Over the years, how many people have read Joan Didion’s pointed, moody, celebrated essays and come to New York in the hope of writing some of their own? The path of those would-be writers is patently stubborn, given the tone Ms. Didion (pic right) strikes in the essay so many name as their favorite, “Goodbye to All That.” It is a famous elegy for the passing of youth, but also a catalog of Manhattan’s enervating clichés, and, implicitly, a rejection of the New York literary scene she inhabited.
I went back and reread the essay the other day because the title, final and nostalgic, has been reverberating through my mind on a regular basis. I hear it, for example, every time I go to a party and run into a writer or editor I admire who has recently been laid off. So many people in the world of book and magazine publishing greet every such piece of news with a flash back to 12 or 20 years ago. Back then, if anyone with a flair for stringing sentences together lost a job, it was a given that he would land quickly on his feet at an online publication or a small publishing house. But now, goodbye to all that. I have the same thought when some 22-year-old wants help placing a 6,000-word article: Goodbye to all that. When old friends and colleagues from the industry meet up at some sort of gathering, we look at each other and laugh and shrug and marvel at the changing landscape. We mourn more seriously in private.
At Condé Nast, editors are grappling with 25 percent budget cuts and the closing of beloved magazine titles; at Forbes, a quarter of the editorial staff will lose their jobs; Time Inc. has also announced deep cuts that will surely mean another round of layoffs. Newspapers, including this one, are shedding jobs, too, but it is the world of magazines and publishing houses that constitutes a culture specific to New York. Some of those magazines, and some of those houses, will survive the crisis. That culture of living well off the exchange of ideas, most likely, will not.
Part of what is gone, perhaps appropriately, is the glittering, gluttonous self-indulgence — content that took itself too seriously, or associate market editors who did the same, a bad case of the press believing its own press.
The financials always seemed a bit unhinged. Not only was I lucky enough to be paid, just a few years out of college, to think and write and opine for a few well-read magazines, I was encouraged to dine out as much as possible, and expense it — it was my job to capture the mood of what was hot around town. I remember a colleague who once prepared for a business trip by sending a company messenger over to a friend’s office to pick up an Ambien. In the early ’90s, editorial assistants at Condé Nast could get reimbursed for lunches they ate at their desks — and we did, right up to the $15 limit, sneaking in enough sushi to save for dinner. Some magazines were even documents of that particular literary, luxurious world, letting the reader peek into the tasteful Cobble Hill homes of the editors or read essays about the dilemma of a writer in love, a writer, of course, in New York.But what is lost, along with a lot of image packaging, is that expansive home for good writing. Philip Roth recently predicted, in The Guardian of London, that in 25 years, the number of people reading novels would be akin to the numbers now reading Latin poetry; it will be a curiosity, certainly not a profit center. This is painful gospel for anyone who reads Philip Roth, or other great writers, the way other people read religious texts — to make sense of the world, to be humbled or inspired by the power of language.
Read the full text at NYT.
Thanks to author Lauraine Jacobs for bringing this article to my attention.