Nathaniel Rich Is Different From You And Me

Disclosure. Disclosure! I like Frank Rich, based on my small but existent amount of contact with him in the course of my work. And as someone who is well-enough employed, in the unstable business of journalism, and who is still not too old to have maybe have a chance to eventually become better employed, I am also wary of Frank Rich. The former New York Times theater critic-turned-columnist, now a New York magazine writer and an HBO something-or-other, exists within a network of powerful goodwill and even more powerful professional obligation.

So it has been confounding to watch the progress of the author Nathaniel Rich, one of Rich's two grown sons, through the pages of the Times, and the commentary, or lack of commentary, accompanying it. Today, the paper's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, laid out just how much exposure Nathaniel Rich and his latest book have enjoyed:

The author’s new novel was reviewed in the Arts section on April 10, then again in the Sunday Book Review on April 14. Mr. Rich also wrote an essay for the Sunday Book Review, with many references to that novel, “Odds Against Tomorrow.” In addition, the Editors’ Choice section of the Sunday Book Review listed Mr. Rich’s novel second on its list.

Back in January, Mr. Rich and his brother were also the subjects of a feature story about literary families. (His father is Frank Rich, the former Times columnist; his mother is Gail Winston, an executive editor at HarperCollins; his brother is a comedy writer, a novelist and a regular contributor to The New Yorker.)

And then Sullivan, who has previously shown few qualms about hurting anyone's feelings, left those facts inside the parentheses and moved on to explain that the saturation coverage was a coincidence among the Times' various independently operating book-reviewing operations, and that what "can look like a conspiracy" is an occasional artifact of "different section editors and writers making their own plans without consultation with one another."

This is probably true in a narrow procedural sense, in the same way that no one necessarily ordered anyone to run an excerpt and two separate reviews of The Puppy Diaries, executive editor Jill Abramson's dog-rearing memoir, in the paper, either. But the Times, as an organism, knew whose puppy the book was about. And the Times knows who Nathaniel Rich is.

Even if they don't all get together in planning meetings, Times staffers generally do read the New York Times. And that means that in January, they had the chance to meet Nathaniel Rich and his brother Simon on the front of the Sunday Styles section, in that feature article Sullivan mentioned. The story was based on the premise that the young Riches have made it in the world on their own—that the children of two of the most powerful people in the writing business have built their careers without parental assistance. That, in fact, they have succeeded in "battling the perception of nepotism while carving out their identities."

OK! "Nepotism." "The perception of nepotism." Nathaniel Rich is a novelist and journalist; Simon Rich is a screenwriter at Pixar and a humor writer. If I counted right, they have six published books between them, at the respective ages of 33 and either 28 or 29. They would not have done this without their parents. And not merely in the somebody-had-to-make-the-zygotes sense, nor in the growing-up-with-a-house-full-of-books sense. The Rich boys are where they are because they are the Rich boys.

The Times' ongoing denial of this is deeply strange. Maybe the profile of the brothers was one of those Times stories in which the sophisticated reader is supposed to understand that the words mean the opposite of what they appear to say. Maybe the Times as an institution—an institution that employs, on the metro desk, Arthur G. Sulzberger, who is the son of publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., who is the son of publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr., and so on back to Adolph Ochs's purchase of the paper in 1896—wants to believe it is the truth. But it isn't.

This was the key passage from the profile:

Both men avoided dropping Papa’s name. When Nathaniel graduated from Yale, he said, he made cold calls to magazines looking for work, most of which did not return his inquiries. And Simon said it was “Saturday Night Live” representatives’ obtaining a galley of his 2007 book “Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations” that led to an offer....

"Frank has stayed out of the way in them negotiating their careers,” said Nat Livingston Johnson, a filmmaker and one of Nathaniel’s best friends. “They’ve been self-made in that regard.”

Their father primarily helped them, Nathaniel suggested, by modeling a stringent work ethic. “Both Simon and I agree, and discount the myth of writers that you are struck by inspiration from the gods and your characters will talk to you,” he said. “That’s what writers say to enhance their own myth.”

The part at the end, where we learned that the true life-bonus enjoyed by the Rich children is that they learned to work harder than you, and certainly harder than some poor schumuck from Wichita whose father spent his days relaxing on an assembly line instead of callusing his hands writing theater reviews for the Times—that's outrageous, of course, but it's a paraphrase by the writer, so let's assume that the Rich brothers were trying to say something less offensive and it didn't survive the translation.

But this:

it was “Saturday Night Live” representatives’ obtaining a galley of his 2007 book “Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations” that led to an offer.

Well. In 2007, Simon Rich would have been about 23 years old. There are lots of funny and talented 23-year-olds out there, but almost none of them get their career breaks through their book galleys, because almost no 23-year-olds have any idea how to become a published author. Disclosure: I was over 30 before I had any idea of what steps I would need to go through to get a book contract. A former co-worker's ex-husband introduced me to an agent, who told me how to write a book proposal.

And furthermore, it occurs to me that despite 20 years as a professional writer and editor, and at least eight years sort of inside the membrane of the New York media world, I even now have no idea which actual people would be indicated by the phrase "'Saturday Night Live' representatives." What does it mean to represent a TV show? How do these representatives go about obtaining book galleys to read?

Relationships and knowledge are what the writing-and-culture business runs on. Some of it is cultural capital—knowing what to do and how to do it. Frank Rich's children were exposed, at an early age, to the actual specific process of professional writing: deadlines, pitches, writing to length. Jewelers raise jewelers; plumbers raise plumbers. Cal Ripken Sr. and Bobby Bonds brought up their children around professional baseball. Johann Sebastian Bach produced musicians.

But some of it is social capital—who you know, and what they can do for you. People look out for the interests of people they know, even without anyone picking up a phone and telling them to. Disclosure: I was going to write about the profile of the Rich brothers when it first came out, for somewhere other than Gawker, but that place revoked the assignment because it didn't want to be potentially unkind to Nathaniel Rich.

These are the advantages that go mostly unremarked. The same day the Times profiled the Riches, it ran a magazine story about Zosia Mamet, the daughter of playwright/movie director David Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse. In it, the younger Mamet told the reporter that she had always aspired to act:

“I actually have a really vivid memory of sitting on my mother’s lap in a makeup trailer and just daydreaming about the time that I would be sitting in that chair myself,” she says.

None of the plucky details in the rest of the piece—the cold-addled rehearsal tapes, the failed readings for Law & Order—could possibly succeed in offsetting that moment. "Despite her pedigree, success came slowly," the story bravely ventured. This slowness was maybe not so apparent to several thousand other 24-year-olds who want to be actresses, but who haven't even figured out how to get to a reading for Law & Order to fail at it.

Thus, after persevering, at the advanced age of 24, Zosia Mamet is on a television show called Girls, which was created and written by 26-year-old Lena Dunham. Girls is widely praised for its acute portrayal of life for a certain class of young women in contemporary New York. But Dunham's work didn't exactly have to fight its way out of the slush pile to be noticed.

Does that matter, if the work is good? Dunham's carefully crafted and critically admired TV show led to Dunham's $3.7 million book proposal, which was basically a heap of pages saying "LENA DUNHAM™ BRAND BOOK TK"—a cover mockup and careful choice of typeface implying that the idea of the book was the idea of the book, and no more work would really be needed. Yet when it comes out, the Times will surely review it. Opportunity begets opportunity; attention begets attention. Nathaniel Rich is an accomplished and well-known author; he was invited to do a book chat on the website Gawker.com, which has no affiliation with Frank Rich or the Times.

In today's Times self-analysis, Sullivan asked the books editor about the intense, if not redundant, focus on Nathaniel Rich:

“In the best of all worlds, it would be healthiest to spread the attention around,” Mr. Heller said. “There are so many deserving writers out there, and it sends a wrong signal.”

In general, though, the current system is the most practical and “seems to work,” he said.

Photo by Hannah Welling/background via Shutterstock.