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The Schmooze

Behind the Scenes With The New Yorker’s Fiction Maven

Photo courtesy Jewish Book Week London

As fiction editor of The New Yorker, Deborah Treisman’s job is one of the most enviable in the literary world. It is certainly one of the most influential. In fact, The New York Times described it as a job that carries the literary clout equivalent of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. On March 1, Treisman was at Jewish Book Week in London, in conversation with Guardian columnist and feature writer Hadley Freeman, discussing the merits and challenges of the job she has held since 2003.

Treisman was born in Oxford and moved to Vancouver at the age of 8. She comes from academic stock — both her parents and siblings are renowned professors and her stepfather, Daniel Kahneman, shared a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. Instead of academia, she decided to go into publishing. After graduating in Comparative Literature at University of California, Berkeley, Treisman worked at the literary magazine, The Threepenny Review and then moved to New York to intern at Harper’s Magazine. This period was followed by a year at The New York Review of Books and subsequently four years as editor at Grand Street. Treisman was deputy fiction editor for five years at The New Yorker before becoming the magazine’s first female fiction editor since Katherine White in 1925.

Treisman admitted that she had probably not written a story herself since she was 11, telling the packed audience that she had submitted it to The New Yorker, only for it to be rejected. But anyone hoping to have the definitive answer to how the magazine picks its stories would have been disappointed. There is no “one thing,” and there is no trademark piece, according to Treisman. The range is extreme and Treisman stressed that what is important is that a published story must “achieve on its own terms.” The styles and approaches can be different but for a story to be effective it “must do what it set out to do.”

Treisman receives approximately 200 to 300 submissions a week, of which she reads about 40. She estimates that out of the 50 stories the magazine publishes a year, about 20 to 25 % are written by unknown authors. According to Treisman, there was a time when it was harder for women fiction writers to get published, but, particularly in the last 10 years, the balance has shifted. Now, she says, fiction does well in terms of gender distribution.

The New Yorker is renowned for the care and editorial focus it gives to its writers. It is also famous for its detailed fact checking — a process, which is, as Freeman pointed out, not experienced by U.K. journalists. The magazine not only fact checks its non-fiction but also its fiction, and even its poetry does not escape scrutiny. When an old boyfriend of Treisman’s had his first poem accepted by the magazine, the fact checker picked up that he had incorrectly described the type or color of material worn by a baseball player in the Little League. Another example was the writer who mentioned hunting turkey in their prose, but the fact checker queried whether the period written about was indeed the turkey-hunting season. It was not. But, Treisman said, very few authors get annoyed at this level of enquiry, as “they want to get it right.”

In addition to fiction, short stories and novel excerpts, Treisman also edits non-fiction, which she enjoys because “you get to use a different muscle.” She emphasized that she would miss one without the other: “Both are about voice.”

Considering the volume of what she has to read, Treisman has not read a novel for pleasure in years. But the advantages outweigh such disadvantages. Treisman has the extraordinary fortune to cast her editing eye and pen over people she idealized as a 15-year-old, such as Don DeLillo. Yet some authors are not accustomed to rigorous editing — one American writer “wept at her edit’ — whereas others, she says, appreciate it.

The magazine has contained work by some of the great literary luminaries such as Alice Munro, Jonathan Franzen and Haruki Murakami, but Treisman has rarely been star struck. “My job is never to feel daunted,” she said. “Looking back, maybe I should have been!”

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