Thursday, July 3, 2014

Interview with Alex Star--June 4, 2014

Alex Star is senior editor at Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in New York. He has a long and distinguished history as an editor, first as assistant literary editor of The New Republic, then–from 1994 to 2001–as the editor of Lingua Franca, a publication with a truly outsized impact on the world of ideas in general, both within and beyond the academy. Later he was founding editor of The Boston Globe "Ideas" section, deputy editor of The New York Times Magazine, and senior editor of The New York Times Book Review before joining Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2012. He has also written essays and reviews for The New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, London Review of Books, and other publications. The interview was conducted in his office in New York on June 4, 2014. Star talked about how he became an editor (1:00) and learned how to edit (2:35), what goes into editing a good piece (6:05), editing versus writing (18:45), switching off the editorial sensibility (23:10), the use of a pen (24:00), what becomes of marked-up copy (25:50), editors he admires (27:50), the grand narrative that lends sense to his various career moves (29:15), market vs. editor (33:20), investigative ideas reporting (36:45), whether editors can be like Henry Higgins (41:10), the forensic skills of editors (46:35), saying “no” to writers (48:50), the editorial high (51:10), what he holds sacred (54:35), how he’s changed as an editor (57:35), the most basic unit of writing (58:50), motion versus sound in good writing (1:00:55), regrets (1:04:30), the editor as basketball player, lawyer, and/or psychotherapist (1:06:00), the editorial relationship with writers of magazine pieces vs. book authors (1:08:25), reading habits and preferences (1:11:10), how times have changed (1:14:35), balls still in the air (1:20:00), historians as the best writers [he said it] (1:22:55), and what he would do with twenty million dollars (besides invest it in the Romanian film industry) (1:28:55). To download and listen to the complete interview, click here

Quotes from the Interview*

Certainly I learned something about editing by watching other people do it. I watched the people I was working for, Leon Wieseltier and Ann Hulbert [at The New Republic], and their styles were very different. Leon would have very emphatic and strong ideas, phrased very colorfully and pungently and directly, but really meant to provoke people into rethinking their ideas, and he would put them in there like thunderbolts. That was his style. And I watched him do it and thought ‘Wow, you can really make an impact on something that way!’ and it’s fun! Ann was much more ‘Let’s go through the text very carefully and make it work, approach it as a craftsman, as carefully as possible, with the highest regard for coherence, intelligence, and flow and everything else.’ Watching these two people do their job very well in very different ways helped me see what editors do and formed my aspiration to try to practice both approaches as well as I could. A third inspiration just becomes panic and uncertainty, because when I arrived at Lingua Franca, I really was woefully unprepared.

On editing profiles: I wanted scenes, I wanted personality, I wanted a sense of what it was like to be with someone, but I didn’t want those things to take over the piece. You also want to do your homework and really read someone’s work, and give the reader a bit of an education in some part of a field or debate. Complicated arguments can be analyzed in terms of their origins (where they come from), their internal structure, and their consequences, and [it’s important] to keep each of those three elements in mind, but you never want to feel like you’re reading a Wikipedia entry.

Nothing can be worse than editors who use someone’s text as an opportunity to do their own writing. That’s really an abuse of the relationship. It’s very important in any book to understand a writer’s voice and style and way of communicating, and to the extent that one does propose sentences and even whole paragraphs of one’s own—which one does sometimes—its important to think about how they’re written and constructed and can be made consistent with the writer’s own gifts.

One of the biggest challenges of being a book editor is trying to find time for the other kind of reading, where you really are just doing it for pleasure, where your mind is engaged in a different way.

My preferred [editorial] method is to print out everything, one-sided, double-spaced and pick up a pen and make marginal notations to myself that are only legible to myself as I read. Some of those might be questions or suggested rewritings, but a lot of them are marks I make to map out the text and see what’s there and how something’s put together. I always feel like I need that pen in order to think, it’s like part of my body in some sense. And then after I’ve done that, I usually go over the text again onscreen and make changes and annotations. In a sense I’m going over the whole text twice, which is very time-consuming for a whole book and not what most book editors tend to do. But this is the only way I feel like I can see what’s there well enough to responsibly suggest changing it.

I think most of the subscribers to Lingua Franca who were not academics seemed to be journalists who were using the magazine to get ideas for their own stories. It’s just too bad that a crossover audience was always pretty elusive. In retrospect, were there things we might have done to reach those people, could we have been more entrepreneurially minded about it? I suppose we could have actually, but simply figuring out what the magazine is, what kind of stuff you want to be publishing, and making it happen was more than enough to consume us.

The initial conception of the Boston Globe ideas section was to do something a lot like Lingua Franca. It would use the tools of journalism to cover the arguments academics were having with each other, but in the newspaper context for a broader audience. Working in a newspaper setting, it ended up feeling important to keep the news [like the invasion of Iraq] more firmly in mind. And so the section quite frequently ended up using academics to illuminate what was going on in the news.

Book editing is somehow both more monastic and more entrepreneurial [than magazine editing]. On the one hand, if you’re a book editor, you’re going to spend a lot of time with big, long manuscripts, carving out a lot of time for very close attention to one thing in a way that the frenetic atmosphere at a magazine doesn't always support. On the other hand, you are personally responsible for buying books and publishing them, knowing how much to spend, understanding the business, and building your own list. Having to think more like a monk and like a businessman at the same time has been the challenge…But why not?

On having a general-interest purpose [at the New York Times Magazine]: You want to feel that a very busy person on a Sunday morning can pick up the story and immediately say ‘Oh, there’s something interesting here.’ There should be something in the writing that wins attention, a character, a scene, a scenario that has some intrinsic appeal, and also some underlying question, theme, or argument that feels intellectually puzzling in a way you want to think about. So you have to get a lot across, even in a headline or a first paragraph.

The shorter the piece and the more extensive one’s own comfort and familiarity with the material, the greater the editor’s ability—if they want and if it’s appropriate—to really reshape something. That’s what a lot of magazine editors do. The longer the piece, the more specialized the material, the more the piece relies on the writer’s ineffable sensibility, the less an editor can do, other than try to inspire and exhort and cajole, maybe threaten, but not recreate. It’s dangerous for editors to have the illusion that ‘I’m going to do all the work and save the day.’ That’s just a kind of messiah complex that no one benefits from, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were extreme cases where that’s what you do and that’s how you feel.

Frankly there are people whose early work made me think, ‘They’ll just never really know how to do this or write well,’ whom I now read and think are great. It’s amazing how much people can improve. What catalyzes that over time? It can be a lot of things. Having constructive feedback from an editor, and possibly just on a psychological level trusting relationships with editorsthat can certainly help.

There’s nothing that we editors like to do more than say to each other, ‘Oh, did you read that piece? Here’s how I think it must have taken the shape it did.’ There’s a shared sense of craft, and to compare perceptions of that is great.

Responding to book proposals: ninety percent of it is ‘no.’

There was definitely a high to [working on Lingua Franca]—we were young people very scrappily putting together a small magazine with very little money, and never quite knowing what was going to happen next; the camaraderie and interaction of my colleagues doing that was incredibly fun. I still think back to when we were finishing an issue of the magazine, and we would usually go down to the art director’s studio for two or three nights and keep very, very, very late hours together, order in food and all that. I feel like that kind of teamwork was definitely a high. [Book] editing is a one-on-one author-editor kind of thing, without too many other people intervening, but the intensity and depth is another kind of high. When you’ve gone through a whole book with someone a couple of times, there is a kind of connection with the writer—an absorption and assimilation of what’s in a book into oneself—that feels really rich and deep.

The most selfish definition of editing I can give is this: It’s the most close and intensive form of reading imaginable, so therefore if you like reading, editing is a super-charged version of it.

I assume that thinking hard about anything is going to be worthwhile, and that could only happen—especially in a culture like ours—through certain kinds of sanctioned spaces that allow a little more time for thinking and reading and communicating in certain ways. Those are proudly unexamined axioms for me.

I think I was probably a little more intrusive [as an editor] when I was younger. There was a little more of a sense that your job is to save the day, even if it doesn’t need saving. As you get older you learn to understand the individuality of the writers you work with a little better, and respect that a little more, and—without having at all lower standards, if anything higher standards—allowing authors to solve problems for themselves after you point out what they are.

The natural unit [of writing] for me is probably 1,000 or 1,500 words of text that is developing a particular idea within a finite space and is relatively easy to hold in your head at once. The goal is to take that portion and ask, ‘How does this move from one place to another and how could it move differently?’

If in poetry the tensions between the overt meaning of the words and the formal devices that are being used help make the poem work, in most non-fiction writing, you don’t want an excess of that kind of conflict and tension, however aesthetically rich that can be. 

The one commonality in every job I’ve had in editing is that I’ve never felt I put as much energy as I wanted into finding new writers and reaching out to people, as opposed to just working with what was always there and needed to be done.

Being an editor is participating in a great deal of someone’s life. With books it’s like the book itself becomes like a child or something else that’s in the relationship.

In magazines these days, it’s not just publishing the article, it’s figuring out do you have reader comments, do you produce a video, do you commission a composer to write music that plays while the reader reads it; there are just so many things that you can do these days and so editors, in tandem with other people, have become like producers in some sense. It’s just the direction the culture is going. [With books], the job isn’t just editing books, it’s publishing them. You are going to be the person the writer can trust and rely upon to make sure the book reaches the right reviewers, reaches all the right places. You’re going to be in touch with the writer as it gets published, and when reviews get written or they go on tour and all the things that happen into the paperback cycle.

One of the really exciting things about being an editor: you’re just exposed to so many things and learn more about them than you might ever expect to, and then they give you thoughts and enthusiasm.

I used to be a ridiculous junkie of newspapers and magazines. I pretty much read the entire New York Times every day, and certainly almost everything that was in the New Yorker, the New Republic, the New York Review of Books, etc. etc. I’m much more selective now, but I still read a lot of those same publications.

When you’re buying a magazine article, what you pay writers varies to a very, very small degree, but when you’re buying a book, the ratio of your highest advance to your lowest advance is vast; there’s no analogue to that in magazine editing.

Clearly the institutional foundations of both newspapers and publishing houses, and their economic foundations, have changed a lot, have become shakier and more unstable, but in some ways everyone is also freer to experiment.

If Lingua Franca had lived on after 2001, it would have been a very different magazine, just because the issues that felt most important to the university world changed a lot. Today, questions about corporatization, about technology and the ascendance of the life sciences—both the incredible intellectual progress they’ve made and the very complicated implications of that progress—feel really important.

On the spirit of the times: For a long time it was Islam and the West and the Middle East and the fraught questions around how to construe the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, rather suddenly, it seems that the politics of inequality in America—and in the world, too—are the inescapable context for thinking about things.

It could not be more striking that among American academics, historians seem to me the best writers of any discipline, certainly including literature departments. Part of it is that, even if narrative history was driven underground for a long time, nonetheless history and stories are closely connected etymologically. When youre toggling back and forth between interesting conceptual questions and the raw material of people’s lives and the voices and records they’ve left behind, you're less likely to produce writing that spins out into methodological cul-de-sacs the way some academic writing does. Generally speaking, if I get a proposal from a historian, I have higher expectations of the writing than for most other fields. Of course, some historians dont ask the right questions to make the material feel really interesting as opposed to just presented.

I don’t think that it’s the case that one should always want a book to have sold not x copies, but x+1 copies; that’s just a mistake. Publishing needs to come up with diverse ecosystems in which books of high quality but of very different kinds of audiences can all survive.

The problems with publishing are systemic, so they can’t be solved by anyone’s money. The question is how do you create relationships between publishers and retailers and vendors that are sustainable in the long term, and keep authors and editors supported. That’s really complicated and may involve the justice department more than a [benefactor].

* NOTE: Some of the above quotes have been redacted for flow in consultation with the interviewee

"Here are a few pieces I remember fondly…"
The list includes some favorite pieces Star has edited since Lingua Francasome of which are mentioned in the interview. A "best-of" from Lingua Franca was published as Quick Studies (FSG, 2002), edited and with an introduction by Star.

Laura Secor, "The Dissident" (Nov. 3, 2002), "Mind the Gap," (Jan. 5, 2003), "Thinking Man's Warrior," (Mar. 30, 2003), and "The Farmer" (May 25, 2003) in The Boston Globe 

Keith Gessen, "De-Listed," in The Boston Globe (Nov. 10, 2002) 

Jeet Heer, "The Philosopher," in The Boston Globe (May 11, 2003)

James Parker, "The Wild Poet," in The Boston Globe (Dec. 21, 2003)

Mark Oppenheimer, "The Turning of an Atheist," in The New York Times Magazine (Nov. 4, 2007)

Andrew Meier, "Putin's Pariah," in The New York Times Magazine (Mar. 2, 2008)

Matthias Schwartz, "The Trolls Among Us," in The New York Times Magazine (Aug. 3, 2008)

Paul Krugman, "How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?" in The New York Times Magazine (Sept. 2, 2009)

Andrea Elliott, "The Jihadist Next Door," in The New York Times Magazine (Jan. 27, 2010)