Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

American Scholar

The New York Times reports that Anne Fadiman, editor of The American Scholar, has been let go.

Under the editorship of Anne Fadiman, The American Scholar, one of the country’s premier literary journals, has been a magnet for both prizes and buzz. Its witty essays by leading writers on subjects as varied as jigsaw puzzles and diabetes have sparked intellectual discussion, lured fresh talent and earned this quarterly three National Magazine Awards in six years. It is currently a finalist for two more: one for general excellence in a publication with a circulation of less than 100,000, and one for profile writing, an article by Ms. Fadiman about an Arctic explorer that appeared in the winter issue.

But a high profile and a healthy circulation of about 28,000 were apparently not enough to safeguard her job. Last week a budget deficit for the journal, which costs $1.25 million a year to produce, left Ms. Fadiman and her publisher, the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at loggerheads, with Ms. Fadiman contending that she had been dismissed.

I happen to be a member of the board of editors for TAS, and heard about this at the beginning of the week; I wrote an extremely intemperate blog entry, which I almost immediately deleted. But now that the cat’s out of the bag, I feel I can say at least a little bit about it.

Simply put, I think this is a tragedy, and a very, very stupid decision.

Sure the journal has been running at a loss, but my sense is that Anne has done a very good job of keeping the costs down: even major writers like John Updike get a maximum of $500 for their work. She’s got several astonishingly accomplished editors who have worked for her at ridiculously low wages. Why have contributors put up with it? Simply put, they do it for Anne. She’s a brilliant writer, a phenomenally intelligent person, and a real pleasure to work with. She makes up for all the editors in the world who ask if you could, like, rewrite your history of the Vietnam War so the Americans win, or could you make that biography of Montaigne more contemporary.

The bigger problem any magazine faces today are the fixed costs of paper, printing, mailing, etc.. If you want to seriously cut costs, you have do make some pretty drastic choices about your fixed costs– that or completely abandon editing, as many university presses have done.

John Churchill, the Phi Beta Kappa secretary, “stressed that the society had no complaints about content and only “praise and admiration” for Ms. Fadiman, an award-winning author and essayist.” When I was sacked as editorial director at Britannica, it was with the reassurance that they had the highest respect for my standards, but wanted someone who could move more product. PBK’s position is, “We love your work, Anne, but we want someone cheaper than you.” But can they get someone as good for less? I think the answer is absolutely not.

First, I seriously doubt that there’s much fat to trim, or even much bone that can be removed without endangering the patient. I’m not very close to the accounts, but close enough to sense that there are no Enron-level excesses in Anne’s budgets.

Second, are the Annie Dillards and Anthony Graftons going to write for the next editor for next to nothing? They may find someone who has a good eye, but I seriously doubt they’ll find someone who can wring such great work out of people for such little money. When I’ve published something in the Scholar, I’ve gotten a fraction of what I make with other magazines; but I thought that the chance to work with Anne and her team more than compensated for the puny honorarium.

PBK may respect Anne’s talents, but when all is said and done, they’re going to have to decide how low are they willing to let the magazine fall to cut costs. And they’re not going to save a lot of money.

As Winston Churchill told Neville Chamberlain after Munich, “You were given a choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have your war.” PBK has chosen between a good magazine and financially sound magazine, and they will have neither.

[To the tune of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Excerpts From “Pictures at an Exhibition”,” from the album The Atlantic Years (Disc 1).]

1 Comment

  1. From today’s New York Observer:

    Magazine contributors and staff express bafflement over the dust-up—particularly given the central role of cost-cutting. Ms. Fadiman’s tenure was marked, they say, by a phenomenal ability to stretch a dollar. As editor, she received a salary of $60,000 and used her talents to attract name-brand writers to work for a flat-rate $500 per story.

    Novelist Nicholson Baker, a contributor to the magazine, said he reacted to the news by “walking around with my hands slackly at my sides, thinking, ‘What is going on?’

    “My brow is furrowed in puzzlement,” Mr. Baker reported.

    Ms. Fadiman, who worked on the magazine from her home in Western Massachusetts, evidently didn’t run up the deficit by flying the likes of Mr. Baker to Phi Beta Kappa headquarters in Washington, D.C., and discussing headlines over lunch at the Palm. In his work for the magazine, Mr. Baker said, “I didn’t feel right about charging The Scholar for my transportation, so I ended up swallowing some of that.”

    One budgetary sticking point seems to have been a trio of part-time deputy editors—Bill Whitworth, John Bethell and Pat Crow—retained by Ms. Fadiman. The three epitomized Ms. Fadiman’s approach to The Scholar: a senior council of magazine editors, who brought decades’ worth of experience to bear for a combined salary of roughly $45,000 per year.

    New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly veteran Mr. Whitworth, who said he’s been doing the work “for fun,” praised the standards Ms. Fadiman has brought to the magazine, saying her careful precision matched that of his old employers.

    Boston College professor Carlo Rotella said his own book excerpt that ran in The Scholar received “the New Yorker treatment” from Mr. Whitworth. In cutting the piece from some 17,000 words to 8,000, Mr. Rotella said, he went back and forth with Mr. Whitworth “five or six” times and spoke on the phone with him some 25 times.

    “Makes me wish my whole book had been edited by him,” Mr. Rotella said.

    But the trio of editors, however cost-effective, represents an expense that previous American Scholar editors did without.

    “We did not anticipate several years ago that we would have an editorial staff the size we have now,” Mr. Churchill said. No decision will be made about staffing levels until the editorial transition has been settled, Mr. Churchill said.

    Such potential cutbacks, Mr. Rotella said, betray a “misunderstanding of what editing is.”

    The magazine may be put out on an even thinner shoestring, he said, but it won’t come close to being the same magazine.

    “If it’s half as good,” Mr. Rotella said, “they’ll be lucky.”

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