Rising to the Top: A Q&A with New Yorker editor David Remnick

May 5, 2006
Category: Archive

As David Remnick describes it, he vaulted to the editor’s
chair of The New Yorker from a similar role at the high school he attended in
his native New Jersey. What this leaves out, of course, is Remnick’s Princeton education and his years covering one story or another — first for The Washington Post, which sent him to Moscow,
and then for the magazine he now runs. The 47-year-old writer reprises that other role in a newly released
collection simply titled “Reporting,” which features his profiles from The New
Yorker
on such subjects as the late publisher Katharine Graham; politicos Al
Gore
, Tony Blair and Benjamin Netanyahu; authors Philip Roth and Amos Oz; and
boxers Mike Tyson and Larry Holmes.

On May
11, he begins a promotional tour at Northwestern
University’s Medill School of Journalism.

The following Q&A is an edited version of a recent phone
conversation with the author.


What does your new book tell us about your priorities as a writer and journalist?


I don’t think that any one person is
always a collection of absolutely coherent interests. Israel and the
Soviet Union are part of my background; I make no apologies for that.
But more broadly, as a writer, I’m interested in reporting as deeply as
I can and making some narrative sense of what I write about. I grew up
on that sort of non-fiction writing, reading The New Yorker, Esquire,
Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and later, John McPhee. Maybe my hero of them all
was A.J. Liebling. If you look at his career, he wrote about the Second
World War, food and boxing, among other things.

So you grew up under the influence of “New Journalism“?

With
all due respect to Tom Wolfe, I think he devised this term “New
Journalism” as a form of self-advertisement and advertisement for his
contemporaries. Before that term ever came along, there were not only
Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling, but also Daniel Defoe and a long
list of others.

“Non-fiction writing” may be a less thrilling
moniker, but that’s what I do. I’m a believer in fact and the
possibilities of writing something of value, something entertaining,
without straying from fact. I don’t believe in the notion of relativism
in non-fiction writing and the intentional playing around with fact,
and I don’t mean to limit this to the James Frey incident. In the
category of memoir, if someone is remembering and reconstructing the
past as best she or he can, that’s one thing. The reader understands
that. But if you just say to yourself, “All bets are off; I’ll
come up with the best story possible, and make things up to enhance the
story” — well, that’s a novel. Let’s not kid ourselves: This matters to
us as writers, and, more seriously, it matters to the reader.

Do you subscribe to the “great man” theory of history?

The cliché is that there are no indispensable men or women. I think
that’s ridiculous. Look at one of the people I write about in my book
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
If he didn’t matter that much, I don’t think the Soviet Union would
have worked so hard to control him. The biggest historical event I’ve
been close to over an extended period of time was the final years and
collapse of the Soviet Union. My wife and I lived there for four years,
and we had the unique and wonderful experience of being as close to
that experience as one could get without being a member of the Central
Committee or the Politburo. People were suddenly free to talk and so
eager to talk. And my sense of it has always been that, yes, there were
vectors of history at play, and trends and institutional forces that
moved things along in certain directions. But it was the volition and
actions of one man in particular — Mikhail Gorbachev — that changed
history to an incredible degree.

How does this theory apply to our current president and his role in history?

I
feel like you’re trying to catch me here. But yes, [President] George
Bush has allowed certain things to happen that Al Gore wouldn’t have.
Those hanging chads we’ve made so many jokes about — they couldn’t
have mattered more.

In the piece on Katharine Graham, you start with a story about the time when you were a reporter at The Washington Post and took her to the circus in Moscow, where she was nearly mauled by a big cat. Where’s the journalistic objectivity?

Like
any 29-year-old who nearly causes a disaster for the person he works
for, I dined out on that item for a long time. But the point of writing
about it was to acknowledge how little I understood her. She was
who she was, and it’s hard enough to know what your best friend is
like. So admitting what I don’t know is part of it. You need a
certain gall to do this kind of work, to ask strangers impolite
questions, but it has to be matched with a certain modesty. 

In the Amos Oz
interview, he talks about how Israelis see themselves as participants
in history, while those of us in the West are more like passive
observers.

I
think Amos is wrong. I don’t live on Manhattan Island without a sense
that I am part of whatever happens. The world is small enough so that
none of us escapes history. One of the great themes in books of the
past 10 years by Philip Roth has been the intrusion of history, in all its violence and shock, into ordinary and seemingly protected lives. That’s what “American Pastoral” is all about.

Do you see public access to documents as the biggest obstacle for reporters these days?

I
don’t want to sound like I’m making any excuses, because in the end
there aren’t any excuses. On the other hand, the weapons of mass
destruction story wasn’t easy because you had every intelligence agency
in every country in the West saying that there were weapons —
certainly not nuclear, but chemical or biological. But now that the
story has unraveled, there’s so much evidence of concocting and
concealing and sloppy intelligence work. Still, there’s a lot of good
journalism going on out there: Look at the Pulitzers this yearThe New York Times got one for uncovering domestic spying, and The Washington Post for uncovering the government’s secret prisons. William Bennett (who said these winners should be arrested for publishing classified information)
clearly has no idea what real journalism is and the role it has to play
in an open society — which is ironic, considering all the statements he’s
made about the virtues of democracy.

Print journalism is under assault from the technological media. What do you see ahead?

It’s clear that more and more newspapers will move toward the
Internet, and the advertising dollars, I hope, will follow. In order to
do the right thing in journalism, you have to spend a lot of money —
especially if you’re a newspaper, which has to do it every day. We
would be a much poorer country without the three or four best
newspapers — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.
They are the key engines of both reporting the news and investigating
the news. Are there times when they’ve made mistakes? Yes. Are there
times when they could have been more aggressive? Yes. But they’re all
making changes for the better, and no small credit for that goes to the
vitality of the Web.

What issues are you watching?

Given my background, I’m very concerned about the direction of the
former Soviet Union, and not many people are paying attention —
understandably, because there’s so much else to preoccupy us. I
understand we’re living in pretty dark times, because when you’re
talking about global warming, you’re not just talking about a little
pollution, but something that could bring down the planet or, at least,
badly erode man’s ability to persist on it. And when you’re talking
about the Middle East, it’s not some regional problem, but something
that could engulf our institutions and our treasury, and something that
could lead to tremendous disruption and further loss of life — which
we’ve already endured too much of.

When we talk about Russia,
we’re not just talking about increments of change, but the future
direction of the states that comprised the last empire on Earth, and
whether some of those states, like Turkmenistan, are going to become
another North Korea or a democratized state. And if you’re a hopeful
person, you know that the only solution for Israel is a real and
workable and contiguous Palestinian state, and you just wonder how much
longer and how many more people will die before that happens.

How do these problems relate to Americans and the American imagination?

I never try to be as broad as the “American imagination.” These are
sweeping generalizations that, whether it’s in journalism or just
conversation between the two of us, don’t hold up. It’s hard enough to
understand another human being, much less understand what Americans
think and what Americans say.

And finally, what’s the deal with your interest in boxing?

Let me start with an admission: I think the sport is pretty much
dead, and good riddance. It’s a circus on the perimeter of American
culture. But why do writers like it? Because it’s very naked and
exposed. It’s very much harder to get close to ball players than it was
30 years ago; they’re so rich and they don’t need you, and they’re so
insulated by agents and the rest. The best you can do nine times out of
10 is very superficial reporting. Boxing is the one exception because
these guys are very alone and have stories to tell, and, what’s more,
are willing to [tell] them. It’s an interesting if not repulsive American
spectacle.