On Friday, May 8, I began telling the story, on Twitter, of my short career at the New Yorker. As any number of critics have since pointed out, I had no idea what the medium was or how to use it. I simply began telling the tale, in an annoyingly rapid-fire series of 140-character bursts. On Twitter, I was @danielsbaum.
When I started, I had 25 followers. By the time I’d posted six tweets — five minutes into the enterprise — I had about 50. Then the number began growing very fast, , which freaked me out no small bit. It was like watching some demon organism spread across a petri dish. Within an hour I was over 300. It took three days to finish the job (it’s all posted, in proper order, here). At the end I had over more than followers.
This speaks less to my elegance as a writer (not much you can do with 140 characters) than to the obsessive secrecy of the New Yorker and the public’s justifiable fascination with such a venerated, and studiedly enigmatic institution.
This just in: the New Yorker, while a very good magazine, is just a magazine. It is neither an organ of state security nor an order of sacred monks. Yet it wraps itself in a cloak of genteel secrecy that is pretentious to the point of dishonesty. Not publishing a masthead, for example, is like not labeling the ingredients in food. As a reader, I want to know who has produced the product I’m reading. I suppose the idea — besides just setting the magazine apart from mere mortals — is to exalt the writers, as though they produce that deathless prose entirely on their own. Lemme tell you: They don’t. New Yorker articles are heavily edited, and they’re well edited. The editors and the fact-checkers are a big part of what makes the New Yorker good and I, for one, believe they deserve credit. Good or bad, we should know their names.
Of all institutions to depend so much on secrecy! It’s a journalistic endeavor, after all, which implies a certain commitment to transparency.
The magazine is also downright weird about protecting the way it contracts and pays writers. In that oxygen-poor atmosphere up there in the Conde Nast building, the prevailing pinky-out ethic deems money an impolite topic, too base for anybody who so loves the language to discuss. That, may I suggest, is patent horseshit. The reason the editors of the New Yorker don’t want people knowing how and how much they pay is that, like all bosses, they don’t want the people from whom they purchase services — us writers — to be well-informed negotiators.
When I was un-renewed in 2007 and Gawker called, I let slip that I’d been on a year-to-year contract and got an earful about it from the New Yorker.
I asked: Are you ashamed of how you pay writers? Is that why you’re upset that I leaked the details?*
That’s not it, came the answer. We simply don’t like that sort of thing discussed.
Well then, said I, with whom do you expect me to have allegiance? The boss (who just fired me), or the community of fellow writers who want to know how to break into the New Yorker and know how to negotiate their pay?
More on this tomorrow….
*Allow me to mumble down here that the New Yorker pays well. Even newcomers. Keeping writers at arm’s length as contractors instead of embracing them as full employees is annoying, and the year-to-year thing is needlessly demeaning and anxiety-producing. But it ain’t like I turned the deal down. Writing for the New Yorker is a privilege in all sorts of ways.