Regarding Literary Magazines: An Interview with David Remnick

David Remnick has been the chief editor of The New Yorker since 1998. He joined the magazine as a staff writer in 1992 having spent ten years at the Washington Post as a reporter. Remnick has also published six books, most recently, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (New York: Knopf, 2010.) His 1993 book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994.
Besides being the chief ed. at the New Yorker, Remnick continues to produce a significant amount of articles and essays for the magazine. Enkare Review got interested in interviewing Remnick for two reasons: how he manages The New Yorker and how he keeps writing with such a high profile job. This interview took place via email between Sanya Noel in the hot, dusty Nairobi and David Remnick in the cold Manhattan borough of New York.

INTERVIEWER

I can’t remember the first time I read a David Remnick article in the New Yorker. It must have been around seven years ago, probably around 2010 when I was a freshman in college here in Nairobi. I’d met and become friends with an established writer who had a subscription to the magazine and one of the first things I said to him when I got to his house was: “You and I are going to remain friends, because you have a subscription to the New Yorker,” and he laughed about it and offered me old copies to carry home. Later on, I discovered a street vendor who sold copies, but he stopped bringing them after a while. I don’t know how he used to get them. I got my own subscription later on and the question of how he used to get them stopped bothering me again, for a while. Then, I used to read the magazine with my eye blinded to the writers’ names until when another friend asked me, “Did you read that David Remnick essay from last week’s issue?”

When Carey first suggested that we should reach out to you, the first thought on my mind was, “I want to ask him how he does it; running the weekly magazine as the chief editor and churning out all that high quality content the way he does.” Perhaps we could start there, what a working day at the New Yorker is like for you as the managing editor and as very active writer.

DAVID REMNICK

Well, it thrills me to know that The New Yorker is being read in Nairobi. Maybe I can thank the Internet for that. When I was young and had the chance to travel, you might come across a copy of The New Yorker at a Parisian book store or an Indian newsstand, but it would be a very old copy indeed and very expensive. The idea that you can read The New Yorker in Nairobi at the same instant my neighbor does, in Manhattan, well, that’s one instance of globalization and technology that I won’t argue with!
The truth is, editing, reading, and writing are what I do pretty much from when I get up early in the morning until I fall asleep (usually with a book or manuscript in my hands!) at night. I count myself lucky for that. Before I became editor of The New Yorker, in the summer of 1998, I had been a reporter for The Washington Post for ten years and a staff writer for The New Yorker for five. I had not edited anything. Not one thing had I edited. Except as editor of my high-school newspaper, and the less said about that rag the better! In college, I pretended to help edit something called The Nassau Weekly, but even there I mainly wrote. To this day I am not quite sure what possessed the owner of The New Yorker to appoint me. Desperation, maybe. And now it’s eighteen years later. My day is a scramble of reading, thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration with some extremely smart and dedicated colleagues. The idea that somehow an imperial editor is at the center of everything is egocentric mythology. Once I get to the office, at around ten, I can lose the day completely to meetings — business and the like — if I don’t watch it, and fail to do things even more essential: conversations with writers and editors and just plain thinking, alone or collaborative. I do my reading in the morning and at night, all at home, usually.
I think it is plain to see that we are in a very political moment with the rise of Donald Trump. And the need for investigative reporting, intelligent commentary and analysis, and even satire, has never been more acute. So, a lot of time goes into planning and working on that kind of material.
As for writing, well….that has to come a distant second; it comes on the margins of my time. And sometimes the margins are fairly narrow. But I do continue to write, mainly because I love the activity, the peculiar kind of concentration it demands. I don’t think I could do without it. I know I could not.

INTERVIEWER

Enkare Review is a literary magazine based in Nairobi with the intention of covering the world with an emphasis on Africa, especially East Africa. We’ve had a number of literary magazines in the region before. Transition was founded in Kampala in 1961, but it does not have a reading here, not after 1991 when it moved to the United States. But we’ve had a number of e-zines that have come up in the recent past, both in East Africa and beyond. The New Yorker has existed for close to a century now. As a young magazine, we are interested in your view of what makes a literary magazine grow deeper roots. What, in your view, has made The New Yorker continue being at the forefront of literary magazines for this long?

DAVID REMNICK

Magazines—and now websites—are usually born in a flush of excitement. Artistic or ideological or visual excitement. Something gives it that initial impulse to create. But you have to give it time to see what form it will take. The publication takes shape over time—assuming it is lucky enough to have time on its side. When The New Yorker began, in 1925, it was radically different. The fiction was brief and awful. The reporting was shallow, less ambitious, often whimsical, rarely serious. What it had, though, was a sense of fun, of irreverence; it radiated a boredom with, and disdain for, the straightforward, conventional journalism of its day. And it was distinctly local. I don’t just mean in terms of its Manhattan roots. I mean the Manhattan of a certain Jazz Age class. Now we have more or less the same typeface, some of the same symbols, but so much has developed since then: long, deep investigative and personal reporting pieces; serious fiction; rich cultural criticism. In addition, The New Yorker is now a national, even international, presence. We long ago went beyond Manhattan, though there is a distinctively New York essence there. Some of the seriousness came with the Second World War and the seriousness that the times required. One thing it had from the start was a value placed on accuracy and clarity. On fact-checking, unlike certain Presidents, we want to live in the reality-based universe.

INTERVIEWER

In late January this year, Kenyan long distance runner Sally Kipyego made an announcement on her social media that after twelve years of living in the US, she had finally become an American citizen. I received this information with mixed feelings. On one hand, I was happy for her because it’s something she had worked hard for (though I couldn’t shake aside that feeling that Sally Kipyego, our beloved Sally Kipyego, was going to be running against her country now even though she remains a Kenyan citizen, too.) On the other hand, I felt quite sad for her. To become an American citizen in the time of Trump isn’t something we are cheering on right now. The image of America in the eyes of the world has fallen. And yet American literature continues to be regarded quite highly. When Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji was imprisoned, PEN America mobilized writers to petition for his release. This was before Trump alright, but American writers and literary institutions, including the New Yorker, have continued writing and reporting real facts at a time of alternative facts. Ahmed Naji’s case reminded me of Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and how, even then, writers mobilized for his release. Can literature, if it stands its ground, save the face of a nation?

DAVID REMNICK

Literature cannot do it alone, that’s for damn sure. And I am not sure what it can do in real time, either. Think of some important political books––“The Tin Drum,” “Midnight’s Children,” “The Golden Notebook,” “Native Son,” “Things Fall Apart,” “Hope Against Hope,” “The Fire Next Time,” and so on. Take your pick. Did they prevent disaster in real time? What they do is something else. If they take hold somehow, they take hold later on, and bit by bit. “The Gulag Archipelago” did not end Soviet oppression and the regime when it came out in the Seventies, though it did help unmask the regime in the West. The regime fell between 1989 and 1991 largely because the regime itself, led by Gorbachev, finally acknowledged its own failure and, in the attempt to reform, weakened to the point of collapse. I am not saying that dissident literature played no role. But the role it plays is not immediate and blunt. A book is not quite an uprising. Or, if it is, it works more internally, subtly, individually.
Well, it’s a long story, but I don’t think the great poets possess the vanity that their verses end injustice at the moment of publication. And I doubt whether any novels or films will do that with Trump. In fact, I think journalism has the more immediate effect. Literature’s role is more outside of time. Sometimes, as with Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” it can predict or warn against American demagogues; sometimes, as with Orwell’s “1984” or Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon,” it can describe a current condition; or, as with so many works, like Gunter Grass’s novels set during the war, it can describe a past world so as to prevent some sort of recurrence. Anyway, this all sounds rather programmatic and banal. Novels and poems are far more magical than any political purpose. Leave it at that. What groups like PEN do is another matter. That’s politics. Not literature.

INTERVIEWER

What is the place of optimism in critical thinking? I mean, do you, as a journalist, feel the need to not only inform/educate but also uplift?

DAVID REMNICK

We publish a lot of things—poems, stories, critical essays—that might direct the spirit upward rather than into the pits of despond. I hope the humor pieces lead one to laughter rather than self-injury, for example. But when it comes to hard-core reporting, investigations, politics, and the like, no, I don’t think “uplift” is the primary goal. Seeing the world clear is.

INTERVIEWER

In an increasingly anti-intellectual world, what do you think are our last bastions? How do we stay that wave with deliberate reading/learning, even while being inundated with (useless) information?

DAVID REMNICK

I am not so sure of your premise: the “increasingly anti-intellectual world.” Despite the political atmosphere we now live in, and all the Steve Bannon-led alt-fact-ness that we are awash in, I do think the world, as a whole, is more literate than ever before. Higher education is more, not less, available, at least in this country. Every generation, as it gets older, becomes convinced that “young people nowadays” are dumber. In the last iteration we worried that we were “amusing ourselves to death.” Now we worry, legitimately, about newer things: “alternative facts,” “the end of the Enlightenment,” our drooling attachment to our phones. And there is some truth in all of this; the romance with technology and the effect it has on attention spans and serious reading is worth thinking about. And when it comes to “alternative facts,” it is the duty of everyone to fight against that, to insist on actuality. But I don’t despair of it. But I do think one of the responsibilities of intellectuals is to speak up for the value of fact, of science, of rigor.

INTERVIEWER

When you became chief editor of the New Yorker in 1998, the magazine was chiefly a print publication. Today the magazine is a leading force in its online presence, and many people, me included, consume it mostly through the internet. Have there been challenges in this shift from print to the current hybrid approach?

DAVID REMNICK

Absolutely. For a newspaper, the shift to an online presence was complex, but it mainly consisted in doing the same thing, producing the same wine (if somewhat more quickly and with a fancier label) and putting it in a new technological bottle. I know it’s more complicated than that, including taking advantage of the possibilities of video, audio, etc. But for us, it meant a kind of cultural change. The print magazine is a matter of around a dozen pieces a week. Two, maybe three of them, of real length and depth. We had to ask ourselves, what does a daily (or hourly!) New Yorker mean? What does it imply in terms of the lives of our writers and what they do (or not do)? What does it mean in terms of fact-checking, levels of editing? How to deal with the sheer velocity of the new medium?
At first, we made conservative choices with a minimal budget. We transferred the print material to a bare-bones online “companion site” with some extra bells and whistles. We are now at the point at which we publish fifteen pieces a day, all without detracting from what we do in print. In other words, we have not done any subtracting. It’s all a matter of addition. More and more, we are employing slide shows, video, visual story-telling techniques; we have a radio presence called The New Yorker Radio Hour, which is both a podcast and a terrestrial radio show nationally. We have experimented with television, live events, and more. At the same time, I hope that the magazine, the long pieces, the fiction, the cultural criticism, and so on, are even better than before. It’s a lot to do. But a joyful burden, if it is a burden at all. To me, it barely feels like work. We are lucky to have the chance to do it. Because no one—not the owners, not the executives—say a word about what we publish. That’s a kind of miracle.

INTERVIEWER

Is this hybrid model sustainable?

DAVID REMNICK

Put it this way. Yes. We are thriving. And the reason we are is that I think our readers want what we are doing and they are willing to pay for it. They sense that we are insistent on our sense of values and qualities. We make mistakes, we are capable of publishing things that do not quite come off, but the intention and ambition is, I hope, always there. And I am glad if our readers sense that. We want to come through for them.

INTERVIEWER

I am constantly thinking about African literature and African stories. In Nairobi, we probably consume more American literature than we consume African stories. This can be pointed to the availability of these stories. There are numerous second-hand American books available cheaply on the streets here. This makes me think, how much African literature is being consumed by Americans and other readers in the West? And this reminds me of Kenyan narratives that have been written about recently in the West and in the New Yorker. I did a quick online search and there were quite a number of stories on terrorism, which can be quite understandable, especially in the wake of the Westgate attack. But there are also other narratives too, and it makes me quite happy to see the Magunga Bookstore written about in this space. And then there was Amanda Petrusich’s writing on the cross-cultural recordings of the Kipsigis in Kenya. My friends and I were talking about it and saying, “have you read that Chemirocha article in the New Yorker?” Does the New Yorker have any particular policy on coverage of Africa?

DAVID REMNICK

We are lucky to have a number of writers at The New Yorker with an intense interest in Africa. Alexis Okeowo, whose parents were born in Nigeria and came to live in Alabama, has written for us from Eritrea, Nigeria, Kenya, and Mauritania. She is young and full of promise; she has a book coming out soon set in Uganda, South Africa, and elsewhere on the continent. Jon Lee Anderson, a veteran foreign correspondent of brilliance, wrote from Central African Republic not long ago. George Packer, who was in Niger in the Peace Corps, last wrote from Nigeria. I can also cite James Verini’s piece from Burundi and Philip Gourevitch’s celebrated work from Rwanda; Chimamanda Adichie, Chinelo Okparanta, Nadine Gordimer, Petina Gappah, and Nuruddin Farah’s marvelous fiction; Teju Cole’s essays; Evan Osnos’s piece on the Chinese presence in Africa…these are some of the things that stand out. There is no policy about coverage, but I do know that we want, and should have, more. More reporting from Africa. More African writers. More.

INTERVIEWER

When we were laying the ground for Enkare Review, we constantly thought about the amount of fact checking that goes into stories you publish. A friend told me that this happens even with fiction, and I had to keep rereading Petina Gappah’s A Short History of Shaka Zulu to compare the school life in Zimbabwe to Kenya’s. They aren’t so far apart, these lives, and a friend told me that this too had to be fact-checked by someone from the magazine. Mary Norris has also written beautifully about her life as a copy-editor at the New Yorker in Between You & Me. Would you please talk about the process a story goes through before it reaches publication?

DAVID REMNICK

We have a corps of 16 or 17 fact-checkers. Ideally, we have people who speak some foreign languages. Right now we have Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian, I can’t recall them all….usually someone has Chinese. And when we need a checker with another language, as we often do, we hire someone to help us freelance. The checkers are not meant to check just dates and names and spellings; they are there to put pressure on the facts and suppositions of the piece. They beat the piece to a pulp, in a sense. Challenge it. Press on its weak spots. Often, a longer piece has a couple of people working on it at once. As a writer, I can tell you that it is both hard to see your house of cards get blown down—a challenge to the ego and your own sense of care—but you also know that it is for the good of the piece. Just knowing that the checkers will soon get their hands on your writing makes you want to be all the more accurate and careful. You don’t want to look like a mess in front of those discerning young eyes and minds! The same goes with the copy people. It’s a source of pride to assimilate their sense of right and wrong; what is clear and what is gumbo. Not that you should write in some sort of imagined “New Yorker voice.” Not at all. But it makes you a clearer writer to take on the most useful principles of clarity, sequence, sense, and so on.

INTERVIEWER

You co-wrote the article on Trump and Russia with Evan Osnos and Joshua Yaffa. How do you go about collaborative work? What guides you in who gets to write what and how do you maintain your individual voices but still make it seamless?

DAVID REMNICK

What a pleasure to work with talents like Evan and Josh! It was actually rather simple. We all wrote sections into a rough outline and I worked with the editor Henry Finder to knit it all together. And all along the way, everyone had a chance to talk it all through, usually via email. (Evan is in D.C., Josh is in Moscow, and I am in New York.) Clearly, the D.C. material is mainly Evan’s, the live stuff from Moscow comes from Josh.

INTERVIEWER

What differences are there (if any) in the orientation to life and language required to be an editor versus a writer? And somewhat relatedly, what is demanded of a journalist versus a literary writer?

DAVID REMNICK

Editing is a collaborative art, writing a solitary one. The editor is there to serve the work of the writer, to help make the piece of writing the best possible version of the writer’s work. The writer is the one on the high-wire. As for the second question, I don’t by the premise, the division between “journalist” and “literary writer”? I understand that the news columns of the New York Times are not ordinarily literary. But what about Orwell on poverty or the Spanish Civil War? John McPhee on nature? Joan Didion from California? Baldwin’s essays from the frontlines of the movement? Journalism? Literary writing? You see where I am driving this car.

INTERVIEWER

In 2010, you wrote the biography on Obama, “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.” What was your research process like, for this and your other books and essays?

DAVID REMNICK

Nothing fancy. Showing up. Interviews. Coming back for more. Reading everything possible. Thinking. Endless dissatisfaction. Typing out notes as a way of seeing what one has. And what one needs more of. Reading those notes over and over to see “into” the piece, where it might go, how to structure it. Outlining. Trying. Trying again. Nothing fancy.

INTERVIEWER

What makes a New Yorker Story?

DAVID REMNICK

Hmmm. I’m not sure anymore. There used to be a common notion, in the fiction world, of “The New Yorker short story.” Particularly in the Forties and Fifties, even later. I think what was meant by it was an upper-middle-class setting in which a person undergoes a slight change of some sort. Say a lonely woman in a failing marriage, who, at the end, after some sort of slight incident or mental event, undergoes an imperceptible change in her life. Mild stuff. But who were the critics of The New Yorker short story talking about exactly? John O’Hara, maybe? Or his lesser imitators? The now-forgotten Robert Coates? God knows. I think it’s bullshit, really. Was Donald Barthelme in that mode? Or Mavis Gallant? Or John Cheever? John Updike? Philip Roth? Alice Munro? Amos Oz? Nadine Gordimer? Salman Rushdie? Zadie Smith? These are voices as various as any in fiction.
And as far as non-fiction is concerned, well, I think what makes a New Yorker story, in the best sense, is not merely depth and factual accuracy, but a sense of individual voice. Who wrote our Profile of the Trump voter? George Saunders. Some writers are not necessarily bringing that level of literary penetration to the game, but they are likely to bring something else: investigative chops, for example. And with a piece like that, clarity, rigor, fairness, and accuracy are the essential qualities. So maybe the short answer to your question is…. ‘no.’ And ‘sort of.’

INTERVIEWER

What would you say to anyone out here with a new literary magazine?

DAVID REMNICK

To take chances. To stake your claim on younger writers who need a chance and whom you believe in, or could. A literary magazine makes its sound in the world, regardless of how long it goes on as an enterprise, based on the few things that it publishes with lasting value. If you can locate those few things, you will have done something that matters; you will have built something that draws a readership that keeps expecting something of you, that reads in hope of something new and glorious and vital. And “good luck.” I wish you that.

 

David Remnick is an American journalist, writer, and magazine editor. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his book Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker magazine since 1998.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enkare Review’s debut issue will be made available online on 30/04/2017

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