Confessions of Harper's Serf

The lessons gleaned from an internship at an elite magazine are the stuff that dreams and nightmares are made of.

Published September 23, 1998 10:43AM (EDT)

In May 1994, an assistant editor at Harper's magazine called me in San Francisco to ask if I wanted to intern at the magazine that summer. This came as somewhat of a shock. I'd been rejected for the same internship two months prior.

In the competition for one of the four internships available, the assistant editor explained, I had apparently come in a close fifth. Fortune looked down on me when one of the lucky four opted to take a paid position at New York Newsday. His space was mine, the editor said, if I agreed to move on short notice back to Manhattan, a city I'd left just two months prior, homesick for California, tired of constant noise and fed up with crummy, overpriced apartments.

After packing a duffel bag with three books, a laptop computer and a suit jacket that I wore the first day of work and never put on again, I caught the next plane back to New York. It was a job at Harper's, after all, one of the country's oldest and most respected magazines. The fact that the job was unpaid, and I was pretty sure it would mostly involve running a copier, hardly mattered. I was sure that this was the best opportunity I'd gotten in my professional life.

When New York Newsday folded a month later, probably throwing the guy who'd actually won the job out of work, I took this as a sign that someone was watching over me. Newspaper jobs were hard to come by, but magazines had always seemed completely inaccessible, and hopelessly elite. When I arrived at Harper's slightly cramped, quiet Broadway office, the doors suddenly were open. I'd even been given my own desk, in a windowless corner of a small, paper-strewn room.

The internship turned out to be a heady experience. I had a chance to meet reporters and writers, sitting in the lobby moaning about their last story for some award-winning magazine. Often I hit them up for advice, probably way too eagerly. They were almost universally welcoming anyway. I learned how to buy and sell ideas, how to introduce myself properly to editors (this is more important than you may think) and how to influence the way things get printed. I learned how writers are regarded differently by different editors and publications, how fads influence publishing and how capricious and difficult the magazine business can be. I met several people I respected enormously and others I thought were less valuable as professional or personal role models. This could grow disheartening, but it did not dissuade me from a career in publishing. Finally, I realized the amount of business involved in something ostensibly not about business at all.

I ignored that lesson -- either because I was too busy and naive to notice it -- or because I didn't want to think about its implications. So when a Harper's writer called about her paycheck, which was way overdue, and another intern answered the call, I didn't think anything of it. When the intern, after acting as confessor to the writer's financial woes, got off the phone and said, surprised: "I figured once you were publishing in Harper's you'd made it," I never thought to ask the obvious: Why is she talking to an intern and why didn't she get paid on time? Nor did it occur to me that someday -- if I was lucky -- I could end up in a similar situation -- an experienced professional having to plead with interns for my paycheck.

You know that old joke about the sausage factory? ("Anyone who enjoys sausage and respects the law should never watch either being made.") I knew it then, but I suppose I missed the point.

Over the next several weeks we worked hard fact-checking the Harper's Index, a feature in the magazine, and doing other tasks assigned by editors, most of which -- I was happy to find -- involved substantive research and not carrying coffee. Gradually though, I decided that I was not there to put out a good magazine (that's the editors' job) or to do any writing or editing. I was, it turned out, mainly there to learn the details of a business, and the very specific, very strange set of manners by which that business runs: the behaviors and codes of New York's publishing culture. I learned that talking frankly about money is generally frowned upon, because everyone is supposed to be working at magazines for the sake of art or justice or fun. I realized that presenting very little ego was the best way to get things from anyone who had too much. More concretely, I realized that if I wanted to keep working in publishing, I was going to have to have something very unusual to offer -- a better-than-average eye for detail and contradiction, a knowledge of Spanish, a Rolodex the size of a truck tire -- rather than just trying to be competent and waiting for someone to reward me. They wouldn't.

I say these things with respect to the magazine industry in general. All told my internship at Harper's was a wonderful if peculiar experience and I owe what subsequent writing career I have to the lessons I learned there. But those lessons, seen from even a short four years of hindsight, are not altogether happy ones, and not things that make me proud of my profession.

Perhaps the most important task I undertook at Harper's was reading the slush pile -- the vast stack of unsolicited manuscripts that arrive one-by-one in sad little manila envelopes at a rate of several hundred a week. The rumor around the office was that in the previous decade, only two stories out of the thousands in that stack had gotten published. Indeed, we rejected every single one that summer, mostly without reading past the first line. One day, for example, an assistant editor saw the slush piling up in the intern room, and told us we had to start "rejecting, er, reading" more of it each day to keep up. The abject point was clear. The vast majority of the submissions were terrible; you might as well admit it and get done with the job. It was a jaded but realistic attitude, and after a while, I began to accept it.

But reading the slush also forced me to face facts: Not only was my writing far from publishable, I had no idea how to write a proposal to an editor that did not ring with amateurish mock-authority. Reading flawed writing, unpersuasive pitch letters (called queries in the magazine business) and atrocious poetry, all of which echoed my own writing, provided a painless critique, a private colloquium where thousands of writing mistakes were available to me for close scrutiny. I learned how to write a magazine query, using the best ones I received as models, and striking from my own proposals anything that sounded like the bad ones. Therein lay the tragedy of the slush pile: It became fodder for a young intern's ambition, never bringing any benefit to the people who slaved to write the stories that tutored me.

But the practice helped. My second month at Harper's I sold my first freelance story, to a weekly newspaper in Washington, D.C.

The connections helped too. The story I wrote for the newspaper in D.C., for example, turned out to have been bought by an editor who had herself interned at Harper's. This is not to say that networks are all that matters, or that the story sold just because I was an intern at Harper's. But make no mistake, tricks I learned and connections I made during my internship made the difference in eventually writing for other national magazines.

So now I have arrived, at least in one sense. I'm published; I've traveled to Asia and South America and paid for the trips with the articles I wrote en route. But like the woman who called for her check when I was an intern, I remain broke. Though I am working regularly, I find myself applying to temp agencies just to make ends meet. And my disenchantment with the industry's conventions is starting to hemorrhage into a disturbing, persistent bitterness. Publishing -- which I entered believing it was more honest than other industries -- now feels dangerously like Hollywood. I've done a lot of hackwork. I've also seen my name attached, against my will, to ideas I would not endorse in a conversation. Mostly, I've seen myself lose faith in most magazines. The majority of magazine articles strike me as destructive little fetishes; nine out of 10 exist to sell underwear for Calvin Klein.

Now too often I find that it is possible to succeed and fail at the same time in publishing. Which seems fair; very few people get to write for a living, and those who do for even a while should consider themselves lucky. I'm immensely surprised I've lasted this long. But it is still sad to see, in such a brief time and at such a young age (I'm 29), my impressions of the industry changed so greatly for the worse, and so much of that impression taken up by thoughts of my own success or failure. Four years ago, when I interned, I didn't think in terms of success or failure. All I knew was that someone else owned the presses, and if I wanted to work for them, interning at a place like Harper's could get me there. It did. Whether I want that opportunity now as much as I did then is another matter.

By Marc Herman

Marc Herman is a freelance writer in Barcelona, Spain.

MORE FROM Marc Herman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Academia Books College Writers And Writing