Dan Baum has concluded his account — published entirely on Twitter in 140-character bites — of how he won, then lost, a writing contract at the New Yorker.
It’s riveting reading, this tale of a relationship gone sour, with Baum trying to apportion blame on both sides. And if you’re bothered by reading backwards on Twitter — personally, I liked it, especially the unpredictability of not knowing when another installment would arrive — the whole thing is posted in frontwards order on Baum’s website.
“The failure was mine. I didn’t bother to figure out the culture of the New Yorker,” reads one of several tweets in which Baum tries to be self-aware, while getting in his digs about the insularity of the New Yorker culture and the hubris of its editor, David Remnick.
That’s a guaranteed attention-getting genre, ever since Tom Wolfe made his name with “Tiny Mummies” — his 1965 lampoon of the New Yorker as the “land of the walking dead.”
And already, New Yorker writer Susan Orlean has jumped in, with her own stream of tweets dissing Baum and his view of her employer. Reads one: "Dissing your boss? Whining abt story credits? Writing stories that aren’t good enough to run? Seeming to dislike the mag itself? Hmmm."
In Baum’s telling, the place is still a miserable realm of emotional repression and dashed dreams. "Mr. Shawn," of course, is long gone — but there’s Remnick, whom Baum portrays as high-handed and arbitrary.
The Twitter-essay ends with a great mano a mano between Baum and Remnick.
As Baum begins the scene, he thinks he has really arrived now, sitting there all casual in “David’s” office: “Just David and I, overlooking Times Square, kicking around story ideas. Two guys at the top of their game, having a discussion. He edits the magazine, I write for it, but basically the same species.”
But when Remnick shoots down a story idea about Mexico, then demonstrates a lack of knowledge about the Mexican elections, Baum subtly ridicules him. And when Remnick suggests a profile of the governor of Montana, Baum responds that he had proposed that story six months ago and it was rejected.
You can practically hear Baum snorting.
After that meeting, Remnick appears to have had enough.
Baum makes the case in two consecutive tweets that he was just trying to toss ideas around: “A New Yorker writer should be able to have a straight-up exchange of views with his editor. And a guy as accomplished and powerful as David Remnick shouldn’t be so insecure that he can’t take some pushback.”
As Baum sees it, his transgression was that “I made him feel uninformed.”
The real question: Is Remnick somehow threatened by Baum — or just annoyed by him?
Baum is convinced Remnick fired him because he took a “personal dislike” to him, and maybe it was partly personal between them. There’s a suggestion that Baum wants Remnick to embrace him as an equal — and when that keeps failing, he finds ways to remind Remnick that he may be the editor of the New Yorker, but he’s not so special, after all: “Remnick and I are the same age and grew up within about 20 miles of each other in New Jersey,” he says in one tweet.
(A technical term for a certain kind of employee comes to mind: pain in the butt.)
When Remnick told Baum he was coming to New Orleans — where Baum was working — Baum accused his boss of “bigfooting” him (using his more powerful position to grab a good story away).
Then there’s the issue of Baum’s unusual writing arrangement with his wife, Margaret Knox, whom he calls his co-writer. Baum says Knox does at least half the work on all his pieces, but that they agreed early on that it was too confusing to publish under a co-byline. Yet Baum also tried to get Remnick to agree to include his wife’s name on his “contributor’s note” bio in the magazine, so that it would read, “Dan Baum is a staff writer who works with his wife, Margaret Knox.”
It’s a tale, in the end, of Baum’s shattered illusions — “I’d come to believe that all that matters is the quality of the work on the page. That’s what set the writing life apart, I thought.”
But he learned that even at the New Yorker, a job’s a job, navigating personalities is involved, and the whole thing is unlikely to result in eternal bliss and endless self-fulfillment.
As Scott Rosenberg has pointed out about Baum’s story, "how can you trust a reporter who doesn’t even understand how his own profession works?"
Meanwhile, there’s controversy raging at the American Prospect about Baum and Knox’s arrangement . Does it “reinforce the oldest sexist divide”? Is she being foolish, even exploited, and opening herself up to future risk by not getting public credit for her work — what if they divorce, where will she be? Or is it an arrangement that works for them and is nobody’s business?
That’s a fascinating debate in itself. But the bigger issue it raises is buried in all the sensational “expose” around what Baum is doing by publicizing this New Yorker internal affair.
To make a nice living as a magazine writer, apparently, it helps enormously to be two people.