Substance over style
Steady and assured New Yorker editor to speak at Writers' Institute
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, scoffed at the notion that, according to one writer's literary calculus, he is the most powerful man on earth.
"Yeah, and I stop bullets with my teeth,'' joked the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Lenin's Tomb'' and a follow-up book on the former Soviet Union, as well as a highly praised portrait of Muhammad Ali, "King of the World.''
Of course, snagging a 10-minute phone interview with Remnick on a Friday afternoon from the vaunted magazine's offices on the 21st floor of the Conde Nast building in Times Square required negotiating three secretaries, two aborted attempts and a wait of two hours beyond the appointed time.
All the while, minions in the background kept distracting the editor to remind him there was a memorial service to attend. "OK, OK,'' Remnick said. "We've got 40 minutes to get there. We'll make it.''
If not the most powerful literary man on earth, Remnick may be the hardest-working man of letters.
"There are only 30 hours in a day,'' Remnick allowed, "if you're lucky enough to change time zones.''
As if it's not plenty daunting that, at 41, he's steering the famously secretive ship of cartoons, ego and literary genius -- just the fifth editor since 1925 and heir to the throne once occupied by the likes of the visionary Harold Ross, the oddly brilliant William Shawn and the celebrity-fixated Tina Brown -- Remnick also manages to write smart magazine profiles in between serious books, sandwiched around occasional teaching.
Did we mention he changes diapers, too?
Remnick has a 1-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 10 and 7. They live in Manhattan and dad is one-half of a power couple. Mom is Esther B. Fein, a reporter for The New York Times, who's currently on maternity leave.
Remnick is content with, by his reckoning, being a pretty boring guy.
"All I do is work and spend time with my family. I don't go out if I can help it, unless it's to a movie with my wife. If there's any spare time in that equation, I try to do a little writing,'' he said.
"I have no hobbies. I don't play golf. I'm not a great stamp collector. I write and I edit and hope that I'm not the worst father in the world,'' Remnick said.
As far as coaching his boys in soccer or Little League goes, "I wouldn't torture my kids by being their coach,'' he said. "Plus, I have enough coaching to do at the magazine.''
Remnick, who seems to wear a perpetual smirk in photographs, leavens a quicksilver intellect with self-deprecrating humor in conversation.
When he makes a rare speaking engagement Tuesday, Sept. 26, at the University at Albany to lead off the Writers Institute's fall visiting writers series -- a lineup that leans heavily toward journalism and literary nonfiction -- Remnick will attempt to deflect the spotlight from himself.
"I don't want to give a long, prepared speech and send everyone into deep REM sleep,'' he said.
His topic will be mainly The New Yorker, an institution as mysterious as the Vatican and certainly the most deconstructed magazine in American history, the subject of its own genre of books and score-settling memoirs from ex-staffers -- including a fistful recently released to coincide with this year's 75th anniversary.
For the UAlbany event, Remnick suggested a Charlie Rose-type format (Remnick has been a regular guest on Rose's cable TV interview program showcasing writers), and Don Faulkner, the institute's associate director, will gamely take the interviewer's seat a la Rose.
"People like to know how the magazine works and about specific writers and artists they've followed in The New Yorker over time,'' Remnick said. "I see no reason why to keep those things a mystery.''
It's been two years since Remnick was named to succeed Brown, who left to launch Talk magazine amid a hail of unusually vituperative criticism -- "shrieking British harpy'' in a Salon.com piece being one of the kinder pejoratives.
By all accounts of the many media pundits who seem to make a career out of tracking Remnick's every editorial hiccup as assiduously as Kremlinologists, his watch has been marked by a steady and assured, albeit traditional, leadership that chooses substance over style in the magazine's content. The subtext is that The New Yorker under Remnick can at times be boring; he's more about issues than personality.
This line of questioning got his attention and he shushed the office lackeys. "It's up to you to judge for yourself after reading the magazine,'' Remnick said. "The last thing I'd want to tell you is that I've figured it out as if it was a puzzle. I do feel more comfortable doing this job on a day-to-day basis after two years.''
He never applied to be editor and had no experience on the other side of the writing equation. It was just the latest example of what Remnick describes as the convergence of dumb luck and uncanny timing that carried a dentist's son from Hillsdale, N.J., to Princeton University to Washington Post intern to sportswriter on that paper in 1982 to the Post's Moscow bureau in the pivotal late 1980s to The New Yorker (recruited by Brown) as a staff writer in 1992 -- where his mentors (John Updike, Joan Didion, John McPhee et al) are now among the stable of talent he calls upon.
What makes Remnick's assignment so challenging, in addition to healing the wounds of the Brown era, is the fact that he's all the while wrestling with the chimera that is The New Yorker of memory.
The magazine's past is smothered in nostalgia, from the iconic cover of knickerbocker dandy Eustace Tilley with top hat and monocle to the initialed halcyon days of A.J. Liebling and E.B. White, the electric wit of James Thurber and Robert Benchley, the enduring reportage of John Hersey and Joan Didion, the storytelling of Joseph Mitchell and John Cheever.
Loyal readers measure their tenure as subscribers in decades, not years.
"Some of the reflections on the magazine's past are very real and some of them are how we think of our childhoods. The snow was always deeper, the sun brighter, the air fresher,'' Remnick said.
During a Writers' Institute panel discussion last fall on magazine writing, which included staff writers Lawrence Weschler and Susan Orlean from The New Yorker, the authors bemoaned the shorter attention spans of readers and the attendant shrinkage of allowable length for their magazine pieces.
Rubbish, Remnick said, or words to that effect.
"We still publish pieces that are 15,000 words and sometimes even 20,000 words,'' he said. "We don't publish books. A lot of the old New Yorker writers' discussion of lengths in the past had to do with three, four or five-part series. Which were books chopped up like a sliced salami.
"I read a lot of books and I want more than anything to see a flourishing literary culture, but I don't think that publishing books in the magazine is the greatest use of our time or space,'' Remnick said. "Magazine space is expensive. We're not printed on newsprint.''
Asked about the recent vogue of allowing profanities to creep into print in the magazine, and his own reputation for cussing aplenty, Remnick didn't miss his opening.
"(Expletive) if I know,'' he said. "Let's see you print that.''
Who: David Remnick, author and editor of The New Yorker.
When: Tuesday, Sept. 26. 8 p.m.
Where: Performing Arts Center, UAlbany uptown campus, 1400 Washington Ave.
More info.: Free to the public. Call the Writers Institute at 442-5620.
Other writers, other nights: After David Remnick, other writers will come to the Writers Institute this fall, reading at the University at Albany.
* Barbara Chepaitis: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3, Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Uptown Campus: Chepaitis is the author of "Feeding Christine,'' a novel that explores the camaraderie shared by four women as they blend time, patience, love and food to cultivate their friendships. Chepaitis, who teaches at the University at Albany, is also the author of several science fiction/fantasy novels and a member of The Snickering Witches, a storytelling collective.
* Jarka Burian, 4 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 4, Humanities Building, Room 354, Uptown Campus: Burian is the author of "Modern Czech Theatre: Reflector and Conscience of a Nation.'' Professor emeritus of theater at the University at Albany, Burian is a leading American scholar of Czech theater and author of the "The Scenography of Joseph Svoboda,'' the 1974 critical study of the work of one of the 20th century's most influential theatrical designers.
* Allen Ballard, 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 5, Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Uptown Campus: Ballard is the author of a first novel, "Where I'm Bound,'' a Civil War epic that focuses on a soldier in an African-American regiment, his experiences in the Union army and his efforts to reclaim his life and family. Ballard teaches history and African-American studies at UAlbany and has published two nonfiction books, "One More Day's Journey'' in 1984 and "The Education of Black Folk'' in 1973. The Mount Calvary Baptist Church Choir will sing spirituals of the period interspersed throughout the reading.
* Horton Foote, 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, Page Hall, 135 Western Ave., Downtown Campus: Foote is a screenwriter, playwright, actor and author of 1999's "Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood.'' Foote is perhaps best known for his adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird'' (1962), for which he won an Oscar for best screenplay. In 1995, he won a Pulitzer Prize in drama for "The Young Man from Atlanta,'' and in 1983 he won a second Oscar for his screenplay "Tender Mercies.'' In 1989, he received an American Theatre Award for lifetime achievement. In conjunction with his visit, the Institute's Classic Film Series will present "Tomorrow'' and "The Displaced Person'' at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 17, and "Tender Mercies'' at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18, in Recital Hall.
* Francine Prose, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24, Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Uptown Campus: Prose is the author of 10 works of fiction. Her most recent novel, this year's "Blue Angel,'' is described as a satire of academia, specifically of English departments and writing programs. She is a contributing editor at Harper's and writes regularly on art for the Wall Street Journal. Prose is a Director's Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.
* Ted Conover, 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Uptown Campus: Conover is the author of "Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing,'' an account of almost a year he spent as a correction officer at Sing Sing prison. Parts of the book have been banned at New York state prisons. Conover is also the author of two books, "Whiteout'' and "Coyotes'' -- one about Aspen, Colo., and the other about illegal Mexican immigrants. Scott Christianson, journalist and author of a book about the American prison system, will join in the discussion following Conover's presentation.
* David Halberstam, 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, Page Hall, 135 Western Ave., Downtown Campus: Halberstam is a historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the author most recently of 1999's "The Children,'' which examines the early days of the civil rights movement. He has also written several books about sports in America, including "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World That He Made.''
* David Nasaw, 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Uptown Campus: Nasaw is the author of the new biography, "The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst.'' Nasaw is also the author of "Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements'' and "Children of the City: At Work and at Play.'' He has served as historical consultant for several television documentaries and chairs the doctoral history program at City University of New York Graduate Center.
* "A New York State of Mind'' -- Russell Banks, William Kennedy, Grace Paley -- 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 13, Page Hall, 135 Western Ave., Downtown Campus: Three award-winning writers -- Banks, Kennedy and Paley -- discuss how they have used the history and landscape of the state and the mindsets of New Yorkers for crafting contemporary fiction. Banks' books include "Rule of the Bone'' and "The Sweet Hereafter''; many of Kennedy's books, which include "Ironweed'' and "Legs,'' are set in Albany; among Paley's works are "The Collected Stories,'' "Later the Same Day'' and "The Little Disturbances of Man.''
* Ben Katchor, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 14, Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Uptown Campus: Katchor is the creator of the comic strip, "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,'' which has appeared in newspapers and magazines since 1988. Some of his strips have been collected in two books. He is the recent recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and also is the author of the book "The Jew of New York,'' about an 1825 attempt to establish a Jewish homeland in upstate New York.
* Edmund White, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 28, Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Uptown Campus: A novelist, activist, critic and award-winning biographer, White is the author most recently of the novel "The Married Man,'' about a young man's death from AIDS. His fiction includes the autobiographical trilogy, "A Boy's Own Story,'' "The Beautiful Room is Empty'' and "Farewell Symphony.'' White is the author of the biography of Jean Genet for which he won the New York Critics Circle Award, as well as a collection of essays, a travel book about gay America, and a group of short stories.
* Billy Collins, 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7, Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Uptown Campus: Collins is the author of six collections of poetry, including most recently "Picnic, Lightning'' in 1998. Collins has read his poetry on National Public Radio and his poems have appeared in numerous periodicals, including Harper's, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker. He is a professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York.