Labor & Letters
I began my career in publishing at the New York Review of Books, first as an intern and then as an assistant to the late Barbara Epstein, an exceptional editor and person. Her ear was very fine; her fixes could seem invisible. She was generous to writers, intellectually and emotionally, and loyal. She had a stylish, impish mind and a shy streak. She answered email by hand, scribbling on a printed copy in the faintest blunt pencil, which I transcribed as best I could into the reply field. After she was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer in 2005, she sometimes worked from home, a remarkable apartment whose double-storied bookshelves you perused by sliding ladder, on West 67th Street, next door to Elizabeth Hardwick. Twice a day I ferried her marked galleys to the Review’s office ten blocks south. There was ceremony to the handoff, whether the outsize sheets went to one of Robert Silvers’s five priestly assistants or, depending on the time of day, straight onto the great desk. Bob would be reading deeply, and acknowledge their receipt with an air of gruff distraction or occasionally a shout of joy.
A few years later, I was working as the assistant to the editor in chief of Harper’s, Roger Hodge. One day from my doorless office I saw the publisher, John MacArthur, who goes by Rick, look in on Roger, who was eating a croissant at his desk. Rick took note of the breakfast and said he’d come back. A little while later, he went in and shut the door, a thin glass door with a rice-paper blind. Rick’s blurred figure said something indistinct, to which Roger replied, “You’re firin’ me?” with more West Texas than usual, which happened when he was exasperated. Rick seemed to be saying yes. He was dissatisfied with the drift of the magazine.
It was a climate of fear for a bunch of delicate orchids.Tweet
As a scrappy upstart in the 1850s, Harper’s printed pirated writing by big names — Dickens and the Brontës — from across the pond. The magazine was launched and funded by Harper & Brothers until the publishing house became Harper & Row in 1962 and sold the magazine to the Minneapolis Star & Tribune Company. In 1970, Harper’s published a report by Seymour Hersh on the atrocities at My Lai, a scoop that proved too great a headache for publisher John Cowles Jr., whose first five years at Harper’s had seen a declining subscriber base and annual losses closing in on $1 million. Cowles pressured the editor, the genteel southerner Willie Morris, to resign, and writers Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, William Styron, David Halberstam, and Gay Talese quit in solidarity.
In June 1980, the Star Tribune announced that it would stop publishing Harper’s at the end of the summer. It took less than a month for Rick, age 24, together with his father, Roderick; his grandparents John D. and Catherine T.; and the oil tycoon Robert Orville Anderson, to raise the $1.5 million needed to rescue the magazine. He made it a nonprofit by establishing the Harper’s Magazine Foundation, and ended the interregnum with the second coming of Lapham. Lewis H. Lapham, the patrician San Franciscan whose large, parched hands the Beatles had wanted to hold, was editor from 1976 to 1981 and again from 1983 to 2006. His hefty lighter has sparked many a pack of Parliaments freely shared with nervous acolytes, and twining lines for many a monthly column, which he wrote in a style that mixed Swift, Milne, and Twain. One of these lines got him in hot water. Monthly columnists are under pressure to be oracular, and Lewis, writing about a Republican National Convention that had not yet taken place, correctly predicted an inevitable sounding of horns in the past tense. When the issue appeared on newsstands a few days early, he fell on his sword and was out the door as editor emeritus, and Roger went from Deputy to Sheriff.
A Texan with an Emersonian bent, Roger was, like Willie Morris, “a provincial in New York City.” He liked science and created Findings, a prose poem of clippings from studies arranged in the elegant and ironic style of the Harper’s Index. He liked communing with nature, regularly kayaking on the East River and publishing meditative essays by Edward Hoagland’s saplings, sensitive guys on hiking adventures. He liked founding fathers and old masters, John Berger and John Stuart Mill. A man of probity, and plainspoken, he was allergic to cocktail-party chatter and other New York City nonsense. Fired within five years, he was a semi-sturdy oak Rick had chopped down without a landscaping plan.
It was a climate of fear for a bunch of delicate orchids. There were high-level departures and abrupt promotions, including my own to Reviews editor, a dream job I pounced on and loved. To my credit or discredit, I was somewhat oblivious to the anxious gloom that pervaded the office. We had an interim editor, Ellen Rosenbush, a veteran of the magazine who’d been managing editor for two decades. A new editor was Rick’s bailiwick, and I couldn’t see the point in worrying about what might never happen.
Our literary editor thought of little else. A brilliant man, Ben Metcalf had something of a sinecure. For years he had been writing a book, not a novel, not not a novel, in the wee hours when he got home from the office. He would come in in the afternoon and smoke cigarettes out his window, then play computer games to jump-start his concentration. He worked late and fast and his edits were sterling. He had tackled enough unwieldy pieces of promise to let excitable juniors have a go at it. He was an ex–bon vivant, a confidant, a raconteur, and a responsible gossip. For years he had accompanied Lewis to the Noho Star, and that is where he taught me the crossword. We’d sit at the bar, Ben standing me Jameson’s, racing through side-by-side copies of the Thursday puzzle and the free hard-boiled eggs. If he was miffed to have been passed over for the editorship, he never said it, but it stung that he wasn’t consulted. He had seen enough unceremonious exits; if he was to have one, it would be on his own terms.
Ben’s sword was a suicide bomb disguised as a beautiful fix. A union, he told us, would protect us from a long train of abuses and usurpations by Rick, whom he deemed unhinged. “The sky is not falling. We’re not going out of business,” Rick told the business and editorial staffs, gathered in the conference room for a post-Roger pep talk. “Now it becomes more urgent for you to do the little things that I do. Get people to subscribe to the magazine. When they come up to you and say, ‘I hope you’re not going out of business,’ ask them if they subscribe. ‘Oh no, I don’t.’ Get those people to subscribe. When you go into a newsstand and you don’t see the magazine, write it down. Ask the guy who owns the newsstand or runs the newsstand why Harper’s is not being displayed. When you’re in a Barnes & Noble, and Harper’s is hidden behind People magazine, move it to the front rack. Be aggressive. Do everything you can think of to try to promote Harper’s Magazine, because if you don’t, no one else is going to do it for ya.” He paused, looking crestfallen. “The business side is not — we don’t have enough people to do it. We don’t have the kind of resources that Condé Nast has.” On the bright side, we still had our name. “Even if people haven’t heard of it, they’ve heard of it, if you know what I mean.” He referenced a recent press release concerning the last story Roger had edited, a report on the deaths of three detainees at Guantánamo Bay, an echo of My Lai or its muffled scream. “Congresswoman Eshoo from Palo Alto called for an investigation. She referred to the article that appeared on the website of Harper’s Bazaar.” A chorus of groans. “We have an image problem. We have to think of Harper’s as a fixture that is in the fabric of the country even if people think it’s Harper’s Bazaar.”
For months, Ben was a doomsday prophet who couldn’t be fired for poor attitude, since we had entered the purgatory of the card-check agreement. Enough people (ten?) had signed little cards to attract the interest of the United Auto Workers. I won’t enumerate the subsequent steps of the process, because they are dim to me, as they were at the time, the many minutes of meetings, official and clandestine, during which we dithered and seemed to march in place and I took impractical notes. A storm in a teacup and you’re trapped in the teacup, a bitter little leaf liable to be tossed into the harbor at any time, taxed and torpedoed for elected representation. At least you would sink with dignity. In the highly unlikely event of a strike, who got to inflate the rat?
The staff was united behind literature, not the most concrete of common causes. Some felt literature would be best defended by paying its defenders better. Wages had stagnated; it irked many staffers that we were paid less than the editors of the ’90s, when the magazine lost less money. Others were concerned with the wavy line between the business and editing sides, the old tug-of-war intensified by a new suspicion, that Rick sought to become the editor.
“We have to think of Harper’s as a fixture that is in the fabric of the country even if people think it’s Harper’s Bazaar.”Tweet
Before the drive, Rick seemed more befuddled than unhinged. Why did we lose millions of his dollars year after year? At what point had we become an irrelevance in the marketplace, that harbinger of cultural irrelevance that is a publisher’s waking nightmare? The exit of Lewis, the end of Netscape, the proud piracy of content condoned by brash new browsers, elderly readers, junked mail — lots of problems. The union threatened to make him look like a hypocrite, a limousine liberal parked in by pedestrian employees he had heretofore considered his extended family. A Chicago scion who’d worked as a cub reporter at the Sun-Times, he wrote columns about NAFTA and American workers for the Providence Journal and Le Monde. Now his dwindling staff of houseplants was being hosed with rhetoric, which seemed to be working. The gentle waterings they had for years absorbed in silent gratitude did not sink in but were spat back.
Was Rick a publisher with a stingy, heavy hand? I didn’t think so, though I wasn’t privy to the kind of managerial negotiations that fashion such a reputation. That he misspent money on mass mailings was to me a quaint failure undeserving of churlishness. I, like Rick, romanticized a bygone era of publishing, though my nostalgia was borrowed. I found in Rick a dear figure reminiscent of Dennis the Menace, running to the men’s room wearing half a Brooks Brothers jacket, hunching up his free shoulder to shout French into a flip Nokia while revving an electric shaver. I fetishized the gentleman’s game because I wanted to be one of the gentlemen. All this talk of salary seemed in poor taste.
Editors are not autoworkers. We are thoughtful starfish, melting snowflakes, round pens in square brackets, devil’s advocates suspicious of groupthink and easily bored. We are nervous, sometimes neurotic, collaborators, hoarding our writers and working best in groups of two in which roles are clearly delineated, one person responsible for supplying materials, the other for making necessary adjustments. Sometimes the material comes in very rough and the person delivering it considers himself very famous, obliging us to clock overtime making skillful stitches through the night and then soothing jittery nerves with martini anesthetic. We had less outrage than pique. The “common burden that makes writers a fraternity in blood despite their seasonal expressions of malice, jealousy, antagonism, suspicion, rage, venom, perfidy, competition over the size of publishers’ advances,” wrote Willie Morris, “is the burden of memory.” We could scarcely admit we wanted to be writers, and most of us were too young to have memories. For union meetings, our resident griot took a room at the Chelsea Hotel. Bathed unevenly in its retro lamplight, we took frothy potshots at our mysterious overlord and wallowed in our collective malaise.
“Had I but touched his extended hand, Hollingsworth’s magnetism would perhaps have penetrated me with his own conception of all these matters. But I stood aloof. I fortified myself with doubts whether his strength of purpose had not been too gigantic for his integrity, impelling him to trample on considerations that should have been paramount to every other. . . . ‘Be with me,’ said Hollingsworth, ‘or be against me! There is no third choice for you.’” Nor for me. At least Miles Coverdale, the narrator of The Blithedale Romance, a roman à clef based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s trial membership at Brook Farm, a utopian experiment in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, mustered the courage to declare his dissent. I was confused by the fight, which seemed to me less unionization drive than cage match between two beloved obsoletes, old publishing and the brilliant eccentric, who belonged on the same team. I so hate fighting, I find it frightening and endeavor to avoid it. Unpersuaded that this fight was a good one, I lay low, quibbling a little and murmuring universal sympathies. The vote was supposed to be anonymous, but the voting pool was tiny and we’d been driven hard. I sat on the fence till the last possible second, then threw in my towel with the Yeses with the recalcitrance of a timed-out child.
In the highly unlikely event of a strike, who got to inflate the rat?Tweet
You’re with ’em till you’re against ’em, and my Judas moment came after I had hired a new New Books columnist who was also new to New York. She had been bandwagoned into signing a letter of protest à la Didion. “We are greatly concerned to learn of your plan to lay off union members,” said the letter, the plural a bit of a stretch, since Rick’s retaliatory action would focus exclusively on Ben and not his corruptible minions. She and another popular contributor were having a discussion at NYU in celebration of her new column, but he bowed out. Ben suggested we cancel the event to humiliate Rick, which I thought would be more humiliating to us, so, ahem, I stepped in. A stickler for cliché, I chopped off all my hair beforehand, for courage or the funeral pyre.
Life went on. Ben was dismissed, lodged a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, accepted a settlement from Rick, and finished his book, no longer called Goochland, out January. Ellen was now officially editor, retaining her writers and gaining new ones. Roger became editor of the Oxford American. Lewis presides over Lapham’s Quarterly. I left for a job at a glossy magazine, where, as Rick warned me I would, I found the hand of the market much heavier than his and, because invisibly lifting all boats, harder to smack. Harper’s is a teaching hospital, an esteemed alumnus once told me, you have to graduate but the aches and pains are worth it.