Advertising Age's 1999 Editor of the Year is on the brink of closing the largest issue of his 18-month tenure as editor of The New Yorker: the weekly magazine's 75th anniversary issue.
When told a profile of him is in the works, he wants to know if he can get out of it. But smiles disarmingly as he asks.
David Remnick doesn't like to talk about himself. He subverts any attempt at self-promotion with deprecating remarks.
For instance, a story he tells about the first time something he wrote appeared in The New Yorker goes like this: He was a young Washington Post intern sent to cover a Miss America contest event. The short story he filed about it, which ran in the Post, included a line about how one of the contestants ended her dance routine "with hips akimbo." Hips, New Yorker Editor Remnick explains about young intern Remnick's mistake, cannot be akimbo, only limbs.
After his internship ended, he traveled to Japan to teach English. While there, he suddenly received half a dozen letters all the same week from friends in the U.S. Each one contained a scrap torn from The New Yorker, which had reprinted his mistake over an appropriately snarky comment in one of the weekly's filler items that run at the end of stories, often with a headline such as "Block that Metaphor!"
Thus, his first appearance in the weekly came about from a mistake.
Mr. Remnick doesn't particularly like to articulate his vision of The New Yorker, but he will when pressed. He likes to say he just chooses which great pieces to include. He describes his role as an editor as one of shaping a piece so that the writer's voice can shine through and not one that forces his own "stupid voice" onto it. He wants to be judged by the issues he produces, not by how he describes them.
"It would be the height of arrogance to say it doesn't take learning to become editor of The New Yorker," Mr. Remnick says. "But I'm surrounded by extremely talented people . . . people with energy and talent and a singular devotion to this thing we do every week."
David Remnick is passionate, funny and savvy enough to know spin alone won't suffice. Unlike the subject of his 1998 Muhammad Ali biography, "King of the World," he's not a bragger. His is a stance of "put up or shut up." And he puts up, every week, a substantial, intelligent, witty magazine that doesn't need a lot of touting. It's got much of the best fare currently being written.
The readers of the magazine agree, as its renewal rate proves. The vast majority of readers, both long-term readers and first-time subscribers, chose to renew after a year's worth of Mr. Remnick's New Yorker. Advertisers have taken notice, just as readers have.
"David has brought The New Yorker back to what its original mission was, without resorting to anything that seems stodgy or anachronistic," says Dorothy Schatzkin Higgins, chief operating officer, Media Partnership Corp., a Westport, Conn.-based media management company.
AD PAGES UP
Remarkably, The New Yorker has seen a rise in ad pages, despite last year's decision to change over to a no rate negotiation policy. The weekly ended the year up 5.9% in ad pages to 2,075, according to Publishers Information Bureau.
Publisher David Carey has begun to mount a series of events that play to The New Yorker's strengths, such as the recently held Book Awards and the The New Yorker Festival, a literary and arts event scheduled for May.
The 75th anniversary issue, with 162.77 ad pages, outsold the comparable issue in 1999 by 86%. Circulation for the last six months of 1999 was up 3.8% to 844,175.
"There's an intellectual excitement about the magazine since David's arrived," says Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker staff writer. "He's found the balance between the timeless and the timely, which is important. You need to have the timely in a journalistic environment. Every week, our greatest fear is we'll hear people say the magazine piles up and they haven't gotten to it. Under David, The New Yorker doesn't pile up."
One of the first moves Mr. Remnick made as editor was to expand the amount of space devoted to cultural criticism. He's also made some impressive hires, most recently James Surowiecki, who was writing online magazine Slate's "Moneybox" column. Mr. Surowiecki will pen a weekly business column for The New Yorker, as well as longer pieces. Earlier, Mr. Remnick brought in The New York Times correspondent Michael Specter, political writer Elizabeth Kolbert and critic Nancy Franklin.
"David is fundamentally a reporter. He wants writers to be out there in the world. His New Yorker is not the place for the thumbsucking piece," Mr. Toobin says.
"What The New Yorker needs is an editor with extremely broad interests and a sense of what a piece of writing is about. David has both," says longtime New Yorker contributor John McPhee.
Tina Brown is not a name Mr. Remnick usually introduces first into a conversation, but once mentioned, he's quick to downplay any rivalry. After all, Ms. Brown convinced him to come to the weekly in September 1992.
But there are differences between his tenure and hers. The medical and science coverage is now very strong, and the magazine is funnier than ever. "Remnick is quite funny, and capable of a lot of humor in his own writing," says Mr. McPhee.
Mr. Remnick lured Woody Allen back as a contributor; he hadn't had a byline in the magazine since 1980. The last page of every issue is devoted to just one cartoon, and inside pages are often given over to cartoonists Jules Feiffer or Roz Chast.
"Funny is important to David. He often says there is nothing more difficult than writing humor," Mr. Toobin says.
Mr. Remnick, 41, grew up in Hillsdale, N.J., a town not very far from Paterson, N.J., where his father attended school with beat poet William Ginsberg, and not very far from Rutherford, N.J., home of another poet, William Carlos Williams.
SEES PAST THE SURFACE
That Mr. Remnick views his childhood home of mall-infested Bergen County in literary terms proves he has an ability to see past the surface to what makes life in-teresting. His parents, from the time he was 12, allowed him to take the bus into New York with friends to attend Yankee games or just see the sights. It was a very normal middle-class upbringing, he notes, but he was bright enough and, he says, lucky enough, to get into Princeton University.
While at Princeton, he took a nonfiction writing class, "Literature of Fact," taught by Mr. McPhee, who notes he did not name the course. ("It's a grandiose title for a nuts-and-bolts writing course," Mr. McPhee says.) The writer, who began contributing to The New Yorker in 1963 and therefore has worked for every editor but founder Harold Ross, believes Mr. Remnick "is doing a fine job."
Mr. Remnick is an accomplished writer in his own right and a Pulitzer Prize and George Polk Award winner for his 1993 book, "Lenin's Tomb." That may explain why writers want to work with him.
"None of the other editors were star writers. David is," Mr. McPhee says.