The last time I was in a store that sold trophies was probably around 1967 when I might have been with my mother as she picked up awards for the “girls” in her suburban bowling league. That I was able to find a storefront trophy store in midtown Manhattan made me feel as if I had earned an award myself, though the one I was picking up was for a friend who merited it.
Like so many people I know who work as magazine editors and staff writers, my friend Mario, the now former arts editor at a big national travel magazine, was leaving the publication. His, like many other such parties I have attended, was not exactly a retirement fete, as Mario was neither voluntarily retiring nor nearly old enough to qualify as a retiree. Rather, he was attending his own layoff party.
Prior to the gathering, I went to the trophy store on East 38th Street, and the moment I walked inside the place, a bell jingling from the door, it felt akin to suddenly entering an old black-and-white episode of Candid Camera. You can imagine the inappropriate inscriptions and figurines the producers of the show would have applied to trophies that had been ordered and the shocked looks on the faces of the customers as they picked them up. But I was there not to buy a trophy for an athletic win or the earning of a degree but, rather, to acknowledge a former colleague from a magazine in which I, too, had once been a staff member.
The party for Mario was a spirited event that drew a huge crowd of the writers he had hired over the years, fellow staffers, and assorted industry folk and arts management people. He deserved this outpouring, given that he is adored by the people with whom he works and employs as an editor. One of his roles had been to mentor young fact-checkers, several of whom I had sent his way and who he hired as paid employees (not free slave labor, also known in publishing as interns).
He taught them the importance of checking birth and death dates of dictators and the right hemispheric locales of seas and archipelagoes, the accents to use on Portuguese proper nouns and the names for capitals of new African nations. But the party held atop a raucous rooftop hotel space in which we all had to have our wrists rubberstamped from an earpiece-clad bouncer on the street, felt like the result of one big grammatical error in judgment.
Magazine editing and writing is the one industry I know really well, having been in it now for more than thirty years (though I started as a book editor at Simon and Schuster). I wonder all the time if it is the only industry in which talent, experience, Rolodexes of contacts (yes, the kind that you turn on a plastic wheel), and the wisdom that comes with all that are detriments. Once you acquire those attributes by the time you are in your forties or fifties, it seems you have inserted enough errors and misspellings into the story of your own career to warrant a cut-but-no-paste job. To attend an event like Mario’s is to hear of others who have been deposed and disposed from companies like Hearst (one of my alma maters, where eleven of us were fired without actual cause from another venerable magazine), Condé Nast, Meredith, American Express Publishing (another alma mater).
Reach a certain age (mid-to-late 50s) and you are underlined in red pencil, whereupon you might be considered a run-on sentence of a person to be deleted. Even on my walk home after the party through Grand Central, I ran into an editor friend in the food court. First thing she—elegant, learned, somewhere in her 50s, maybe older—announced was that her magazine had just been sold, and we rolled our eyes and pondered together whether she would be treated as some kind of misprint and edited away once the new management arrived. I think of people like Chris Hughes, the wonder child of the Internet who bought The New Republic, and while he may be a prodigy in the arena in which he made his fortune, he is a child of publishing, his ineptitude leading to the near dissolution of a venerable periodical.
I’m used to working at magazines where readers can complain and where we publish their letters in the front of the publications. We admit to errors in judgment or punctuation, run corrections, promise never again to make the same mistake. But to whom do we middle-aged, experienced, at the height-of-our-skills editors write? To whom do we plead to stet our careers, italicize our skills, prove that we know the right boldface names who we alone can attract to the pages of our magazine?
Truly, I was so saddened that yet another friend, Mario—so gracious, diplomatic, a noted classical music scholar, multi lingual—had been cut from the general editorial copy that I wanted to write somebody, plead on his, and our, behalf. Dear Mayor? Dear Czar of American Culture? Dear Chief Lexicographer?
I do believe that some day age discrimination will be looked upon with the same incomprehensibility as Jim Crow laws or the denying of the vote to women. But we are nowhere near that day. The story of age discrimination in publishing especially—certainly print, but also even online—is ongoing and shameful. The industry is beleaguered enough by all the obvious threats, but for those of us who know language as well as we do, know how to write and edit and commission articles, if we suddenly become cuttable once we reach the zenith of our powers, then it’s all a very sad story and one I’d prefer not to read.
In my role as a staff magazine editor and writer, I get to lecture to journalism students at colleges and I am surprised every time by the high caliber and enthusiasm of the young people I meet. As I spoke to a class of undergrads at the Fashion Institute of Technology who were enrolled in a journalism class taught by the seasoned editor Allison Leopold, I felt an immediate sorrow for the students, knowing that the professional world they want to enter is a troubled one, not just from the changing ways we read and our appetite for language, but for what often happens later in a career. Without us, those in our 50s still doing it and doing it well, if we’re not there for them, the best teachers of journalism are edited out of the tale.
There are good editors and bad editors (certainly bad managers), but for those of us who do what do well, we all merit trophies, as well as continued employment. And unlike one of those vintage episodes of Candid Camera, there was no joke to be played out when the clerk at the trophy store brought out the one I’d ordered, all agleam and encased in a red velvet bag. The model I bought for Mario was a simple, two-handled silver cup engraved with an acknowledgement of his role as a first-rate magazine editor.
He thanked me by saying that the hollowed-out cup would serve well as a container for M&Ms—the kind of treat he would likely have put on his desk at the office to share with fellow workers who came in to seek his advice and knowledge.