David Remnick Wants to Bring Back the 50,000-Word Piece on Zinc

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04/22/2010 2:51 PM |

This was the New Yorker cover I could find that seemed best to embody the concept of timelessness. Fun fact: Alice Munros The Bear Came Over the Mountain was published in this issue.

  • This was the New Yorker cover I could find that seemed best to embody the concept of “timelessness.” Fun fact: Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” was published in this issue.

In a conversation with Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog, New Yorker editor David Remnick “lamented that publishers are no longer interested in giving the magazine rights to publish extensive excerpts of upcoming books, which is one reason you rarely see those multipart series that used to be so common in the magazine, or even those famous issues devoted to a single, long article”—like John Hersey’s Hiroshima, famously, among many other text-only, epic or multi-part pieces one sees fairly regularly when one leafs through the magazine’s digital archives (as one does).

Remnick has brought back the ambitious piece to some extent—the recent Balkan jewel thieves piece was a rangy sit-down; last summer brought Ian Frazier’s two-part Siberian travelogue. James B. Stewart and Nick Paumgarten have gotten large chunks of the features section to go deep on the financial crisis.

In late 1993, a year after her controversial appointment to edit the New Yorker, Tina Brown famously remarked (to future Remnick hire Elizabeth Kolbert, profiling her for the Times Magazine), “The 50,000-word piece on zinc—did anyone really read it?”

Brown added color and pictures to the magazine (under longtime editor William Shawn, Kolbert notes and the archives confirm, the magazine “was driven almost exclusively by text”); crucially, she slashed word counts for nonfiction pieces. This was in the service of being more newsworthy: “In the old days, New Yorker writers were free to research an article for months or even years; Brown makes it clear she wants her stories sooner rather than later,” Kolbert wrote in 1993, reporting on Brown’s largely successful effort to insert the magazine directly into the center of the national conversation.

Remnick, to his credit, seems to be searching for a happy medium between the timely and the timeless; even as the pre-Shouts and Murmurs profiles-and-politics pieces remain compressed, Remnick, a former correspondent, has given lots of room to reporters Jon Lee Anderson, George Packer and Jane Mayer, who do lasting work on hot-button issues. His interest in Obama has resulted not just in his own widely praised new book, but in several years’ worth of perceptive features and commentary from much of the magazine’s staff.

The magazine also retains some of Brown’s part-of-the-conversation froth; though rather than driving “the conversation” the magazine sometimes seems to be lowering itself into it; I’m thinking specifically of the style issues that many staff writers haven’t felt like participating in, so instead we get young-ish editors quoting the comments sections of fashion blogs in their pieces. But this is perhaps a gripe for a separate blog post. A perhaps related gripe: Although John McPhee can write gorgeously about anything, I do wish he’d pick something other than college lacrosse occasionally.

Like, for instance, 2007’s how-did-I-not-know-I-cared-so-much-about-this-thing-I-had-never-previously-heard-of travelogue “A Season on the Chalk.” That is, an 8,500-word piece on chalk. Not exactly 50,000 words on zinc, but we’re getting there.