From the Editor: On Being 22

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Actually it should have been that time last week, November 1, the official day that we celebrate our anniversary each year. But this year, on the 22nd occasion since the “sneak preview” of this paper was circulated to unsuspecting readers, our founding editor couldn’t quite get his act together on that day, and begged for an extra week.

So we asked one of our bright and eager reporters to sit down with the editor for an anniversary stock taking. Herewith the exchange:

Bright and eager reporter: So what’s been keeping you? Last week’s “Apologia” [on the page where the editor’s column would have appeared, had it been written] talked about the editor of the New Yorker. Surely you were not even considering a comparison between yourself and the New Yorker.

For one thing I can’t imagine the editor of the New Yorker apologizing for something he has not written.

Richard K. Rein: Well, kid, a few people have asked about the apologias. Since I actually have to run a business, or try to run it, at least, I sometimes have deadlines other editors don’t. And the 20 or 30-word apologia serves to remind the readers (and myself) that I haven’t given up and that I will get back to the writing, sooner or later.

Oddly enough the apologias seem to attract as much response as the columns themselves. I suspect people hear so many BS excuses flying around the office every day that it’s entertaining to see one proclaimed in print for all to laugh at or laugh with. So my goal still is to produce as many actual columns as possible, punctuated with some self deprecating, silly excuse or another when I just can’t get my act together. There will be no apology for the apologies.

B & E: If you had managed a column, instead of an apologia, about the New Yorker editor, what would it have been?

RKR: I wanted to say something about the flap over the Joyce Carol Oates short story, “Landfill,” which appeared in the New Yorker, and its resemblance to the real life story of the College of New Jersey student who died in what appears to be an alcohol-related accident. When I heard that David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, was appearing at his alma mater, Princeton, I figured I was on to something.

But it just didn’t work out in my mind. I asked Remnick about it, and he didn’t have much to say, other than 1.) pieces of fiction have often drawn on real life as the starting point; and 2.) maybe Joyce was cutting it “a little close to the bone,” and might do it differently if she had the chance.

I tried to read the Oates short story and just couldn’t finish it — what I imagined the real story might be kept competing with Oates’s tale. In the end the whole give-and-take in my brain only confirmed what I have felt each year as I edit the pieces for U.S. 1’s Summer Fiction Issue: If you’re writing fiction you should take full advantage of the form. The fictionalized accounts of actual events are the ones that usually fail to hold my interest.

Speaking of the Fiction Issue, would you mind a little bragging?

B & E: It’s your paper.

RKR: Thanks. In the 2004 issue we printed a short story called “The Earthquake Shack” by Gary Diedrichs. Now it’s true: Diedrichs was my college roommate, but he was also one of the early contributors to U.S. 1 when writers working for us didn’t know if we would have checks to pay them and, if we did, whether or not they would be good. So I owed him one. Plus his submission did exactly what I liked fiction to do — create larger-than-life characters that I could only imagine running into during my day-to-day life.

So this weekend the mailman arrives with a package containing an impressive 329-page new novel by . . . yes, Gary Diedrichs. I think “The Earthquake Shack” would have been published in any case, but I hope our excerpt two years ago helped keep the flame going. Now I just have to find the time to read it.

B & E: That shouldn’t be a problem by now. Surely after 22 years you have learned how to delegate. Haven’t you?

RKR: Watch your language there, kid, because there are a few tasks I’m doing now that you are almost ready to do. But the fact is that, considerable delegation notwithstanding to 10 fulltime employees and many part-time people, it’s still a fulltime job just overseeing all that delegation, making sure everyone is trained to do what they are supposed to do, and managing all the other needs that arise whenever you have a dozen people working under the same roof. And then being editor is another fulltime job.

One thing I have discovered is that it doesn’t get any easier. We can now transmit the paper to the printer by DSL line in about 15 minutes, whereas in the past it took us over two hours to drive it to the printer and return. We can add four pages to the paper to accommodate an exceptional editorial presentation (as we did this for the food stories) in about half an hour, as opposed to two hours in the old days when we had to shuffle paper copies of ads and full-sized replicas of pages. But it still takes 15 minutes to find a freaking stapler that will work.

B & E: Maybe management isn’t your strong suit.

RKR: Maybe? Absolutely is the better word. I’m not good at it. The truth is that I get most of my ideas for management from the Survival Guide section of this paper. And some of it’s great advice. The problem is that it’s all hard to execute.

In this issue alone there are four consecutive Survival Guide items that speak to core management and personnel challenges at this newspaper: Putting passion into your career, starting on page 7; PC remote access, page 9; simplifying your life, page 10; and the state of ethics in the fourth estate, page 12.

And it’s true: A 22-year-old company ought to have someone on board who can take a few hours here or there to ponder some of these issues before they hit us head on, or to read an intriguing novel about a 1950s hero caught up in the bohemian scene of Sausalito, California.

B & E: So why don’t you ponder them just a little bit here and now?

RKR: For one reason, we’re just plain out of space, not to mention time. Should we follow this up next week?

B & E: It’s your paper.

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