Web Exclusives: PAWPLUS

Posted March 27, 2002:
Man about New York
David Remnick '81 talks with PAW about the editing life

New Yorker editor David Remnick was awarded the Woodrow Wilson Award at Alumni Day 2002. A few days before the event, freelance writer Maria LoBiondo interviewed him for PAW.

Is the air different at The New Yorker than in other places?

I hope when I say the following things you don't think I'm taking credit for it — I'm only here 10 years, three of them as editor, six or seven as a writer. I think The New Yorker's place in history of American fiction, humor, art, and recording are pretty secure, but the worst thing an editor of The New Yorker could do is treat the magazine like a museum, or a museum piece. It's a living, evolving thing. It has changed in many ways. When The New Yorker began, there was no serious fiction, and the reporting was brief and slight and mostly built around wit. The things that we think of as the modern New Yorker, which include serious criticism, fiction of real depth and moment, pieces that are about war as well as the lighter side of life — that evolved with time. Some people think that changes only happened at The New Yorker in 1992 — there was a New Yorker that was born out of Medusa's head, and then Tina Brown came and there were photographs. That's an utterly sentimental and inaccurate sense of the magazine. It continually evolved. The magazine of 1925 is extremely different than 1930. The magazine of 1960 was quite different than the magazine of 1970, more politicized, and a lot of these changes reflected the world around us — whether it's events or speed or national mood.

Like Princeton?

I know The New Yorker better than I know Princeton. When you go to a university it sort of freezes in your mind because you'll never have an attachment to it as intense as those years that you were there. It's harder for me to know and to judge. When you go to a university it's so particularly about your own experience.

How would a young writer break into The New Yorker?

We've had a couple of fiction issues which are devoted to people who have never published a book before. So we are always looking for young promising writers. On the other hand, we're not a workshop... It's always a matter of great pride when a magazine plays a great role in discovering somebody, like we did with John Cheever in the 1930s or countless others I'm proud to say. That process is a very important part of what we do and our effort. But the odds are the odds, and we publish one short story a week and it's a crowded field.

You've been at The New Yorker 10 years. Are you still happy to go to work in the morning?

I can't wait to put my pants on. Sometimes I forget to put them on.

How do you feel about getting the Woodrow Wilson Award?

I'm very honored to get this award. On the other hand, I feel yet again like I've slipped one past somebody. I know that Eric Lander '78 got this award a couple of years ago. Eric Lander is a few years older than me. He was on the Prince when I was there. And even then he was a preposterously, enormous genius. He is right now at the center of mapping the genome, and my job is to pick animal cartoons on Thursday afternoons and figure out if this talking dog cartoon is funnier than this talking alligator cartoon. So it's lovely and I really am honored and my mother couldn't be prouder, but yet again I feel like that I've slipped a fast one. That in the game of three-card Monte I've won 20 bucks.

Have you felt that way about your journalism career before?

I feel that in that part of my life I've been very lucky. And my luck started at Princeton with getting to John McPhee '53's course. That changed my life because I took lots of literature courses at Princeton and it helped me to read more sensitively and deeply. I was lucky to have teachers like Robert Hollander '55 and Suzanne Nash. I learned Russian badly, but that was only my fault. I was probably the worst Russian student they ever had. It's been a very strange road. But it was never Princeton's fault when I screwed up, and it was always to Princeton's credit when something went right. I also credit the Press Club. I didn't come to Princeton on a complete scholarship but I did need to make extra money to get by, and instead of waiting on tables at Commons I got into the Press Club. I learned a lot...

One summer I was there with Todd Purdum '82, now of the New York Times. Some poor professor died and we had to write the obituary in 19 different ways for 19 different newspapers... I was prepared to write badly for anyone.

Learning how to do this is like being a seal who can balance a ball on her nose. It's not the most elevated talent in the world, but it is a talent. You do have to learn how to do it. I'm talking about writing quick accounts of a meeting or an obit or a basketball game. I learned that in college thanks to Press Club. So that's kind of a rudiment of reporting, and then you go on from there to harder things... McPhee's course was more high-minded than that, because it had to do with structure — it also had to do with meeting a real writer and a real writer who's also blessed with being a great teacher. McPhee's really dedicated to that course... We have a professional as well as a personal relationship now — which of course feels endlessly strange (editing your professor). He's incapable of writing a bad sentence.

How about your own writing?

I do write. I had a piece in the magazine about a month ago about Israel. But there's only so many hours in the day. I have three children and recently moved. I'm a fairly quick writer but I need — you can't just say, "Here's two hours and I'll get two hours of writing done." You need eight hours in order to get two hours of writing done, you need to screw around, you need time to stare at the screen, you need time to be frustrated and walk to the refrigerator. So that kind of time is not always available to me and it would be a real disservice to my colleagues and to this magazine if I were to give just my left hand or just my right hand. It needs all my appendages, however stubby they may be...

Life, if you're lucky, is long.