsession of a vast majority of the American, English or any other people. To spend an hour or two or three a few nights a week placing yourself in front of an enigmatic text with little words in black and white, and then you’re supposed to form pictures in your mind or ideas in your mind and make that your central obsession, or pleasure, or entertainment.
To expect some huge portion of any people to do that has always been off base.
Now we live in a world of many screens. I grew up in a world of one screen – a television screen. That was an erotic lure enough.
Now I have good witness to teenagers who are faced with many more screens, and the lures have become even more tantalizing. And the pull away from placing yourself in front of that enigmatic text – whether it’s non-fiction, or fiction, or whatever – grows more difficult, more strained, more unlikely, and we have to work all the harder.
I don’t think that just because we have a couple of little videos on our Web site that’s going to be the salvation of the New Yorker. It’s nice. It might be fun, but I think there will always be readers.
I’m not as pessimistic even as the Caleb Crane piece in our own magazine about reading; but then I wouldn’t be on the business end if I were as pessimistic.
Recorded on Jan 7, 2008
It's not a question of elitism, Remnick says. It's about getting a good product out there.
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