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Fine Print

'People are hungry for depth, insight and wit'


DAVID REMNICK: A keen eye for the fine print

Pulitzer winner David Remnick shares his thoughts on the changing nature of media, Russia, Muhammad Ali, Obama and more...

David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker magazine since 1998. Before that he was a reporter and the Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post. He is the author of several books. In 2010 he published his sixth book, 'The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama'. He is also the author of 'Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire', for which he won the Pulitzer in 1994. Remnick, who will be at the Jaipur Literature Festival, shares his thoughts on the changing nature of media, writing and the web, Russia, Muhammad Ali, Obama and more.

What is the state of long-form writing in the US, at a time when it is believed that readers are in a hurry to turn the page?

There's no question that all kinds of short forms of writing have been born of the web: blogs, email, tweets, quick dispatches. There is also no question that technology has made at least some of us jittery readers, quiveringly impatient, quietly anxious that an e-mail is heading toward us just when we are trying to read Freedom or Mansfield Park or The Brothers Karamazov. Yet I think people are hungry for thought, for depth, for insight, for sustained description, examination, and wit. And this is what The New Yorker is all about. People want the kind of reporting, fiction, commentary, and humour that we publish every week. Advertisers recognize that the kind of readers we have are also the sort of people who will respond to them - and so we are an extremely successful magazine, thank goodness. Now that we are available on the internet and on the iPad and on other tablets, I am hoping that we will develop in audience in India. I really think it is possible.

What is the state of print media in the US and how has it coped with digital news media?

Newspapers in the United States are, at best, in a kind of prolonged transition, from paper to screen, and the unintended consequences of this period include the destruction of many decent newspapers and the diminishment of some truly essential institutions. It saddens me to say it, as one who spent ten years with them, but I don't think you can make the argument that The Washington Post of today is as strong as the Post of a generation ago. That is true of many other papers, too. The New York Times has become more singular in its strength. It is no longer a local paper;it's the paper of the national elite (liberal division). This has to do with all the familiar factors: the rise of the web, the shift in advertising patterns. I do think that some traditional institutions, like the Times, The New Yorker, The Economist and others have not only survived the transition, but are thriving. I should also say that the web has given rise to a world in which an interested reader can read more variously, getting the Guardian or your own paper at the same instant as its local readers. Which is a marvellous thing. There are also new websites, countless sites, that are fascinating and do entirely new things, and so things like that have become a part of my own media diet. So while I really regret some of the "unintended consequences, " I am hardly filled with gloom;the opportunity to be truly informed is greater now than ever.

Could you capture for us your experience of reporting Soviet Union in Moscow during those last days (1988-92 ) when it was turning into Russia? Did you, while reporting, feel nostalgia for the Soviet Union?

I never felt nostalgia for the Soviet Union, no. Not an ounce. Nostalgia for what? For labour camps? For censorship? For control of science and culture and press - control of mind? Nostalgia for an insanely distorted economy that seemed capable of building nothing but arms, while society itself suffered without prospect? Believe me, I can recite all the faults of liberal democratic societies like my own (beginning with their lack of liberality and democracy in so many ways), but I saw no moral equivalence. It was absolutely thrilling to be a reporter in the midst of a kind of prolonged revolution. Over time, I met everyone imaginable, from Gorbachev and Yeltsin and Sakharov (and, later, Putin), to scores of people at every level of society. If I feel any nostalgia it is for that kind of journalistic excitement. What happened later, politically, in Russia was, of course, an immense disappointment, and not only to me. The rise of a kind of oligarchic authoritarianism, with power lodged so much with the security services, with Putin and his friends, and so on -- this is hardly the society we hoped for in 1991. The demonstrations we have seen lately, though, are the glimmers of a real civil society, and they give me hope.

Muhammad Ali and America;Mike Tyson and America. You've written on both. What kind of Americas do they represent?

Muhammad Ali was inseparable from what we call the Sixties -- the best spirit of that time. He was a magnificent athlete, first of all, a miraculous one, but his role in the racial drama of America, as well as his refusal to fight in Vietnam, gave him a kind of social-historical depth. I was interested in him and wrote a biography of him (King of the World) because I was a kid and I was alive and he was utterly thrilling and his story was one of unique American self-invention ! How could you not be interested in Ali or the Beatles or Bob Dylan or LBJ or Malcolm X? To be interested in them was simply to be living your life with your ears attuned to things, even if you were, as I was, very very young at the time.
I don't think Mike Tyson is politically important at all. Quite the contrary. He is a kind of walking tragedy: a sad, neglected, lost childcriminal trained to be a fighting machine by his elders, a man who had no inner resources to behave with greater intelligence or agility when the times of crises came. He has always been headed toward self-destruction, and I'm glad to see that now, long after he has ruined himself in so many ways, that he is gaining some balance.

You've also written on Obama. What did you learn from his rise?

Obama is radical in only one sense: He is a black man who became president. His politics are centre-left, Democratic Party politics. His historical radicalism resides in race. And my book, The Bridge, is the biography of Obama, the story of how a young man, with an African father (whom he did not really know) and a white liberal adventurous mother (whom he knew very well), someone fed on the stories of the Civil Rights movements, but too young to remember it - how he became an American politician and capable of affecting the history of race in America. The Bridge looks deeply into the granular history of his life and, at the same time, into the forces of American life that he was alive to, forces that allowed him to follow a very new kind of path, one quite different from his heroes in the movement.

It is said you favoured war in Iraq. Did you, and if you did, why? How do you read the Afghan situation? Are such wars perhaps necessary to import democracies into these societies?

I despised Saddam Hussein, that is true, and I (foolishly or not) hoped that he could be toppled quickly and with Iraqi support. When it became evident that the Bush administration had manipulated the process, had lied about weapons of mass destruction, I was incensed. The Iraq war is going to haunt American foreign policy for a long time to come. I doubt very much that Bush and Cheney could have been deterred - they were hell-bent on war - but I do wish that journalism, in general, had been as effective in unmasking their deceptions before the war as we were in uncovering scandals like Abu Ghraib (as The New Yorker did) during it. Intervention is always vexed, and even a success like Libya might turn out to be something else over time;results have a way of determining the moral rightness of an intervention. At the same time, I don't think pure isolationism is morally viable (the way, say, Ron Paul does). We saw the results of reluctance in Rwanda and, for too long, in the Balkans. Right now, the world is focused on the slaughter in Syria. What is the answer there? How much worse does it have to get? I don't have the answer. Do you?

What are you looking forward to in India? What kind of interactions are you looking at in Jaipur?

I have not been to India in 30 years, and I cannot begin to tell you how much I regret that and how much I am looking forward to this trip. I am especially looking forward to meeting Indian writers, to listening to them read and lecture, and maybe having the privilege of meeting them, as it were, "off stage. " We've been lucky enough to publish some Indian writers - The New Yorker even published a special Indian fiction issue in the '90s - but I know the literary scene in India is far deeper and wider than anything I've been able to take in as yet.

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