Notebook: Making & Unmaking Magazines, Part I

When I was twenty-six, I moved from book publishing to magazine publishing. The differences editorially were so striking. I’ll overgeneralize here, and people will object, but what I missed most about book publishing was its stately pace. Publishers choose carefully, commit wholeheartedly, and then, ideally, work on a book in monk-like devotion until it is perfect and offer it to the world on a salver. What I loved about magazine publishing was the opposite: the improvisatory lunge, the chance to try anything, to turn on a dime. When I arrived at my magazine office we received a manuscript of The Satanic Verses for excerpt consideration. Opening up the package I said, “We don’t do fiction, do we?” My boss, Bob Silvers at the New York Review, said, “We can do anything we want kiddo.” And so it went. (We didn’t back out of The Satanic Verses; it’s just hard to carve out a freestanding fiction excerpt amidst the bustle of a magazine day. The short deadline came and went, as they often did.)

We argued a lot more (in a fun way) in the magazine office than the book office; in the book office we were expected to get behind what was “ours,” and editorial choices emerged from behind-the-scenes intriguing rather than office-floor brawling, though editorial meetings did sometimes have a little gladiatorial drama. The editing (at least where I was) was much more invasive in magazine publishing: editors got into the text up to their elbows, where in book publishing we asked polite questions in the margins, pen v. pencil. (There’s an important difference here that emerges in the discussion—for another day—about book publishers and fact checking. Magazines “own” their articles, the writers are hired to help build the magazine, in a way that book publishers do not own the books. Book publishers are contracted by the authors to print and distribute the text. Their “identity” is part of what they offer the book promotionally.) There is always a pressure to get on with it in magazines and let the article go, to keep moving. This was especially hilarious at The New York Review, where Bob would call an author in the middle of the night with an urgent question about their piece on the Alexandrian Library or Sigrid Undset.

One of the things I thought a lot about in my new job was the role that a magazine can have (or could have, then) in bringing new forms of writing into being, the long New Yorker fact piece, arising from the brow of monumentally meticulous editor William Shawn, being the classic case in point. In a Twitter thread this week Book Post reviewer Lincoln Michel noted that short stories used to be how writers made a living, and novels the arty indulgence the stories paid for; now it’s the other way around. According to Michel the arrival of cheap paperbacks made buying novels as accessible to the general reader as the stories they could easily see in magazines everywhere. I wonder also if disaggregating magazines into sharable posts has meant that fewer people (beside short story fans) come across a short story in their daily reading (likewise poetry, and book reviews for that matter). Meanwhile creative writing programs invite undergraduates to write stories and think about them in the company of actual writers, creating an audience for new writing made of other writers. There have been a few excited proclamations of a revival for the short story in the digital age, but I haven’t seen numbers supporting them. The New York Times, in 2013, offered as examples of new life for the short story the innovative but soon-to-be defunct digital platform Byliner and Kindles singles, whose sales figures were unknown but anecdotally not particularly curative-sounding. (The Guardian offered a skeptical riposte.) I wonder: In our age of disaggregated social-media-driven reading, is there a kind of cultural siloing that is going on alongside the political siloing? When we read magazine pieces outside of magazines, do we miss the circumstantial encounters that editors used to arrange for us—a story, a poem, a piece about something we otherwise never thought about—and the tug to move outside our settled interests? Has fiction reading, like politics, become more polarized? The commercial ascent of nonfiction might seem to say so.

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Magazines build a coherent sensibility both from conscious ideas of themselves and the temperaments of their editors, a coherent sensibility that translates into a kind of recommendation engine, drawing readers outward from their fixed point. The New York Review had its vision of criticism, a defiant one in the beginning, that spread a bit over time and now seems familiar. The germ was an article by Elizabeth Hardwick that Bob had published in Harper’s calling for a more robust critical culture in America. An earlier magazine with a small readership and huge influence, Partisan Review, had spent years working up the general-interest intelligentsia out of which Hardwick’s demand and the creation of the New York Review furled, drawing along many Partisan Review writers, including Hardwick herself. (A friend in college gave innocent me a few vintage copies of Partisan Review, pictured above, now three times as old as they were then, and said, I think you’re going to do something like this.)

It was a touching feature of the New York Review that the writers would arrive in the office expecting some sort of lively party, and were a bit startled by the drab clutch of cubicles, covered with drifts of books and papers, inhabited by silent toiling assistants, with Bob looking up quizzically from his snack-encrusted desk. I think readers get the feeling, when reading a magazine, that the writers sort of make it together, rather than laboring on their own as writers finally always do and being orchestrated by editors into a sort of symphonic illusion of plurality. It was with this idea, that a magazine is like a room where writing finds other writing, that I started a literary magazine myself, wanting to create a place where a certain kind of writing could feel at home. Louis Menand’s new book, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, a kind of mass biography of the intellectual life of the last century, is dotted with little-read magazines that carried whole movements behind them like engines that could.

In the last couple of weeks there has been some news in magazines that got me thinking about all this again. To start where the past meets the present, Ben Smith, the former BuzzFeed News editor whose media columns for the New York Times have become a kind of broadside for the state of journalism, wrote an appreciation of Harper’s springing from a long pandemic memoir they published by the novelist/bookseller Ann Patchett. Amazingly, although Smith is the media columnist for the Times, he confessed to not having previously picked up Harper’s, which says a lot. He’s had columns on Cameo and Discovery+. Harper’s has been known for adhering to its print model and refraining digital experimentation, which is probably why it eluded Smith’s attention. He was impressed that a magazine committed in old-fashioned ways to deliberate editing and non-commercially-driven editorial choices could be good. One does wonder if Patchett’s ruminative essay (20,000 words!) would have gotten the attention it did from the digital crowd if it had not featured a celebrity (Tom Hanks), however tangentially.

An aside: One bit of Smith’s Harper’s reflection that got some reaction was his observation that Harper’s continues to rely on unpaid interns. The prevalence of unpaid internships throughout the arts has been properly assailed as untenable. When I started out there were not many internships at all; as they grew, they were mostly unpaid. Actual jobs at these places were of course even more exclusively distributed, and paid less than it took to live in the cultural hubs where they dwelled. We worried about this at the NYRB and paid our interns at least, but it was a rarity, and still not enough. The question I have for those who challenge unpaid internships is, in these low-margin (or philanthropically supported) businesses, where is the money going to come from? Perhaps salaries could be more evenly distributed, but I haven’t seen evidence that this would foot the bill (I’d love to). My last notebook noted that corporate consolidation is squeezing more profits out of book publishers, but when I began as an editorial assistant to editorial assistants at Farrar Straus & Giroux, independently owned by a multiple heir who was happy if he broke even, my salary was, by general consensus, the lowest in the business. What we really need to be talking about is some viable model of subsidy or financial protection for important cultural work. The evidence is in that it does not pay for itself, at least with the costs that we heap on it, notably commercial rent and health insurance.

Things do not, though, seem to be heading in the direction of supportive institutional structures for writing and the arts. Au contraire. Much in the journalism news lately has been my own platform Substack (covered several times by Smith, most recently last Sunday). Substack is kind of the last stop for a model of journalism that disaggregates writing from its assemblage into magazines (or newspapers): writers go out and contract directly with their readers, no workplace, no guarantees. (I’m an anomaly in being an edited Substack. There are a few of us but we don’t usually come up in the coverage. Our biggest sibling, The Browser, decamped last fall for rival Ghost, as Smith noted on Sunday.) Substack is taking a lot of grief for the level of support that it does provide (selectively) to writers. I think the future for this vector of journalism is the kind of bundling Smith identifies with the new “virtual newsroom” Sidechannel: readers being able to group gig-writers, or small outfits, together, or feed them into single platforms of some kind. O for a kind of metrocard of writing, that would allow you to sample around! But I’ve been saying this for a while, and that does not bring it into being.

Substack admittedly never proposed itself as the exclusive future of journalism. It’s hard for me to see, in any case, a horizon on which readers are subscribing directly to a limited batch of writers whom they read all the time; and how do those writers manage, writing short newsletters every couple of days (or every day!), never pausing for the longer work of research or writing something more substantial? [Stay tuned for Part II! New editors for The New Republic, Paris Review, The London Review of Books, what they were and are]

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