Reading: Sending Up the Best | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Sending Up the Best 

It's impossible to parody The New Yorker. How do you make fun of integrity and excellence?

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I recently interviewed at the offices of a new national magazine. The editor, a sharp and confident man, was looking for a freelance editor -- a "text editor," as he put it, by which I think he meant what you or I would call a regular old editor: someone who puts a piece of copy into shape, fixing sentences, clarifying arguments, rewriting if necessary. It seems that he had a number of editors on staff already -- four, to be exact -- but none of them, he said, were particularly adept or enthusiastic about such work. He himself was a good text editor, he said, but, what with the start-up of the magazine and all, had other things to do. We ended the conversation on good terms, and it wasn't until after I left that it struck me: what the hell do all those editors do all day?

The answer is: they come up with concepts. An editor assembling a staff these days can afford to overlook things like editing skill: he or she needs idea people. Which might not be all that bad or unreasonable a thing, except that the concepts, the ideas, that are needed are less and less along the lines of "Should we print this article?" and more and more along the lines of "What can we come up with that will find favor not only with the key 24-40 age group but also with the precious advertising accounts that will only buy into magazines with a demonstrable hold on that age group?"

Take Esquire, for example. Five years ago, Esquire's latest incarnation burst onto the scene with a tribute to "Fifty Who Made a Difference," a celebration of the magazine's 50th anniversary. But the most notable thing about it was its size: 616 pages. Phillip Moffitt and Christopher Whittle bought Esquire in the late 70s for $3.5 million (they'd been known previously for putting out the campus newspaper filler Nutshell). Their prescription for the magazine has exerted a vast influence over the industry: lots of travel articles, lots of grooming articles, and more extensive use of the words "man" and "men" than would have been thought possible. ("Men, Babies, and the Male Clock," ran a recent cover line; "The Man Who Captured the Mountain Men," said another.) While Esquire occasionally publishes what might be considered serious writing (recent profiles of CBS head Walter Yetnikoff and Edwin Meese, fiction by John Barth), these are treated like filler and feel like it.

If Esquire and its ilk are redefining the word silly, they are, in at least one sense, throwbacks to the halcyon days of American magazines: they actually make money. Most other major American magazines -- at least those that aim to present good writing on relatively serious issues -- seem to have long ago abandoned any allegiance to the bottom line.

The financial woes of the nation's political magazines -- Mother Jones's dependence on Adam Hochschild's millions, The Nation's on Hamilton Fish III's, the latter's payment "in the high two figures" for Calvin Trillin's columns -- are legendary, of course. But today many far more mainstream journals are also permanently attached to trust funds. The Atlantic, for instance, is owned by real estate magnate Mort Zuckerman; he bought it in 1980 for a huge sum and spent a lot more money buying articles by William Greider ("The Education of David Stockman"), Seymour Hersh, Robert Caro, and Garry Wills. Seven years later, The Atlantic isn't close to making a profit. Harper's is another recent revival. Lewis Lapham's perennial has received a lot of attention over the last few years with its (now syndicated) "Harper's Index" feature and its clever front-of-the-book Reader's Digesty excerpts of funny or serious speeches, short stories, posters, ads, poems, and so forth. Harper's is published by a nonprofit foundation, which gets the millions annually needed to publish the magazine partly from the MacArthur Foundation and partly from somewhere else, but not too much from its meager sprinkling of ad pages.

Another recent entrant is Conde Nast Publications' Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair started out with a lot of editor problems -- the first editor lasted only three months -- and the almost absurdly flamboyant gesture of publishing Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold in its entirety. Vanity Fair has lost millions and millions of dollars for the Newhouse family, which owns Conde Nast, and is losing money still.

No one seems to know how much Mort Zuckerman paid for The Atlantic, but now everyone knows that the Newhouse family paid nearly $200 million for The New Yorker early in 1985. The New Yorker is, of course, an exception to almost everything above: for most of its 62-year history (young by such standards: Harper's is 137, The Atlantic 130), it has been not only the best magazine in America but also one of the most uniformly profitable. With the controversy over the Newhouse buyout (and, later, over the apparently forced resignation of editor William Shawn), there's been a lot of comment on The New Yorker's unique reticence, its refusal to participate in the sort of self-promotional hoopla that magazines like Esquire and even, to a lesser extent, The Atlantic or Harper's regularly proffer. The litany (sometimes a critical one) of The New Yorker's idiosyncrasies is familiar: no masthead identifying the staff, few graphics outside of the famous cartoons, no teasers on the cover, no promotion of writers, no continuation of articles to the back of the book -- and worse, the design and approach haven't changed appreciably since the magazine's beginning. Generally overlooked, though, are the reasons for those idiosyncrasies. The reasons have a lot to do with things like art and the press (in the sense of "freedom of the press") and, sadly, very little to do with the current state of American journalism.

The buyout by the Newhouses (two Newhouses, actually: S.I. Jr. and Donald, sons of empire builder S.I., once famously described by A.J. Liebling as a "journalist chiffonnier," or rag picker), was only one-half of the cause for renewed attention to The New Yorker. The other centered around the advancing age of William Shawn, who was at once approaching 80 and his 35th anniversary as editor. The Shawn question, in fact, was being raised even before Newhouse entered the picture. In 1983, New York magazine published a rare, seemingly definitive look beneath The New Yorker's elegant veneer by writer Craig Unger, detailing the "murmurings" among the staff as an inevitable milestone approached: Shawn, of course, was only The New Yorker's second editor; the first, founder Harold Ross, served for 27 years, until his death in 1951. (Unger's reporting is brilliant, and well worth looking up: November 28, 1983. You won't find it mentioned on the cover of the magazine, however, it having lost out to a feature on hosting dinner parties or somesuch.) Shawn had, of course, been worried about what had come to be known as "the succession." His choice was Jonathan Schell, author of The Fate of the Earth and of most of the magazine's political editorials since the early 70s. (Incidentally, he is the brother of another New Yorker writer, Orville Schell, and was the Harvard roommate of Shawn's son Wally, the playwright and actor.) Surprisingly, the choice of Schell was essentially vetoed by the staff, not once but twice. Another possible successor, William Whitworth, was spirited away by Zuckerman to The Atlantic, where he is now editor. The last candidate, one apparently acceptable to the staff, was Chip McGrath, the fiction editor, but he's been swept aside by the new regime.

Immediately after the Newhouse purchase, New Yorker insiders found reason for optimism in the form of two written statements. The first came from Newhouse: "Advance [a Newhouse company] intends to preserve the quality of The New Yorker magazine through maintaining its personnel, practices, and traditions." The second came from Shawn himself, in the form of an unprecedented commentary on the magazine that led off its April 22, 1985, "Notes and Comments" section. (In ten years of reading the thing, I can't recall ever seeing the words "The New Yorker" before in its columns.) Shawn discussed The New Yorker's history and the acquisition:

"It [The New Yorker's editorial independence] frees us to say what we believe to be true, to report what we believe to be true, to write what we want to write, to draw what we want to draw -- to publish what we want to publish -- with no outside intervention, without fear, without constraints, in defiance of commercial pressures or any other pressures beyond those of our own conscience and sense of responsibility."

Shawn ended on a dense, curious, almost semiotic note. "Our basic principles and standards," he wrote, "will remain exactly what they have been. With that knowledge, and with the assurances that we freely asked our prospective publishers to give us and that they freely gave, we are confident that we will preserve The New Yorker -- not merely a magazine that bears its name but this magazine: The New Yorker itself."

I think Shawn was making an interesting and important point here, albeit one that in retrospect is almost poignant and naive. On one level, he was simply saying that the magazine is a creation of the minds and will of its staff. Yet at the same time the insistence of the last words forces us to look again at the magazine -- this magazine, the one we hold in our hands -- and realize that it is entirely without peer in American publishing.

This, I think, is The New Yorker's peculiar triumph: that, working essentially outside the system, it produced something that so many others working inside the system couldn't -- an immensely profitable, thoroughly excellent magazine. This is important to me, both as a writer and a reader. Shawn's words might seem arrogant to some ("to publish what we want to publish"). I find them reassuring -- because the force of the "we" is not "as opposed to you" but rather as opposed to Sy Newhouse, or Punch Sulzberger, or William Paley, or the Tribune Company, or some guy who's made half a billion in real estate and now wants to buy some respect.

A friend in love came to visit a few months back, and one day he burst out, apropos of nothing, "I hate cynicism. I'm declaring war on cynicism." William Shawn declared war on cynicism many years ago, and we're all the better for it. He carried this war out by means of a sort of sedate carnival of writings and drawings, assembled each week and dispatched across the country, all of it premised on the supposition that someone, somewhere, might find it interesting.

These reflections are occasioned by a somewhat belated reading of Snooze: The Best of Our Magazine, the latest in a recent string of magazine parodies. This one is by Alfred Gingold and John Buskin, who in the past have worked individually on other takeoffs on Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and The Whole Earth Catalogue. Snooze's highlights are the drawings: clever, decisive parodies of not only artists (the voluptuous lines of Peter Arno, the benign ghoulishness of Charles Addams) but certain famous cartoons as well, the best being perhaps Warren Sattler's high-level takeout of a famous James Thurber drawing: "All right, have it your way -- you heard a seal bark!" (Describing these cartoons would just ruin the jokes; you'll have to look them up yourself.) And the "spot drawings" -- those little fillers -- are priceless, from a police truncheon to a plumber's helper, an inflatable woman to a pair of aspirin. The spot drawings in The New Yorker are little bits of preciousness that make a perfect mark; Snooze's cartoons are, by contrast, a bit more cozy and affectionate, but they still work.

What doesn't work, oddly, is most of the rest of the book, and I've spent a great deal of time lately trying to figure out why. The New Yorker would seem to be an easy target -- but is it? Each of the various in-depth newspaper articles written on the Shawn contretemps has contained a paragraph or two detailing "complaints" that have been heard about the latter years of the Shawn stewardship. A February 12 article in the LA Times put it like this: "More than a few critics, in conversations and in print, began to suggest that Newhouse's move wasn't so terrible. . . . It was time the 'tender buttons' faced the real world after two decades of being 'indulged and coddled.' The New Yorker's stately image, they suggested, masks an inordinate number of long-winded, impenetrable, and boring articles." Edwin Diamond in New York: "The criticisms of The New Yorker have by now achieved folkloric stature: overly long articles, often boring subjects, too many unfunny cartoons, occasional clinker cover art." Similar comments were made in a New York Times article.

I find it interesting that there is no attribution in any of these articles. Two direct criticisms I've read were from Liz Smith, who described the staff as "pampered, well-cushioned refugees from the hard life of publishing," and George Plimpton, who was quoted in New York: "[In fiction] there's been a shift of sensibilities, it seems to me. Somehow the fiction once seemed more masculine -- Irwin Shaw, Saul Bellow, John O'Hara, J.D. Salinger. That was more my cup of tea. These days the stories are introspective, less plotted, artful, sensitive."

But the main complaints, of course, are about the articles: those long articles. Ved Mehta drives me up a wall, too, but I have a friend who loves Mehta's ongoing memoirs. And yes, I too sometimes find Ann Beattie exasperating, but she is considered by some to be one of our premier short story writers. I consumed both of Renata Adler's articles on the press in single sittings; they've been chastised for being "impenetrable." (They've also been severely criticized journalistically -- most recently and ably by Ronald Dworkin in the New York Review. But while I too disagree with Adler's sweeping criticisms of CBS and Time at trial, her point -- the huge corporate institutionalization of the media -- is important, and the articles were extraordinarily daring simply in their conception: the press simply never criticizes the press in that fashion.)

Such things are a matter of taste. I don't read every word of The New Yorker each week -- but reading every word is not the point. Once in a while I find in The New Yorker an article that I wish would go on forever. You might think the same article does go on forever. The point is that by not trying to please every reader every week, William Shawn was able to publish The Fate of the Earth, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, George W.S. Trow's "The Harvard Black Rock Forest," Hans Koning's "The Eleventh Edition," and Janet Malcolm's "Trouble in the Archives," as well as Pauline Kael's movie reviews; John Updike's stories and criticism; the best, most lucid and thoughtful political editorials in America; and some of the best humor (Veronica Geng, Bruce McCall, Garrison Keillor).

So, while reactions to individual stories and writers are a matter largely of taste, it is simply a fact that as a whole The New Yorker is beyond compare. I can't imagine someone seriously contending that The Atlantic, or Harper's, or even the Village Voice -- probably the only magazine of national stature with as much editorial freedom as The New Yorker -- produces anywhere near as much worthwhile journalism over the course of a year.

And that's enough to sink Snooze. Short of publishing some 20,000-word article of its own, there's nothing for it to do. How do you satirize excellence? Too much of the time Snooze parodies not The New Yorker but the subjects of the magazine's articles, as in the send-up of The New Yorker "Around City Hall" reports. The target of the parody ought to be reporter Andy Logan, but Snooze can't even approximate her style. Instead it goes after Mayor Ed Koch -- whom Logan has been skewering far more effectively for a decade. The inevitable Pauline Kael takeout ("Citizen Kale") also misses the mark: ". . . there's still no denying that apres-Kale the Yalu has been crossed; the elephants are over the Alps; good golly, Miss Molly, there's no turning back." Pauline Kael just doesn't write like that. Reading Kael is sometimes like riding in a stock car, but it's not like being on a pogo stick. Her problems involve euphony, not syncopation -- when she goes overboard there's a voluptuous earthiness about it, like her loamy recent review of Ellen Greene in Little Shop of Horrors. And a glowing profile of a vicious real estate speculator is hardly parodic of a magazine that recently suggested in all seriousness that perhaps the only way to help the homeless would be to reach into our own pockets (a position that Fortune forthrightly described as socialistic).

Snooze doesn't work because it's hard to parody good writing, which, after all these years, is what The New Yorker traffics in. The sad question today is what Shawn's departure means to that commitment. The new editor is Robert Gottlieb, who, despite a polite, direct letter from the staff asking him not to accept the position, has done just that. It occurs to me that an honorable man might not have done so. Gottlieb is no barbarian -- he's a respected editor from Knopf -- and it is possible, if the staff was exaggerating just a bit about how finely tuned an instrument the magazine is, that he may eventually earn the writers' respect and end up putting out a magazine that approximates "this magazine: The New Yorker itself."

A journalist whose opinion I deeply respect said, almost incredulously, "A man who spends $180 million on a magazine has the right to appoint an editor." It's more of a privilege than a right in this case, it seems to me, but I'm frankly surprised at the sort of apathy, or even outright glee, about Shawn's departure that I've been hearing from people in the magazine business. The New Yorker dropped cigarette and South African advertising and came out against the Vietnam War long before it was popular to do any of those things. Shawn befriended, supported, defended, and advised -- took care of -- a hefty number of the world's artists, some good, some great. (The adulatory comments from his staff in the New York article are almost religious in their intensity.) Was it Shawn himself who spoke to me over the last decade? Possibly -- but he did it simply by letting others speak.

Which is what journalism is all about. In the process, Shawn created something, which is what life is all about. For that he deserved something more than the devastating and devilish abruptness with which he was forced to resign. Sy Newhouse, of course, epitomizes just that parasitical cynicism that Shawn fought so hard against all his life: a man worth millions, but with no real worth at all; owner of everything, creator of nothing. Shawn warred against cynicism; Newhouse begot it. Together they represent the opposite ends of human endeavor in our time. I hope Newhouse senses the gulf.

Snooze: The Best of Our Magazine by Alfred Gingold and John Buskin. Workman Publishing (1986). $8.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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