Last month, we learned that Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein would become the new editor for The New York Times Magazine. It was a decision that came from outside the hermetic world of New York media, leaving some with questions like: who is this guy?
Texas Monthly is an excellent publication, a perennial awards nominee and winner, and has published tons of terrific writing. (Look at its Longreads page.) According to Joe Pompeo at Capital New York — in a profile that notes Silverstein’s “smoky eyes, dark-brown bedhead” — the editor’s era of Texas Monthly was “known for its ambitious long-form journalism, gripping southwestern crime noirs, sophisticated treatments of the state’s prominent politicos and high-minded packages on issues like water, immigration and urbanization. It felt modern and plugged into the world at large while true to the cowboy mythos at its core, blending literary nonfiction with service journalism.” They won four National Magazine Awards over Silverstein’s six years, with twelve total nominations.
So Silverstein has a track record, but what does he like? Where do his interests lie? He has an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Texas, and he’s written one book, Nothing Happened and Then It Did, a high-concept memoir where facts and fiction blur together, and, semi-ironically, one review notes: “in one hilarious running gag, he is forever being outmaneuvered by reporters from The New Yorker.” In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Silverstein says that he likes “stories that reveal the world to be the wonderfully strange place that it is — stylish and subjective pieces, fearless reporting that transports me somewhere far away.”
Most notably, he mentions an essay by writer Denis Johnson, best known for essential works of fiction like Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke (according to us, Johnson may be “America’s most influential fiction writer“), “The Small Boys Unit.” A piece of nonfiction that originally ran in Harper‘s, Silverstein calls it “weird” and “shambling,” elaborating: “it’s an uncomfortably honest account of his misadventures trying to get an audience with Charles Taylor, how he botches this and that along the way.”
Here is just a sample of Johnson’s journey in Liberia:
I was no longer the least bit interested in seeing President Charles Taylor. I had already waited for several hours in the night among a small battery of antiaircraft guns, assured the president was just yards away, but never seeing him; I had waited on a dirt road on a hot afternoon listening to a battle half a kilometer or so away, while, they told me, Charles Taylor directed his troops, and he would shortly send for me to view the defeated (but he must have lost, because he never sent for me); and I’d spent one night up until dawn slinking from place to place around the rubber plantation, stoppiing and waiting and sending messages back and forth to the elusive President.
“The Small Boys Unit” is a masterpiece, and rightfully sits as the closing essay in Johnson’s one work of nonfiction, Seek: Reports From the Edges of America & Beyond. It is an excellent book — reading it in college after I read Jesus’ Son was a disorienting experience for me. It was a bit as if Fuckhead grew up, survived, and became a really inept version of a Graham Greene character touring war zones, countries in shambles, and dark secret places in America. When I saw Johnson speak in Albany last year, I asked him why he went to such dangerous places, and he said those places were where he could get the stories he was paid to write, because nobody else was doing them.
Perhaps that will be the inspiration for Silverstein’s vision at The New York Times: new, engrossing stories that the world hasn’t found yet. Or the stories that nobody wants to do. And it’s always good to get a mad poet and brilliant writer to travel to the dangerous places in the world (Nick Flynn’s haunting Esquire work “The Ticking Is the Bomb” comes to mind). Considering Silverstein’s lack of New York media baggage, and excellent taste in writers, his era at The New York Times Magazine may bring curious new perspective to one of journalism’s premier titles. It’s a developing story, and a good one.