A peek under the New Yorker’s kimono


For many sophisticated people, heaven is “an uninterrupted day or five to go through my … pile of The New Yorker magazines.” The publication has a special cachet: very different from–though no greater or less than–The Economist‘s, and indeed highly complementary. (We know from research that many coffee tables in many homes have both the New Yorker and The Economist on it.)

So I found myself fascinated by a rare lifting of the New Yorker’s kimono, as Dan Baum, a writer who got fired from the magazine, told his tale. (Thanks to Jag for pointing me to it.)

The first thing of interest is that Baum did this on Twitter. Yes, he tweeted his story in 140-character increments. If I may say so (redoubling my skepticism about Twitter), that part did not work. Twitter may be a great medium for some things, but not for storytelling. But Baum then consolidated the tweets here.

And what a very different culture the New Yorker‘s is from the one I live in at The Economist. First of all, the writers do not make a good living:

you’re not an employee, but rather a contractor. So there’s no health insurance, no 401K, and most of all, no guarantee of a job beyond one year. My gig was a straight dollars-for-words arrangement: 30,000 words a year for $90,000. And the contract was year-to-Year. Every September, I was up for review. Turns out, all New Yorker writers work this way, even the bigfeet.

Why do they put up with it? Apparently, because they are all convinced that

writing for the New Yorker is the ne plus ultra of journalism gigs.

This it may be. Certainly, the New Yorker’s writers can expect to rise to fame with their bylines and become stars, selling books and going on lecture tours. We at The Economist, of course, have no bylines. As a result, we ‘don’t do’ the star thing.

Another contrast: The offices of the New Yorker, according to Baum, are an eerie place where

Everybody whispers. It’s not exactly like being in a library; it’s more like being in a hospital room where somebody is dying. Like someone’s dying, and everybody feels a little guilty about it. There’s a weird tension to the place. If you raise your voice to normal level, heads pop up from cubicles.

That is not how I would describe the merrily eccentric and light-flooded Tower that serves as our head office in London. Is it the time the science correspondent came into the editorial meeting in drag, with nobody even batting an eyelid, that springs to mind? Or the time I had to duck as I passed a senior editor’s office to evade a flying object, dispatched with a scream that made the windows vibrate, only to hear the same editor invite me in with a cheerful and jovial demeanor, since he had just loosened up a bit and now felt envigorated?

The whole way they pitch stories at the New Yorker is one I do not recognize. They apparently write elaborate treatises just for the pitch, then wait to have it rejected or accepted. Baum even puts his successful and failed pitches up on his site. We on the other hand might casually mention or email a half-formed and tongue-in-cheek phrase (something that I might shout through a closing Tube door), and off we go. The other day I was skyping with my editor and said two words (“whither [name]”) under my breath. I just saw it on the official planning list.

But the most subtle and interesting bit in Baum’s account was the psychological tension between him and his editor, which he blames for his firing. They were discussing story ideas, and the writer knew more about his subject than the editor (which is inevitable). Baum thinks he made a mistake, because

I made him feel uninformed.

Granted: Baum got fired and is looking for reasons to apportion blame. But he is not slinging mud. This is the closest he gets to it.

In my twelve years, I cannot remember a single conversation at The Economist where one party felt threatened if the other ‘knew more’ about something. We thrive on talking to people who know more. How boring the obverse tends to be.

I am a fan of The New Yorker. It is a special place. So are we.

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8 thoughts on “A peek under the New Yorker’s kimono

  1. Dan Baum knew what he was getting into when he signed up for one year at a time, so he shouldn’t complain.

    The nature of his employment and departure from the New Yorker was part and parcel of Capitalism, the Free Market, Hire and Fire, the Invisible Hand, the Willingness to Risk, Boom and Bust, Creative Destruction……….

    The unfathomable workings of Capitalism are so mysterious, so beautiful, I weep just thinking about it.

  2. On the language lunacy – there exists a Japanese idioms, which literally translates as “to pull up the bottom of one’s kimono and reveal the buttocks “. It means to show or maintain a fundamentally defiant attitude…

    On the unfathomable workings of the Invisible Hand – I lift the hem of my kimono at the view that ‘greed is good’. The moral elevation of self interest is amongst the worst errors of the (First) Enlightenment. Adam Smith would likely not have agreed that greed was good. Indeed he argued forcefully that the frighteningly efficient forces of the market had to be carefully controlled by something equally powerful. This is clearly visible (though sadly now largely ignored) in the products of his own hand.

    On the psychology of the relationship between writer and editor – the same point applies to that between the writer and reader. Ideally the reader should feed they are being guided by a friendly expert – not lectured to by a snobby superior.

    • So I am using the kimono phrase wrong? I thought it meant ‘lifting the curtain or veil to reveal something secret’.

      That reminds me of a phrase that you might appreciate, Jag: Unter den Talaren, der Muff von Tausend Jahren
      It rhymes and says something like: “underneath the gown, the stink of thousand years.” It was the rebel yell of the 1960s’ students in Germany, as they received their diplomas and showed disdain for the establishment that was giving it to them.

      Don’t know what made me think of it. Perhaps the visuals of buttocks, and the airs that might escape when kimonos are lifted….

    • Andreas – didn’t mean to imply your use was incorrect. Quite the reverse your use of idioms in a language not of your native land is admirable. And as Mr. Crotch-ety points out there are multiple kimono sayings.

      Your final comment on buttocks and airs is too good an opportunity to pass…
      There are many idioms on flatulence. For example the French have one for being too big for your boots – which is “to fart above your butt” and their life of Riley can be expressed as “to fart into silk”. And one of my favourtites is from Finland – where they have a saying that “she is so cheap, she even farts inward”.

      Apologies… inexcusable… butt also irresistible

  3. The contractor strategy is also becoming very popular among companies and governments (like the US) that don’t want to, or say they can’t afford to, pay overhead, healthcare and pensions. It also keeps the body count lower for the DoD. One clings to his pension while managing contractors. Another interesting feature is that a contractor isn’t fired, rather his contract is not renewed.

    I thought there was something figuratively like the ‘open kimono,’ which sounds different from raising one’s kimono. I’d like to see the Sartorialist’s view of kimonos opened, lowered, raised and otherwise.

  4. What was it that I said? That Kluth is extraordinary? Yes… that’s right… clearly a man of impeccable taste too! “Sophisticated”… I like that!

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