The Quiet American – Gaby Wood – The Observer, Saturday 9 September 2006
It’s a magazine that runs 10,000-word articles on African states and the pension system, has almost no pictures and is published in black and white. So how does the New Yorker sell more than a million copies a week? Gaby Wood meets David Remnick, its big-brained editor, and talks speed writing, 30-hour days and meeting Little Ant and Little Dec
So many memoirs have now been written about the distinguished publication that Harold Ross, its founder and first editor, has gone down in history as a maddening, well-connected workaholic who sacrificed three marriages to his literary invention. It is widely known that his successor, William Shawn, was neurotic, nuanced, almost pathologically shy, and that Robert Gottlieb, a gifted interloper, possessed a museum-worthy collection of plastic purses. In more recent memory, Tina Brown hired big-name writers at vast expense, threw celebrity-strewn bashes to promote the magazine (all of which resulted in a rumoured loss of up to $20m annually) and was supposed to have rejected any story that couldn’t hold her attention on the StairMaster.
It could be said that Brown’s methods were not eccentric but merely attuned to the demands of Eighties and Nineties culture. Equally, Remnick’s non-partying ethic and commitment to world affairs might be thought the only appropriate way forward for a post-9/11 magazine. Remnick, who was hired by Brown, has never been critical of her tenure, and is inviolably modest about his own contribution. ‘My background is as a reporter and foreign correspondent, but it’s hard to separate what one’s natural inclinations are from the times,’ he tells me. ‘My time as editor has been overlapped by a crisis – a prolonged, labyrinthine, tragic, seemingly non-ending crisis – that involves the prehistory of 9/11, 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, fraught histories between the United States and almost everyone.’ Remnick’s colleague Malcolm Gladwell, author of the bestselling books The Tipping Point and Blink, says, similarly, that ‘we live in a suddenly serious time, where people have an appetite for intelligent, thoughtful explanations of consequential topics’.
Yet how can Remnick’s editorial strategy be considered inevitable when no one else is doing what he does? However frequently Graydon Carter may address the bungles of the Bush administration in his letters from the editor in Vanity Fair, he feels compelled, more often than not, to feature a cover star in a bikini. Meanwhile, on another floor of the Conde Nast building, the New Yorker puts Seymour Hersh’s investigations of national security on the cover and has the highest subscription renewal rate of any magazine in the country. It has a circulation of over 1m, and although it is privately owned and such figures are not publicly available, it is thought to be turning a profit of around $10m.
Celebrity culture is far from over; if you wrote a plan for a magazine and said you thought you could make a profit by publishing 8,000-word pieces on the future of various African nations, hefty analyses of the pension system and a three-part series on global warming, hordes of people would laugh in your face. So how has Remnick done it? Before I met him, I asked this of an acclaimed New York journalist, who said: ‘If you can work that out, you will have the scoop of the century. No one knows.’
Remnick is well aware of the apparent mystery, which is why no focus group is ever involved in an editorial decision. As he puts it, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that one hundred per cent of his readers are not going to get home from work, put their keys down and say: You know, honey, what I need to do now is read 10,000 words on Congo. ‘So you throw it out there, and you hope that there are some things that people will immediately read – cartoons, shorter things, Anthony Lane, Talk of the Town. And then, eventually, the next morning on the train, somebody sees this piece, and despite its seeming formidableness, they read it.’
You might say that what looks at first like common sense is David Remnick’s most winning eccentricity.
We meet at the New Yorker offices in Times Square on an obscenely hot day in August. Remnick extends a courtly, ironic offer of rehydration: ‘Coffee? Water? Drip?’ His glass box of an office is decorated with original cover art and scattered photographs – a portrait of AJ Liebling sitting under an apple tree; Dean Rohrer’s wonderful image of Monica Lewinsky as the Mona Lisa. On his desk is a rare book about Jean-Luc Godard, in French.
He has just returned from Arkansas, where he met Bill Clinton for a long profile he is writing, and he spent the end of last week editing a cover story on Hizbollah by John Lee Anderson with an exceptionally fast turnaround. Another reporter calls from the Middle East as I arrive. Yet here is Remnick, blithe and witty as anything, behaving more or less as Fred Astaire would, if only a role had been scripted for him by Philip Roth.
Reporting, a new collection of Remnick’s writing from the New Yorker, has just been published. It reveals not only the scope of his interests – he is as lucid about the PLO as he is touching about Solzhenitsyn, as excruciatingly accurate about Tony Blair as he is compelling on the subject of Mike Tyson’s trainer – but also the deceptive straightforwardness of his style.
Remnick won a Pulitzer Prize for his first book, Lenin’s Tomb, in 1994, and the great pleasure of that book, which gives a kaleidoscopic account of the fall of the Soviet Union, was that you felt party to the open mind of a reporter (originally at the Washington Post) who followed his instincts at every turn. He didn’t mind telling you, for instance, that his wife’s family had been interned in camps in the country to which they were now returning; if he saw someone handing out flyers in the street, he would delve deeply into their purposes; he was not shy of doorstepping ancient members of the KGB. In that first book, as in his others – a follow-up about Russia called Resurrection; a collection of pieces entitled The Devil Problem; a story about Muhammad Ali called King of the World; and Reporting – simply turned sentences open up vistas of complication. Yet the quality that Remnick shows most in conversation is his capacity for self-deprecation. He opens a profile of Katharine Graham, the imperious proprietor of the Washington Post and his sometime boss, with a story about his own involvement in the Post’s historic interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in 1988:
‘As the junior man in the bureau, I was given the task of finding the hairdresser. I would not insist that Moscow was short on luxury in those days, except to note that I did not so much find a hairdresser as create one. At one of the embassies, I found a young woman who was said to own a blow-dryer and a brush. I rang her up and explained the situation. Gravely, as if we were negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, I gave her an annotated copy of Vogue, a mug shot of Mrs Graham, and a hundred dollars.
“You’re on,” she said.
‘Apparently, the interview went well. It was featured, with a photograph, in the next day’s edition of Pravda. Mrs Graham looked quite handsome, I thought. A nice full head of hair, and well combed. I felt close to history.’
In a piece about Tony Blair written just before the last election, Remnick witnesses, behind the scenes, the Prime Minister’s utter humiliation at the hands of Little Ant and Little Dec. In a profile of Al Gore he reveals that Gore employs a private chef who still addresses him, years after his presidential defeat, as ‘Mr Vice-President’. He gets to hang out with the famously publicity-shy Philip Roth in his most feverishly creative period; he visits Solzhenitsyn and his wife as they prepare to return to Russia. Yet in a preface to the book, Remnick alerts the reader to the fact that most of his subjects are public figures who do their best not to let their guard down. Why offer the warning? To suggest we’ll never find out about them?
‘No,’ he replies, ‘so that you’ll find out about them in a different way.’ With politicians, ‘you’ve got press secretaries, and you’ve got a very, very self-conscious actor, who’s performing in public and the course of whose career is dependent on how he’s going to appear to some degree. And he’s very experienced at it. And any question you ask him, he’s heard, and he has a little tape loop in his head. So when something like Ant and Dec comes along,’ – Remnick grins broadly and looks up to the skies in gratitude – ‘Happy birthday. The gods of non-fiction have provided an unscripted scripted moment!’
Remnick pauses for a moment to tell a story about the glorious predictability of journalism. ‘There was a wonderful thing Slate did years ago, when it was just getting started, called the Hackathlon. It was Michael Specter, Malcolm Gladwell and I forget who else.’ (Specter and Gladwell are both old friends of Remnick’s from the Washington Post, and both now colleagues at the New Yorker.) ‘Each day there would be an event. You had to write a 500-word lede [an American term for an article’s opening paragraph] in the Vanity Fair style to a Richard Gere profile: Ready, begin. Then you had to do an Economist situationer on Tanzania – first 400 words. Then maybe a Rolling Stone lede to a … you know: Mick Jagger is angry. Period. Paragraph. Very Angry. Period. The limo is late. You know, one of those. And then maybe a New Yorker thing on the history of sand. I don’t remember the specifics.’
Remnick leans in with a smile of utter glee, and goes on: ‘Specter beat Gladwell. He came from behind, but his lede on the Richard Gere, comparing the colour of his hair to his grey cashmere sweater, was just so brilliant that he overwhelmed him in the Hackathlon. I mean, he could do nothing else in his career and his New York Times obituary would read: “Michael Specter, winner of the 1997 Slate Hackathlon, died today of complications of a hernia operation. He was 98.”‘
David Remnick was born in 1958 and grew up in Hillsdale, New Jersey, where his father was a dentist and his mother an art teacher. The extent of his early gifts, to hear others tell it, borders on the embarrassing. Richard Brody, a close friend Remnick met at Princeton, remembers a story Remnick told him at the time about his activities in high school.
‘He was interested in journalism already, and in literature and poetry,’ Brody tells me. ‘So he interviewed poets, and put together a collection of those interviews for a small literary magazine, and I think some of them were collected in a book. So even in high school he had not only the idea, but let’s say the lack of false modesty to go ahead and do something which many people much older would not have dared to do. ‘
Brody and Remnick found that they shared a love of Bob Dylan, a Jewish upbringing in the suburbs, and ‘a literary school of sorts’. As Brody puts it: ‘There was a whole generation of Jewish American writers – when Saul Bellow won his Nobel Prize, I guess when we were all freshmen or about to enter school. There were people like Philip Roth and Norman Mailer and Bernard Malamud and Joseph Heller. We sort of had a canon of fathers. I think we weren’t postmodernists, temperamentally. We had read our Thomas Pynchon and our John Barth, but that wasn’t what excited us. We were excited by the late flowering, among the children of Jewish immigrants, of the late 19th-century novel.’
(Remnick, still an enduring fan of Roth, tells me that he would have published Roth’s latest novel, Everyman, in its entirety in the magazine, but Roth’s agent wouldn’t allow it.)
When he left Princeton with a degree in Comparative Literature, Remnick got a job at the Washington Post, where his early days were occupied by covering the night-cop beat, or doing celebrity interviews for the Style section, or writing about sport. In 1987, the Post decided it needed a second person in Moscow, and, as Remnick now recalls, ‘Nobody else wanted to go. It’s cold, in those days if you wanted a box of coffee, you had to order it from Denmark. Nowadays there are rich people and stores and all kinds of stuff. (It’s still cold – pace global warming.) So I got to go – I was 28, 29 – and it was the best kind of foreign story: really exciting, constantly changing, intellectually fascinating, ethnically various. It was heaven for a reporter.’ Before he left he married Esther B Fein, a reporter for the New York Times, who also filed stories from Russia.
‘When we were at the Post he was a kind of legendary figure and I was a little underling,’ remembers Malcolm Gladwell. ‘People have forgotten that – and this is not by any means an exaggeration – David was the great newspaper reporter of his generation. And had he never been anything but a newspaper reporter he would be, right now, the best. At the Washington Post there was one day when he had three stories on the front page, which I don’t think has ever been repeated. He was in a league by himself. So the idea that he would have a second act where he would outperform his first act is kind of unbelievable.’
When Remnick was offered the editorship of the New Yorker, he had never edited anything before – with the exception, as he likes to remind people, of his school magazine. The decision to abandon writing – which, for the most part, he has (he now only writes two long pieces a year, plus commentary in the magazine) – was made on the basis of ‘a very simple calculation’: ‘I had about two days – a day – I had seconds to decide, actually. Where could I make the bigger contribution? The ability to affect this magazine and its place in the culture – now, I may cock it up as an editor, I don’t know, but the capacity for potential was greater doing this.’
Tina Brown left on a Wednesday in 1998. Remnick, who had written over 100 pieces for the magazine in the six years he’d been there, and who was, as Brown put it, ‘a key member of my dream team’, consulted on all kinds of editorial matters, was offered the job the following Monday, and took over straightaway, rallied by a five-minute ovation from his colleagues. ‘And then Tina was gone and the magazine had to come out the next week – and the week after that, and on and on,’ says Remnick now, looking amusingly baffled. ‘And I was an absolute novice. And the only saving grace is that there were these people around who were so good.’
It wasn’t easy. There have been times, even recently, when his instinct has failed him. He came out in favour of the war in Iraq, for instance, on the grounds of concern about weapons of mass destruction, and says now that ‘I was wrong about that, totally wrong, as events proved very quickly.’ The job, as Robert Gottlieb once memorably described it, is ‘like sticking your head into a pencil sharpener’. To make matters worse, in some quarters Schadenfreude kicked in early; a profile of Remnick in the New York Times took offence at his choice of interview venue – a formica-topped table in a coffee shop, which was seen to suggest that the ‘buzz’ of the Tina years had fizzled out on the spot.
Michael Specter, Remnick’s close friend of 20 years, tells me that a couple of months after Remnick took over, they went to Paris. ‘We took a walk and he said, “The worst thing is, everybody comes up to me and says: ‘Oh my God! You must be enjoying it so much!’ And I just want to say: ‘Yeah, it’s like enjoying cancer!'” Because it was really scary, and I think it was a lot to take on that job, never having been an editor, when the magazine was financially in trouble. ‘
In a profile he wrote many years ago of the legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee, Remnick remarked: ‘Generalship is not about fighting the battle; it’s about inspiring the enlisted.’ It’s a notion Remnick has clearly kept in mind in his own work as General. Asked to illustrate his editorial methods, Remnick reaches for a baseball analogy: Joe Torre, the manager of the Yankees, ‘gives players the confidence they need to play their best, then he gets the hell out’. He adds: ‘I don’t believe in swagger. I think it’s infantile.’
The magazine’s editorial director, Henry Finder, says drily that Remnick ‘has something very scarce in this city: an aura of sanity. He exudes a sort of calm that most New Yorkers get to experience only with prescription medication. As an editor, I think that aura of equipoise turns out to be very helpful, because you have so many people here who are professional neurotics, always acting out, drama queens, who have one form of craziness or another. And I think he sees it as his job to be… sane.
When I ask Malcolm Gladwell what he thinks the legend of Remnick’s tenure will be, he says: ‘How exactly things got so effortless.’
Specter says he’d like some sort of atomic clock so he could ‘divide 24 by Remnick time’ and work out how he fits everything in. (Remnick himself has minted the immortal dictum: ‘There are only 30 hours in the day – and that’s if you’re lucky enough to change time zones.’) It’s not just the work: he has a family too. Remnick and Esther Fein have two teenage sons and a seven-year-old daughter. He does his fair share of ferrying to music lessons and little league games. Asked to explain how he manages to balance these things, Remnick shrugs and says he doesn’t do anything other than spend time with his family and work. ‘It’s not like I build toy ships, or travel to Tahiti. I don’t go surfing. I don’t know: what do people do?’
He admits that certain pleasures have largely fallen by the wayside. ‘My son said to me – we were reading one night, he his book for school and I a stack of manuscripts – and he said: “You don’t read anything with covers any more.”‘ Remnick cringes. ‘Dombey and Son immediately came down from the shelf!’
Yet there are other things he seems to make time for, somehow. Specter says the only person he knows who watches more television than Remnick is his own ex-wife, Alessandra Stanley, the TV critic for the New York Times. He remembers calling Remnick when one of their old favourites, the BBC version of John le Carre’s Smiley’s People, came out on DVD. ‘I said, “Are you watching it?” He said, “Yes.” He was writing a piece. He said: “I’m giving myself three hours of writing, one hour of Smiley.” And I just thought, Jesus Christ. I watch three hours of Smiley, then I have lunch, then I write for a couple of minutes. ‘
I tell Specter how proudly Remnick told me of his triumph in the Hackathlon, and that I wondered afterwards what he meant by extolling such bare-faced bad writing. ‘If you do it to change the world, you can get really bummed out,’ replies Specter. ‘The Hackathlon was a celebration of the fact that it’s a day job.’ He thinks for a second and laughs. ‘I think he’s happy when we do well. But he was much more excited about the Hackathlon than he was about any science writing or global health award I’ve ever received.’
‘The things about him that I wish …’ Specter goes on, a little awkwardly. ‘He’s an incredibly good friend. I mean, he’s a better friend than he is an editor. And he’s very funny. My daughter thinks he’s hilarious. She said: “You know, David’s the coolest of your friends, Dad.” Then she said: “Actually, he’s not cool, but he’s the best of them.”‘
· Reporting by David Remnick is published by Macmillan at £18.99