Words by Becky Fine-Firesheets. Photos by Dan Landau.
Everyone knows The New Yorker. Its interesting and engaging essays, high quality reviews, topnotch short stories, funny cartoons and colorful covers make it the most iconic magazine of our time, the time before us and probably the time before then, too. Dating back to 1925, The New Yorker strives to be humorous, cosmopolitan and sophisticated while featuring some of the most well-known and respected writers in the world. There are those who find it pretentious, too cerebral or self-indulgent, but anyone at Monday’s WAMFEST event held in Lenfell Hall, featuring contributors Ben Greenman, Alex Ross and Nancy Franklin in conversation with John Wesley Harding, could argue otherwise. Despite their prestigious positions, the three spoke about their experiences in an open, warm and friendly manner that exposed them for what they truly are: writers constantly struggling to create something worthwhile in time to meet their deadlines.
“I knew from pretty early on that I wanted to write fiction but I also knew that fiction doesn’t pay,” Greenman said in his jovial way when asked about his past and how he came to be editor of Goings On About Town, a section of The New Yorker with blurbs on local happenings. “I started writing journalism, went back to grad school, didn’t like that, moved to New York and kept writing.” He wrote both critical and humorous nonfiction during his first few years in the city while working his way up the editing ladder. “I always had the day job and then fiction.”
Television critic Nancy Franklin (pictured below) also had the day job from early on, at The New Yorker no less. “I knew nothing about anything,” she said with a smile. “I just wanted to be at The New Yorker.” She started out in the typing pool, soon moved on to fact checking then stepped into the nonfiction editor role seven years after her first day. However, when a new editor took over the magazine ten years later, “she was not enamored with my editing,” Franklin said. Up to that point, Franklin had only written a few articles, mostly on popular music, but was reassigned as a critic, anyway.
“Overnight I became a theater critic, which was pretty daunting and sent me right back to therapy.” She, the other performers and the audience members all laughed out loud. Everyone in attendance, from undergrads to professors to members of the local community, seemed to appreciate and even relate to Franklin’s funny and endearing self-deprecation. Her poise and delivery only enhanced her punch lines and affect of her words. While maintaining this candid, conversational tone with the audience, Franklin went on to say that during this transition, a good friend told her “the one with the job is the expert.” She soon gained more confidence and developed her own writing style.
“I think starting to write later in life left me with a lot in my head. I had some stuff to work with. And I’ve been very lucky.”
Critic Alex Ross took the musical route at first, studying the piano and oboe during his childhood. Still, he “was always immersed in writing, writing way too much for my school papers, turning in way more pages than required.” He first presented his words to the public via a radio show he hosted in college.
“I read essays aloud for the three or four people who were listening,” he laughed. In a humble, gentle demeanor, he continued with his story, saying, “I never thought I’d go into journalism, always thought it would be academia, but then I started writing freelance music reviews for money and contributed some to The Times.” An editor from The New Yorker soon read one of his articles and contacted Ross for a story (every freelancer’s dream, right?). Now he contributes regularly to the journal in addition to having published two books analyzing 20th century American music, entitled The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century and Listen to This.
“Alex treats the various genres of modern music not as separate things but as a continuum in his books, with classical here and pop over there,” Harding said. While Ross hones in mostly on modern classical in his essays and articles, he takes a broad, bird’s eye approach to the way he reviews.
“I go to concerts with a particular theme in mind. I try to use a single performance to look at bigger trends. In a culture where everyone is so fast-paced, The New Yorker tries to give a more long-distanced look at things.”
When Harding asked the three guests what it was like to work for a publication with such a long and impressive history, they all seemed to agree that no writer can be too bothered with what has come before.
“The comfort and burden is that everything has been done before. Sometimes you want to know if someone has done that same bit and sometimes you just don’t,” Greenman said.
“Sometimes I look back at the oldest stuff to feel better about myself,” Ross (pictured left) said smiling. He tossed his arms energetically in front of him and recited a few lines from an article published in The New Yorker’s early days, much like a Coney Island carnie would describe a game to prospective customers. “But then there are Cole Porter’s reviews from the 80’s and 90’s,” he said with a hint of resignation in his voice. “He was just great.”
The conversation naturally progressed to the personal challenges the three face as reviewers.
“Most people aren’t going to see the work you’re writing about,” Franklin said. “What’s most important is letting a voice come out, showing a passion for the subject. The piece is the problem and you’re always looking for a solution to it.”
“It becomes an interesting and challenging game to describe classical music to people who know nothing about it,” Ross said. “My opinion is in there but I don’t lead with it. I see myself as a reporter. There’s real value in sitting back and looking at the world. I try to write something that will be of interest to someone who thinks the opposite of me. I try to avoid being too dogmatic or flat about my opinions.”
“The idea of, should you watch this or not, doesn’t matter. It’s what you get out of watching or not watching it,” Greenman added.
With a slight shrug and snicker, Franklin chimed in, “I usually say you shouldn’t be watching anything, you should get outside.” Moments later, she confessed to “having a lot of trouble turning the TV off,” often staying up all night watching and writing wildly toward her morning deadline. Harding then asked about what happens between submitting an article and seeing it published, and the laborious subject of revisions came up.
“The editing at The New Yorker is so important,” Ross said. “The copy editors are magical people. A comma here or a slight change there is like bringing an out of focus picture into a clear image.”
Greenman (pictured right) nodded intently. “The editing process allows freedom for the writer to prove an idea.” He went on to elaborate that because other editors will be reading an article of his before it’s published or posted, he can dive full force into a topic. “But the internet has this culture of endless revision. I’m hostile to that, not that it’s a cop out but that it changes things too much. I like turning in a piece and being done with it.”
“I’m sort of an obsessive self reviser,” Ross confessed. “I write one word, cross it out, write another, cross it out. It’s not always fun but it’s important, as long as it doesn’t get too masochistic.”
“I find every part of it enjoyable except for the actual writing,” Franklin said bluntly. People laughed but she spoke in seriousness. “Each piece I write I think, ‘I can’t do this.’ I really do find it difficult. It’s your job to maintain enthusiasm and if you don’t, it’s time to stop. You pick up on the things that bring you pleasure, or you think, ‘That’s heinous and I’m going to write about it.’ And you have to keep that core.”
Being a young writer new to the publishing world and definitely daunted by it all, Franklin’s personal stories certainly touched home. If she says it’s hard then all those days I spent moping over an assignment are completely justified.
“You have something and you make something of it,” she said as her closing advice. “You can’t worry about who got to it before you.”
Damn straight. I left their discussion feeling like it was about time I sat down with my computer all night and finished that looming review.