What do you do?
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.
David Remnick: It is more unusual than you would think that a writer becomes an editor, at least in this era. It’s not unusual; historically it happened a lot; but at the New Yorker it’s pretty much a first.
[Harold] Ross was a newspaper man, but mainly an editor. [William] Shawn almost completely an editor. Bob Gottlieb became a writer really only after he retired from the New Yorker. Tina Brown wrote a little bit as kind of a spritely feature writer, but came to write a book long after she left the New Yorker.
I also had no time to think about it. I went from being a writer at the New Yorker on a Friday to the editor of the New Yorker on a Monday.
I had no thoughts of this. It’s not as if I were the third base coach for years, and then became the pitching coach, and then became the manager.
For a newspaper, you would go through any number of steps before you became the Executive Editor after long years of both experience and competition. So I had very little time to think about what this meant. And the only salvation was the fact that I was surrounded by extraordinarily talented people: Dorothy [Wickenden], Pam McCarthy, Henry Fender and so on; and that the magazine knew what it was about, and that I was in concert with them.
But clearly what being an editor is about at the New Yorker – I don’t know about other places – is to get the best work out of very, very talented people; continually replenish a staff of talented people with more of same; to give the magazine a kind of journalistic, and literary, and even moral direction; and ethical underpinning; and togive it a kind of sense of momentum, and drive, and imagination; and also to fire up other people about what they have to do; putting very intelligent and talented people in positions to succeed and get the best for themselves.
This magazine is largely about individual writers and artists and so on coming up with what they do best. Now do I ask for certain things? Do I push people toward certain things? Do I think we need certain subjects covered or looked at over time? You bet.
But we are not a newspaper. We are not a news weekly. I try to see what these writers are obsessed with and push them in that direction.
Do I miss reporting? I’m fully aware that you can’t do everything in life. And each day you get a little older, you realize that this is not just a cliché, but an absolute law of life. If I thought that my not writing either completely or even a lot was a great loss to the literary or journalistic world on the scale of a Philip Roth or John Updike deciding suddenly that they have to become chefs, I wouldn’t do it.
I think the world can live without my writing so much. I do it a little bit. I energize myself. I indulge myself by getting out of the office sometime and going to the Middle East, or Russia, or something like that and write about it; but not very often. Once or twice a year.
Recorded on Jan 7, 2008
Remnick answers what it is like to helm The New Yorker.