The New Yorker Under the Glass
The first issue of The New Yorker (February 21, 1925) showed on its cover a dandy in top hat, high collar, and morning suit gazing through his monocle at a butterfly. The drawing is reproduced yearly, and butterflies became a cover motif. Whatever tastes, affectations, or snobbery the artist, Rea Irvin, wanted to suggest, it is time now to turn the monocle on the magazine and subject it to scrutiny.
What the glass reveals is a very disappointing publication, if one judges by former standards. Though there had been modifications in the early years, as the magazine ceased to deal chiefly in humor and published more serious journalism and fiction, and though changes in editorship (from Harold Ross to William Shawn to Robert Gottlieb) inevitably introduced slightly different tones, there was no new departure until it was redesigned by Tina Brown, its editor from 1992 until 1998. The aim was apparently to be modish, and that meant campy, vulgar, even outrageous. Brown fired respected contributors (some left on their own), hired new people, including fashion photographer Richard Avedon, and adopted a policy of épater le bourgeois. In the process, according to Gawker.com, she incurred losses of $70 million. Generally, the same editorial positions have been maintained by her successor, David Remnick, whose staff includes several of her appointees.
For decades, my late friend Evelyn Payne read everything in The New Yorker, every week, except the football articles; she would not read it now at all, given the assaults on good taste, or what the radical cultural critics call (approvingly) “transgression of boundaries.” Taste and fashion, it might be argued, are culturally insignificant—clothing fads, slang, dark nail polish, casual furniture. In fact, many such matters are important: Choices in manners, speech, dress, music, literature, and film reveal us and form us—and affect others, including children, edifying them or perhaps leading them astray. That is, taste is an aspect of propriety and, ultimately, morality. It’s not, as Fat Albert would have said, that The New Yorker has no taste; what it has is bad taste. True, bad taste can be just slovenliness; but when is that desirable? Frequently, violation of taste is intended to offend (and thus attract attention as daring), as in the mouths or on the bodies of rebellious children and youth and in the work of many writers and painters. The nude photographs in The New Yorker under the new dispensation were surely meant to create chic scandal—a pseudosophisticated nose-thumbing—and raise subscription numbers. As for the foul language in every issue, the wacky behavior, the intimate details, they are inspired, one might charitably suppose, by a realist impulse—to portray people as they really act and speak. Some people, that is. I am not unaware of the arguments for Zolaesque realism in fiction and reporting; but is near-photographic imitation necessary in a magazine of broad interest, widely circulated, with 47 issues per year?
In addition, the general design of the magazine is no longer attractive. There are numerous sidebars, gaudy cartoons in large panels, and messy pages with eye-distracting fonts and illustrations, as though it were directed to readers with attention deficit. Infantilism is not absent elsewhere, especially in short items in The Talk of the Town. While, unlike explicitly experimental magazines, The New Yorker does not excoriate previous models of literary worth, the latter seem to be of little concern. The fiction strikes me as generally mediocre, often dealing with jaundiced urbanites whose tales are tedious; sometimes it approaches soft porn. (A story by Tim Gautreaux in the June 22, 2009, issue was a pleasing exception.) Similarly, the poetry is usually mediocre, sometimes incredibly bad; witness Michael Dickman’s poem in the December 14, 2009, issue, a juvenile product echoing bad Surrealism. (The poems of Richard Wilbur, C.K. Williams, and a few others deserve praise, however.) Since 2004, a pop-music column by Sasha Frere-Jones, who previously wrote for the Village Voice, has brought another type of vulgarity into the magazine. What drives pop music anyhow is mostly seriality, not personal taste; girls scream and swoon at performances because others do, and CDs sell on the basis that other consumers like them. Generally, the worse, the better.
Facts are still checked in The New Yorker, presumably, but I found a significant error (December 8, 2008), by which Sartre’s escape from a German prison camp is cited to support the ease of such evasions. In fact, he did not escape; by displaying his bad eye and falsifying his military papers to show unfitness for service, he got out with the Germans’ knowledge. Another departure from the earlier New Yorker is degraded grammar. Surely, previous staff members, famous for their emphasis on high standards of language, especially Eleanor Gould, who occupied the position of grammarian at the magazine from 1945 until 1999, would recoil in horror from what one finds today. A frequent error, doubtless house style now, is the use of the objective case after forms of to be. “It was him,” “It’s me” are the rule, no matter who has written the piece (including, doubtless, some who know better). Then there are errors in syntax. From the pen of David Denby, the movie critic, comes this misuse of whom: “a woman twenty years older—a stern, secretive, yet hungry partner whom the boy doesn’t realize is a former concentration camp guard.” Elsewhere, a who is omitted, as though the writer or copyeditor could not follow the sentence.
Plural subjects (often linked by and) sometimes have singular verbs, as in “the combined salaries . . . was . . . ” and “Operation Iron Triangles rules of engagement—which, they had said, was . . . ” One finds snuck instead of sneaked, and, from the pen of John Lahr, the following solecism, perhaps immigrant-influenced: “only a month in New York” (for “who had been in New York for only a month . . . ”). There are errors in French. The offices probably have a dictionary already; someone should learn how to use it. Then there are illogical or badly worded sentences. The sort of error that traffic reporters make during early morning newscasts appears: “If you go to the Cézanne room at the Musée d’Orsay . . . the array of masterpieces you’ll find along the back wall were all painted at the end of his career.” Ah, but if I don’t go to that museum, what, then, about those masterpieces? Now, these errors do not bother all New Yorker readers, presumably; many won’t recognize them, while others would say, “So what?” I may be taken for a pretentious pedant. Does it make a difference how one writes? Yes. Language is both queen and servant of true culture. The adulterated language of today reflects depravity—the deliberate rejection of discrimination and erosion of standards.
In matters of behavior The New Yorker shows tolerance and permissiveness. Its interviewers seem to attach no blame to petty crime, sale and use of illegal drugs, pornography and its peddlers, sadism, “drag” and transgendering, or other deviancy—these are just phenomena. Leslie Mann, a filmmaker interviewed breezily, talks casually about “smoking pot” in school and the use of marijuana among friends and in her husband’s films. In fiction and profiles from the worlds of fashion and film, the magazine celebrates what I shall call “the homosexual life.” It goes without saying that abortion is never questioned; in a Talk of the Town column Jeffrey Toobin complained (in connection with the Stupak amendment) that “abortion services are being treated like a second-class form of medicine.” The choice of plays and movies reviewed (for instance, Madonna’s Filth and Wisdom) suggests a bias toward what is tawdry, shocking, vile, criminal. If this is almost all that stage and screen have to offer, at least the morally objectionable material could be noted as such. (Literature is full of rascals and criminals, but usually they are not treated with benign indifference; Macbeth comes to a bad end, and Madame Bovary poisons herself.)
The magazine is thus without prejudices, except, of course, against conservatives and traditionalists of all stripes and other wrongheaded people. No mockery of “disadvantaged groups” would be allowed, but Texans may be ridiculed, along with unreconstructed Southerners, even the South in general. California figures and phenomena, some on the loony side, fare better. Although Saul Steinberg’s View of the World From 9th Avenue (1976) suggested that the rest of the globe was almost insignificant, the magazine is now entirely enfeoffed to the great powers of globalism and internationalism. In leafing through issues of the past year or so, I find few expressions of American patriotism or regionalist loyalty (except, of course, to New York City). To judge by the contributors’ names, the magazine pretends to cosmopolitan openness; such multiculturalism is displayed also in fiction, reportage, and reviews.
In 2004, for the first time ever, The New Yorker endorsed a presidential candidate (Kerry). Four years later it endorsed Obama. At least six covers had connections to the Obamas. Before the election, a satiric drawing showed the couple in the Oval Office, with a portrait of Osama bin Laden on the wall and an American flag burning in the fireplace; the candidate wears a turban and salwar kameez, and Michelle, with an Afro, sports camouflage trousers and an assault rifle slung over her back. The cartoon was intended as a reductio ad absurdum of charges that there was a connection between Obama and Islam. The drawing caused considerable comment; the editorship, evidently blind, had not imagined that Americans might take it at face value. A post-election cover celebrated the victory by highlighting in moonglow the O in the magazine title above a shot of the Lincoln Memorial bathed in light; the cover can be bought in poster form. Another showed Obama interviewing dogs for the position of First Pet. A later cover depicted Mrs. Obama as a fashionista. In December 2009, Obama was shown receiving Santa Claus in what looked like an oval room. The tone of Talk of the Town pieces concerning him is that of slavish adulation. Objections to his administration’s policies become, in New Yorker terms, “demonization” or a result of “disinformation.” It is significant that, in contrast, the cover of February 1, 2010, depicting him in three panels walking on water, then sinking in the fourth, suggests that he is not quite omnipotent.
Now, The New Yorker ownership (Condé Nast Publications) and editors may, obviously, do what they want, as long as revenues hold up; and, unless they fear repercussions, advertisers generally support “inclusiveness” (surely, they will sell to anyone). Harold Ross, the first editor, declared that the magazine was “not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” No, but its readers were discriminating, and it was not disgusting and could be left, for instance, in a dentist’s waiting room. Alas, now, the joke is on us. What was an eminent weekly, featuring notable writers (for example, E.B. White, James Thurber, Joseph Mitchell, William Trevor, Roger Angell), has become awful (though of course it is not all bad, and well-done articles still appear). Ezra Pound’s assertion that a nation atrophies and declines if its literature declines is apposite. Human beings spent untold millennia developing what can be called civilization and, then, high culture. Are we to discard it all, perverted creatures who destroy what is best?
The worst aspect of the whole matter is that The New Yorker’s claim to being the acme of culture is founded, in a way. Gutter and infantile tastes prevail among American consumers of print, electronic media, and entertainment; and the prevailing “inclusiveness” rules out few behaviors and celebrates iconoclasm. Dropping names of New York and Hollywood “celebrities” and winking at coarse, illegal, and perverted behavior, today’s New Yorker snobs are right in fashion. Eustace Tilley (as the figure with the monocle was named) should drop his eyeglass, take off his dress clothes, mouth a few obscenities, and get cool.
This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.