Henry Finder: Editor, New Yorker, ‘Anne Onamiss’

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Technology failed us. Dictation died. GarageBand died. Microsoft Word died. But the words of Henry Finder ’86, the editorial director of The New Yorker since 1997, still came through to Backstage. WEEKEND caught up with Finder on the way to his Branford Master’s Tea shortly after he visited Professor Fred Strebeigh’s English 454 class. Finder talked to WEEKEND’s in-house manual scribe about the future, storytelling and Svevo.

Q. According to Gawker, you first came to The New Yorker in April 1994 as a nonfiction editor. You now serve as the magazine’s editorial director and books editor. Is this true?

A. Yes.

Q. Whew. So the second question is, how have you seen the magazine change during your 17 years as an editor with the advent of blogs and the digital world? Is the editing style more reader-friendly or more in-depth because of blogs?

A. I remember after 9/11 when New York Magazine came out (I love New York Magazine, it’s a hometown publication) and they had a special interiors issue. As I recall, they had a picture of a lovely green vase with a lacquered wall behind it. I just wondered at that decision to present what was obviously a long-in-the-works special issue on interiors at that moment in time. And I thought, “I understand why you did this, but nonetheless you have made a bad decision, you have said that we don’t matter.”

And I remember at The New Yorker after 9/11, we were scrambling jets, sending out reporters everywhere, and finding a writer to turn it into a seamless narrative overnight. We said, “We’ve got this magazine that registered something momentous that readers were feeling at the time.” We ran the famous Art Spiegelman cover with the shadows of the Twin Towers, and it sent a message that this was something tremendously important to us and that the magazine really felt it would interpret, digest, and report on it full-out. Oddly enough, after that point, the magazine’s fortunes turned around. Everything turned around for a magazine that had been losing money for more than a decade. It was a real inflection point for the magazine. That was probably one of those moments that only heightened readers’ sense of allegiance and attachment, but it has been extraordinary throughout, and extraordinary through the past decade.

Hearing from people when we broke the news of Abu Ghraib, when we reported on the use of torture during the Bush administration and dozens of other topics of intense national interest, people wrote to us that they felt “you are a harbor to me”, “you are my sanctuary.” Those letters are always moving.Every magazine depends upon its writers, illustrators and artists, but it crucially depends upon the community of its readers. The New Yorker, more than any publication I can think of, has a really intense sense of loyalty among its readers. And at the same time, the magazine never ceased to pursue matters of culture that might have a smaller popular following. With great seriousness and intensity we were still the place that would have a great piece on Walser or Svevo or other architects of modernism or literature or the arts. It continued to be the place that was trying to search out the finest new fiction. Everything about The New Yorker that made people wonder back in the ’90s whether or not it had a future ended up being foundational for its real prospects.

And when other publications tried to be “webbier” with shorter pieces to appeal to the attention spans of people maybe accustomed to reading blogs and Twitter feeds, we doubled down on long, demanding narrative journalism, literarily ambitious fiction and rigorous criticism. Yes, there’s also the humor and the ebullience of the Talk of the Town section, but you couldn’t find that sort of extended engagement elsewhere. It felt so “unWebby,” and yet that’s exactly what made people value it all the more.

Q. Speaking of the magazine’s balance between broad purview of national issues and narrow focus on the esoteric, does being an editor also require the same scope and depth of knowledge as its varied pieces provide? Does an editor need to work from the inside out to craft a piece?

A. The word magazine comes from a word meaning “general store.” At first, it was being used as a metaphor. So even though now we have lots and lots of specialized magazines and even though the Internet has more and more specialization, we still, I think, have a craving for that magazine. The New Yorker is devoted to a certain ethos of amateurism — our articles are maybe written by specialists, but they’re not meant to be read by specialists. So there’s no requirement that an editor to have any specific knowledge about a subject. After a while, you can fill in gaps with fields of knowledge. But there’s no expectation that you’re going to approach any of these things as anyone other than an interested, curious reader.

Q. Did you always know you always wanted to edit?

A. I remember when I edited my high school newspaper, I ended up writing a good percentage of the articles under pseudonyms with ‘witty’ bylines like Sue Donim and Anne Onamiss, so I always had a preference for being a little backstage, I guess.

Q. On the invite to the Master’s Tea it says that when Gladwell last came to Yale he talked about cultivating an “inner Finder.” What the hell does that mean? And where can we get one too?

A. You might be better off cultivating an inner Gladwell. But it’s also true that authors, after going through the editorial process and maybe writing 14 drafts for their very first draft for a publication (and then fewer the next time around), climb a learning curve. They later come to anticipate questions that someone will have. And they come to anticipate the most elemental question of all, which is, “Why is this bit here and not there?” and to have a reason because they know that someone is going to ask. So it’s learning a version of what Blake calls the “idiot questioner.”

Q. Or Hemingway’s “built-in, shock-proof shit detector.”

A. Yeah. I think most good ambitious writers start to cultivate some sense of ‘inner editor’ helped along by the ‘outer editor.’

Q. What’s one of the most important questions we should be asking ourselves when self-editing or before getting edited?

A. When it comes to self-revelation, ask yourself “What tactical purpose is this serving?” Because writing for other people is not about venting. When it comes to structuring a piece, always have an answer to that question. You’re ultimately in the storytelling business, and storytelling is about omission, it’s about holding back as much as it is about disclosure. You don’t say everything at once — you can’t — you’re titrating information. You’re not playing every card, you’re holding a card back for the right moment. Writing is a matter of being strategic about the sequence of revelation so that you can develop tension, so you can promote emotional engagement, you can get a sense of an article that turns and doesn’t unfold exactly the way you would predict from first paragraph. The ideal piece works on a dramatic, human level as well as on a level of explanation.

Q. Does the Web then leave extra space for everything else the writer found interesting?

A. No. Because then you’ll just bore people. The Web is not a space for everything I had to cut and want to put out there. The Web serves a different function. In some cases, it’s to promote different forms not organic to the magazine format but that are nonetheless pleasurable.

Q. Do you ever find that there’s tension between omission in an article and the pressure of newsroom reportage to be not only interesting but also fair?

A. The fallacy of fact-checking is to assume that when atomistic facts are right, your piece is right. You can write a piece that is totally wrongheaded, but where every fact is right: just look at Whitewater. Tons of articles were being published where every fact was right, but there was absolutely no story. So we are always vigilant about never introducing distortion, particularly through ignorance. We make sure that we know enough so that the story we tell, even if partial, is nonetheless fair and representative.

Q. Thanks so much. Sorry that all of the technology to record this died.

A. And feel free [to] edit.

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