A Tempest at T
Hanya Yanagihara’s latest novel has attracted lavish public attention, but the staff who work for her at The New York Times’s fashion magazine say the portrait of her management style is incomplete
The press tour for Hanya Yanagihara’s latest novel To Paradise, published on January 11, has propelled the editor-in-chief of T, the style magazine of The New York Times, into the center of literary chatter. As the follow-up to her bestselling and much-discussed 2015 novel A Little Life, which was nominated for the National Book Awards and Booker Prize, sharp critics have been champing at the bit to tear into Yanagihara’s fiction. At Vulture, Andrea Long Chu noted that the novelist has a tendency to torture her characters, writing, “one can get the impression that Yanagihara is somewhere high above with a magnifying glass, burning her beautiful boys like ants.” At Harper’s, Rebecca Panovka included listening advice for the audiobook of A Little Life: “Pro tip: at 2.6x speed … the more gratuitous self-harm scenes take on a pleasantly businesslike quality.” A New Yorker profile by D.T. Max, which focused heavily on Yanagihara’s personal experiences, writing habits, and the decor of her Soho apartment, elevated her into a kind of personality that Vanity Fair’s Delia Cai perceptively placed in the tradition of the imperial magazine editor. To some, like Jezebel’s Becca Schuh, the promotional blitz has only endeared readers to the writer. “Hanya Yanagihara Is Eccentric and Self-Indulgent. So What?” was the headline on her piece. While the New Yorker feature devoted a paragraph to what Yanagihara’s employees at her day job think of her (an anonymous staffer described her ethos as “I don’t complain — you don’t complain”), members of the T editorial staff have been dismayed about what’s been left out of the public portrait. After all, eccentricities and self-indulgences are not the qualities that typically define good bosses.
Current and former staff — there have been at least nine departures from the roughly 30-person T editorial staff in the past two years — say that Yanagihara’s expectations of a relentless work ethic that matches hers are unsustainable for members of her staff who have more logistically complicated lives, and kids, than her own and that her management habits, especially a tendency to send urgent work emails during non-work hours, has spawned complaints about working conditions to The Times’s H.R. department and The Times Guild. Staff departures include design director Daniel Wagner, who left last summer and has not yet been replaced, and managing editor Minju Pak, who moved over to be the deputy editor of the Styles section. Two staff members gave notice this month, right around the time Yanagihara’s new novel was published. “I could see myself staying if the morale was good and the energy was good. I like T!” one former staff member said. “But the culture was toxic. People don’t want to leave because T is a well-regarded, respected gig. But nobody should have to be miserable to be in the cool kids club.” Most of the people The Fine Print spoke with did not want to be quoted, fearing how speaking out about Yanagihara might affect their career, and none would speak without being granted anonymity. A former staff member responded to an interview request by saying, “I don’t dare to speak on or off the record about Hanya.”
Yanagihara started her journalism career in the late ’90s at the media watchdog magazine Brill’s Content. One of her earliest press mentions is for her work as an editor on her friend Seth Mnookin’s 2004 book about the Jayson Blair imbroglio, Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media. She went on to work as an editor-at-large at Condé Nast Traveler and deputy editor at T before taking an “adult gap year” following the success of A Little Life’s publication in 2015. When she was announced as the new top editor of T in 2017, executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn called A Little Life “one of the finest American novels published in recent years” and said, “Hanya stood out for her taste and broad interests.” The year after her appointment, a profile of Yanagihara in The Observer delved into how she was balancing her life as a novelist with running a major fashion title. “I really love managing,” she told the profiler. “It’s important to me to be a good boss. One of the things I found most offensive about [comments arising from] the recent #MeToo movement was this implication that in order to run a creative or semi-creative business, a certain amount of bad behaviour is tolerable, or even desirable, because from that comes great creative vision. I really don’t think that’s true! … And as someone who has managed to go 25 years without conflating sex with power, or bullying my colleagues, I find it particularly offensive.”
“That’s insane,” one former T staff member told The Fine Print after hearing that quote read back. “She is a bully.”
Many of the profiles of Yanagihara published over the years center on how she’s set her life up to focus on her work, largely unencumbered by the sorts of personal obligations most people have outside of their jobs. She sets similar expectations for her employees. A few months after The Observer interview was published, in November 2018, she sent an email to her staff, “i am sick to death of nagging all of you. i should not have to be following up weekly, daily, asking whether stories have been assigned. i know i’m not asking anything unreasonable, bc when i was an editor at T two years ago, i edited 5 to 6 pieces an issue, and i was never late. if i could do it, so can you.” She ended her message with a threat that if deadlines were not met, she would cancel a planned week off for the holidays. “we start closing the week after we return from xmas holidays. i am a stickler for deadlines bc i don’t want late closes: it’s not fair to production and art, and T gets in trouble about our overtime budgets,” she wrote. “if we haven’t made real headway by monday, that free week btwn xmas and new year’s is no more.”
According to former T staff, emails from Yanagihara on weekends and holidays are the routine. A former staff member said the magazine would “close late on a Friday and [they’d] get an email on the weekend saying they need more ideas.” Yanagihara has asked that her staff refrain from emailing her, writing in one memo, “please remember to send me ONE email at the end of the day with ALL your questions instead of piecemeal questions throughout the day in numerous emails.”
The Fine Print submitted a list of questions about the complaints and criticisms voiced by former staff to both Yanagihara, who did not respond, and The Times. Spokesperson Jordan Cohen defended her email practices: “T is a print magazine and also has a vibrant digital presence, and that means that we often need to respond digitally to news of the moment, whenever it occurs. Like other departments at The Times, staff may need to work on holidays and weekends to cover breaking news.”
As evidence of the grim mood among some on the T staff, when Yanagihara held an all-hands meeting in early 2020 to discuss the onset of the pandemic, a staffer recorded and transcribed her speech. “It’s going to be a really difficult twelve months for this magazine in particular within The Times because Italy is kind of economically decimated. France will probably follow. We depend on luxury advertising,” Yanagihara told her staff. “There’s not any talk of layoffs yet, but I think that it’s already been a challenging first half of the year. It’s going to be harder. And I think that this is a chance to prove to them that we can put out the same magazine without incurring overtime, without incurring extra charges, even though we’re not at the office.” Yanagihara’s attitude toward morale does not seem to have changed as the pandemic progressed. On April 20, 2020, she emailed T’s staff, noting that they were “entering week 6,” presumably of the pandemic. “the travel close (still ongoing) was/is a shitshow,” she wrote. “jenny and minju will conduct a postmortem to see how we can change the process for the next issue, as i believe it has some valuable lessons that transcend the additional challenge of closing remotely.”
The self-reflective mood only grew in the coming months. In a meeting with T staff on June 9, 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, she spoke about the trouble she and her then managing editor Pak were having recruiting Black editors to the magazine. “Minju and I talk all the time about how we don’t have the Black editors that we need and it’s a source of real shame for us, and whenever we’ve tried — Minju keeps an extensive database of everyone we interview for every job — it’s just never worked out,” she said. “This was the issue with every Black editor we met, that they wanted to be a writer, which was great but we don’t have the money or the head for a staff writer position. And I understand why young journalists of color want to be writers. It’s a bigger platform often, it’s more exposure, you have in certain cases a bigger voice, but I told the masthead that the real power comes from being an editor or a photo director. These are the people who assign stories, they cultivate writers, they’re the people who decide what’s important, what’s worth covering.”
She laid out how the extent of the problem went well beyond T. “I am at The Times, probably the senior-most Asian editor, text editor,” she said. “The only way I think you start changing any media organization is by really convincing young journalists of color and especially, in this case, Black journalists of color to become editors.” She spelled out why this was important. “You will never be editor-in-chief of The New York Times unless you’ve been an editor. I mean that’s just the way it is. It doesn’t matter how big of a writer you are,” she said and brought up how she believed the Times’s masthead could solve the problem. “That’s what I suggested that they do. If they want to do something that would pay dividends in 10 years, in 15 years, that they start a program to cultivate Black editors specifically.”
Part of the challenge of working at T that some departed staff members described was a feeling of a clear divide within the editorial team of loyalists and outsiders. They suggested this tendency extended to editorial choices. Daniel Roseberry, who was named the artistic director of the French fashion house Schiaparelli in 2019 and is identified as one of Yanagihara’s closest friends in the New Yorker profile (her nickname for him is Giggles), has been prominently featured in no fewer than five articles in T including sumptuous portraits for at least two profiles. Bertrand Guyon, Roseberry’s predecessor at Schiaparelli, was never quoted in T and only received a cursory mention in its pages under then top editor Deborah Needleman. Neither Yanagihara nor The Times responded to questions about whether the abundance of Roseberry’s appearances represented a conflict of interest.
There is no question that Yanagihara enjoys the backing of Times leadership. “Hanya is a major literary talent,” Baquet said in a statement to The Fine Print. “Under Hanya’s leadership, T has become an indispensable journal of design, culture, fashion and art. Anyone who wants to understand the cutting edge, and who is doing the most important work in these fields has to read it. T plays a vital role in how The New York Times covers the world.” He’s set to act as her interlocutor at a book launch event at BAM on Thursday.
Baquet’s lack of a substantive response to staff complaints about Yanagihara in the past has baffled some people who have left the magazine. “Either he has no idea,” said a former staff member, “or he doesn’t care.”