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
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
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
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...