Tina Brown's New Yorker
It's timelier, hipper and more colorful. It continues to provide a home for serious journalism. But has that elusive quality that made The New Yorker so distinctive been lost?
By Joanne Weintraub
Joanne Weintraub writes about television and popular culture for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
It was Tina Brown's turn to criticize the critics, to take aim at the shooters, to bash the bashers right back. And Brown, who'd gone to Los Angeles in November to accept an award for the skill with which she had piloted The New Yorker for two years, proved herself to be a pretty good tail gunner, too.
Those who disparage the new New Yorker, she told the crowd gathered to honor her as one of the University of Southern California's distinguished journalists of the year, are "hostiles waiting in ambush for every innovation we make," tiresome snobs who want Brown to be not so much the editor of a lively weekly as the "curator" of a "stuffed bird." They're "belle lettres wannabes" who reached for their smelling salts when Brown dared to put Richard Avedon portraits next to the essays, decks under the headlines and bylines in "Talk of the Town."
They are, in sum, people who "want to pickle The New Yorker rather than read it." Thinking about Brown's remarks not long after she'd made them, I started worrying that I might fit her characterization, the way you might read about flesh-eating bacteria and check yourself for blotches.
Pickle The New Yorker? Don't be silly. I don't keep it in jars. I keep it in foot-high stacks on the shelves of a walk-in coat closet – more than 15 years' worth, minus the ones I've loaned or lost.
Over the years, I've gone back to the closet for Michael Arlen's 1979 account of the making of a 30-second TV commercial, for Ian Frazier's 1989 meditation on the Great Plains, for Susan Sheehan's 1993 portrait of a family shredded by the foster care system. Searching for one of those book-length pieces to read, reread or lend, I'll occasionally find myself engrossed in something like a six-year-old "Talk of the Town" piece on Leo Herschman, the 89-year-old ceiling-fan king of Lower Manhattan, whose opinion it was that "the world is going down the drain and that the ceiling-fan business has been a reasonably good position from which to observe its downward direction over the last six decades."
Because there's no other publication that would make room for both Sheehan's thoughts on foster care and Herschman's on fans, there's no other I make room for on my shelves.
That proprietary attitude on the part of readers, even those whose closets hold only coats, is the peculiar inheritance of American journalism's most famous English import. Even more than the celebrated buzz machine she switched on with her first issue – October 5, 1992 – it's the reason the magazine is so closely scrutinized.
Çoes The Atlantic Monthly or Harper's undergo a redesign? Interesting, but the interest passes. Do Newsweek and Time devote a cover apiece to the subject of fat in America? America will get over it.
The New Yorker has never put fat on its cover, but on November 7, 1994, it gave an entire edition – lock, stock and cartoons – to another F-word, fashion. Not since publisher S.I. Newhouse Jr. plucked Brown out of the editor's office of Vanity Fair and installed her as editor of The New Yorker has the buzz been quite so loud – or so harsh.
That John Updike and Salman Rushdie were among the contributors, or that the magazine had earlier that year published whole issues on fiction and film, didn't seem to matter. New York magazine's "Intelligencer" column skewered the collection of designer profiles and other stylish musings as an "issue-length crypto-advertorial." Newsweek pronounced it "a 248-page wet kiss to designer royalty." On the Internet, a Boston reader started a discussion which he dolefully titled "New Yorker: Dead or just moribund?"
To all appearances, however, it is neither. Circulation has increased steadily since Brown took over, from just under 659,000 at the end of 1992 to a little over 830,000 two years later.
Advertising pages, which had been down almost 7 percent from 1993 to 1994, have picked up. The February 20-27 double issue, celebrating the magazine's 70th anniversary, carried 167 of them – more ad pages, according to the magazine's president, Thomas A. Florio, than any issue since 1978. And this January's ad pages, he says, were up 16.4 percent over last January's.
Yet one of the most common criticisms of the new New Yorker is that, for all the aggressive marketing – heavily discounted subscriptions, expensive mail campaigns, wraparound cover flaps to promote single-copy sales – it reportedly continues to lose money. Newhouse's privately held Advance Publications, which in 1985 added the magazine to a stable that already included Vanity Fair, Vogue and the rest of the high-gloss Condé Nast fleet, has never made its losses or profits public; speculation published in a February New York Times story put The New Yorker's losses between $7 million and $15 million a year. Florio won't discuss these guesses but says he expects ad revenue to keep climbing and circulation to hold steady, even with recent increases in the cover price and subscription rate. In a year or two, he says confidently, The New Yorker will begin to show a profit, as it did in the ad-rich '60s and '70s.
"We're back," Florio, 38, exults. "We're spectacular."
Spectacular is obviously not a word everyone would use to describe the changes in the magazine under Brown, but many of her innovations have found wide approval: the publication, at long last, of readers' letters; the new prominence given to photographs and illustrations; the nurturing of a new generation of gifted writers, many of them lured from the country's best newspapers and magazines. Carol Reuss, who has used The New Yorker for years in her magazine journalism classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describes the new version as "sassier" in design and content – in general, a welcome change in a publication that she feels had begun to lose touch with readers.
Yet sitting down with it is unquestionably a different experience than it was when I started stashing all those copies away. Fiction has suffered to roughly the same degree that illustration has thrived. The two- and three-part articles have yielded, with a few exceptions, to more concise essays. The commentary and the covers are more timely, but also more perishable.
In November, a few weeks after the Los Angeles speech and the appearance of the fashion issue, I go to New York to talk to Brown, some of her staff and Florio. Out of the closet, as it were, and into the arena of the new New Yorker.
The interview with Brown takes place, at her request, in the "44" restaurant of the Royalton Hotel near the magazine's midtown offices, a coolly contemporary den that has become as closely identified with the current New Yorker as the Algonquin was with the old.
Talking about the magazine that she calls "my mission and my passion," Brown, 41, seems warmer and less intimidating than I'd supposed. But she is visibly impatient with criticism of The New Yorker, particularly with the idea that it has lost depth or distinction since the 35-year tenure of William Shawn, her most famous predecessor, was ended by Newhouse in 1987.
"There's been a good deal of fakery about The New Yorker, a good deal of snobbery," she says. "It's not, after all, successful or good for literature or the arts, or for politics or for intelligent material, if the magazine dwindles into something for a tiny, elitist audience. That was in danger of happening. That's why I was brought in to change it.
"What's happened today is that people won't read things on blind faith. They need a reason to. They need a blurb that kind of tells them what things are about... Their attention span is shorter, and the demand on their time is difficult now. There's so much more media, you know, and you have this massively oversubscribed, overbusy reader."
Those who see only her attention to Broadway, Hollywood, Wall Street and Seventh Avenue, or such topical cover illustrations as the glass of orange juice that ran early in the O.J. Simpson trial, are ignoring two things, Brown contends. One is that each ýf the magazine's previous editors – Harold Ross, who founded The New Yorker in 1925 and led it until his death in 1951; Shawn, who died in 1989; and Robert Gottlieb, the former book editor whom Newhouse installed in 1987 and abruptly removed five years later – published his share of celebrity profiles, fashion coverage and the like. The other is that The New Yorker of the last two years has not lacked for distinguished journalism.
"We would not have been successful, in my view, to have increased sales of The New Yorker by turning it into Entertainment Weekly," she says. "The goal was to run pieces like David Remnick's Solzhenitsyn profile, or the piece he did about the IRA, to make them part of the mix. You know, those are very intelligent, serious pieces... And that's what is my struggle and my passion, really: Can you make material like that alive and accessible?"
Remnick, 36, the former Washington Post reporter whose knowledgeable, lucid writing has made him one of Brown's most talked-about hires, recalls that Brown was still at Vanity Fair when she asked him to have lunch one day in the spring of '92. The meeting was pleasant enough, he says now, though he wondered why Brown quizzed him so closely on his work for The New Yorker, to which he had contributed only one piece at the time.
The answer to that became clear in June, when the big news about Brown broke. Shortly after, she sent him a note about joining the staff. Remnick accepted immediately.
"I had one of the best jobs in journalism," says Remnick, who had covered the fall of the Soviet Union for the Post, "but I've never regretted leaving. If I thought this was going to be just like any other magazine, I'd never have left."
In addition to Remnick's pieces, Brown cites dozens of other major efforts that have received admiring notice, including Janet Malcolm's 60,000 words on Sylvia Plath; Lawrence Wright's inquiry into alleged satanic ritual abuse, which won the National Magazine Award for reporting last year; and Mark Danner's report on the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, which won the human rights award from the Overseas Press Club of America.
But it's possible to admire those pieces and still miss the memorably personal ones of the Shawn years, the ones that had nothing to do with news or notoriety but enticed the reader down some unlikely byway. Those pieces still show up, as Calvin Trillin's Father's Day rumination and Nicholson Baker's cranky but persuasive take on card catalogues did last year, but they're harder to find.
"The conventional wisdom is that the magazine under Shawn was staid and fussy, but I think that under him it was a really strange magazine, and very original," says Jim Windolf, whose coverage of Brown in the gossipy New York Observer has been sharply critical. "They used to write about things people weren't talking about. I think that was a noble goal. Now you pick it up and there's Michael Kinsley on Newt."
Kinsley on Newt, Ken Auletta on Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Toobin on O.J.: The brand-name writer on the hot subject is cause for some ambivalence among observers. Abe Peck, who chairs the magazine writing program at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism and contributes to such magazines as Rolling Stone, finds The New Yorker a livelier read now but is occasionally put off by its "obsession with newsiness."
William Powers, whose coverage of The New Yorker in his Washington Post column on magazines has been mixed, says, "The news edge has obviously become what they want, but maybe it's not their forte." Though a fan of Kinsley and of political writer Michael Kelly, hired from the New York Times, Powers believes their recent writings in the magazine "lack the sophistication" of their best work elsewhere.
Even Reuss, the UNC professor who praises The New Yorker's new look, finds some of the content "too parochial, too New Yorky" – particularly "Talk of the Town," once known for leisurely looks at corner stores and neighborhood characters, now brisker and more likely to be about Joan Rivers or Norman Podhoretz.
Brown's arrival at The New Yorker did not occasion quite the purge that was predicted. Of the 74 writers who were there when Brown came, 45 remain; five have died and 24 have resigned or retired. Twenty-nine new writers have come on.
Some longtime contributors, like Washington commentator Elizabeth Drew, were not made welcome. Others – most famously Garrison Keillor, who predicted the ruin of the magazine – stormed off, and still others, like Trillin, now in his thirtieth year at The New Yorker, thought seriously about leaving but stayed on.
The hard gleam and star-struck tone of the publication Brown had edited since 1984 were on everyone's mind. "The anxiety was huge," says Charles McGrath, then a 19-year veteran and the man Shawn reportedly had groomed as a replacement. "The prevailing mythos was that Vanity Fair was Tina perfect-bound."
But if she didn't fill The New Yorker with pictures of Barbra Streisand in fishnet tights or tales of minor European royalty, she did radically change its pace. Suddenly, more stories were pegged to the news, accelerating the process of editing, layout and fact-checking. "It was flat-out insane until mid-January," McGrath recalls.
Among the editors who have departed since Brown arrived, two of the most highly regarded – McGrath, who left the job of deputy editor in February to edit the New York Times Book Review, and Senior Editor Daniel Menaker, who became senior literary editor at Random House in January – say they left on cordial terms. Menaker (who works for Brown's husband, publisher Harold Evans) still writes occasionally for the magazine and McGrath says he intends to.
No one questions Brown's talent for surrounding herself with bright people, even stars. In the last half-year, she has brought in Robert Vare, 49, formerly of the New York Times Magazine, as articles editor, and Dorothy Wickenden, 40, former national affairs editor of Newsweek (and before that executive editor of The New Republic), as managing editor. Bill Buford, also 40, the much-admired American editor of the British literary magazine Granta, was named to the new position of fiction and literary editor – proof, Brown says, that she's committed to reviving fiction, which she admits has declined, and to promoting what she calls the "long-in-the-cooking" pieces of serious reportage.
With Wickenden's arrival, former Managing Editor Pamela Maffei McCarthy, 42, whom Brown brought with her from Vanity Fair, has replaced McGrath as deputy editor. Hendrik Hertzberg, 51, hired by Brown from The New Republic, remains executive editor. These two lieutenants are, to use a phrase of un-New Yorkerish obviousness, a study in contrasts: Hertzberg, in leftist English professor get-up of denim, tweed, dark shirt and skinny tie, is quick, charming and unpredictable (excusing himself for a minute, he comes back and demands that I define "gigabyte," which turns out to figure in an argument he's having with another editor); McCarthy – who, like Brown and virtually every woman I encounter in The New Yorker's offices, is wearing black – is more thoughtful and direct.
McCarthy, Brown's second in command, manages an editorial staff of 120 and a stable of over 70 contributing writers. Of these, about half get a guaranteed monthly draw for various degrees of exclusivity; the rest are paid by the article.
At Vanity Fair, Brown is said to have broken the magazine industry's $2-a-word barrier. McCarthy won't discuss specific figures, but she does say Vanity Fair made magazine writing lucrative enough so that writers didn't have to flee to Hollywood to do well.
Those six-figure writers' incomes you hear about at The New Yorker? They're not the rule, McCarthy says, but neither are they rare: "You can't steal from the Times or the Post if you're not willing to pay."
Last year, at McCarthy's direction, Peter Canby, head of the fact-checking department, issued a memo to writers requiring them to turn over all interview notes and tapes to his department, along with "all books, articles and documents on which you've relied." A similar policy had been in effect at Vanity Fair, McCarthy says, but it was new to The New Yorker.
The directive came in a year when the magazine took two well-publicized hits to its credibility. In January, an editor's note apologized for an inaccurate account of a staff meeting at Court TV that had appeared in "Talk of the Town." (The writer, Richard Cohen, no longer contributes to the magazine.) In November, the libel suit brought by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson against the magazine's Janet Malcolm over a 1983 profile finally came to an end. Malcolm prevailed, but both Brown and McCarthy acknowledge that the writer's testimony about the way quotes were handled – and the testimony of her husband and former editor, Gardner Botsford, who is no longer at The New Yorker – wounded the magazine, suggesting it had allowed quotes to be rearranged like flowers for a more graceful effect.
The famous fact-checking staff has doubled under Brown, from eight or nine to 16, but the magazine has endured criticism from the New York Observer's Windolf and others that mistakes are more frequent than they used to be.
Not true, says Hertzberg. Following a taunt about the Court TV affair in Liz Smith's gossip column, he issued an in-house memo noting that "this was not the first correction in the magazine's history, it was roughly the three hundredth." He puts a positive spin on the sniping: If people are finding more fault with the magazine, it's because they're reading it more.
Hertzberg, a New Yorker staff writer in the '70s and onetime White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, spent most of the '80s as an editor and columnist at The New Republic. He talked to Gottlieb about returning to The New Yorker, but it wasn't until Brown arrived that he was able to reconnect.
He functions, among other things, as the design kibitzer, the cartoon guru (he and Brown make the final picks from a selection offered by Cartoon Editor Lee Lorenz) and the self-described consigliere who deals with the media. He also writes the copy that appears on the wraparound cover flaps, a new-regime innovation that has helped to boost single-copy sales. (Despite the fact that I have no trouble with the word "gigabyte," incidentally, Hertzberg loses the battle on that one, so that the cover line that was to have read "God, Gingrich and gigabytes" sees print as "..and the galaxy.")
The New Yorker of his first stint, he says, suffered from a "slow metabolism... It was enormously overstaffed, and it pretty much depended on people not producing up to their potential." Brown, he says, has been "a shot of adrenaline to the heart."
For those who think The New Yorker is already weighing in too quickly with commentary, Hertzberg, whom no one would accuse of having a slow metabolism, thinks the pace is still a little sluggish: "We can get a piece in now on Friday and have it on the stands Monday. We're not making enough use of that capability."
For all the distinctive voices that are missing from The New Yorker – Keillor's, for instance, or film critic Pauline Kael's, lost to illness – Brown has added some noteworthy new ones: from Vanity Fair, the mordant TV critic James Wolcott; from Britain's Independent newspaper, Anthony Lane, who's as hilarious on bad books as he is incisive on good movies.
Brown is ready with a list of distinguished older writers whose names still appear regularly: Philip Hamburger, Jane Kramer, Brendan Gill, Calvin Tomkins, Lillian Ross, Roger Angell. And she has given new prominence to some of the younger writers brought on by Gottlieb, like Adam Gopnik, who often writes on the arts, and Susan Orlean, whose byline appears frequently in "Talk of the Town" and elsewhere.
When Brown took over, Orlean, now 39, had just come to an agreement with The New Yorker to give up her work for Vogue and other publications. Called in for a meeting with Brown, she recalls, "I was mental, I was paralyzed. I went in there expecting to have to sell myself, and I was really scared of her. But she did most of the talking."
Brown also knew what she liked, which, in Orlean's case, was a 1991 profile of the rapper Fab Five Freddy.
"She engenders a kind of excitement," Orlean says. "She wants a lot of work from you, but she's not one of those editors who it hurts to give a compliment."
Hilton Als, who had been a staff writer at the Village Voice, made occasional appearances for several years before signing on in November. His first major piece, which appeared in the fashion issue, was a profile of Vogue Creative Director Andre Leon Talley, who, like Als, is both black and gay.
"Tina realizes that New York is completely devoted to mix – racial, social and political," says Als, 34, who is working on a long piece about black-white relations in New York's downtown gay subculture.
Not every writer has found Brown so responsive. Several who have left the magazine declined to speak on the record but described unhappy experiences; one characterized the two-year-old parting as "still too traumatic to talk about."
Paul Wilkes, who wrote two long pieces on religious figures for Gottlieb and a third that was published by Brown, met with the new editor not long after she arrived to talk about another piece that Gottlieb commissioned and Wilkes had completed, a profile of a Massachusetts rabbi whom he describes admiringly as "a seeker after truth."
"Her eyes glazed over," Wilkes says. "Then she asked me, 'How about a profile of Bruce Ritter?' " Ritter is the Catholic priest who resigned as head of New York's Covenant House in 1990, shortly before an investigation ordered by its board of directors found that he had committed sexual misconduct. "He was the last person I wanted to do a profile of," Wilkes says.
Wilkes' piece on the rabbi was published last year as a book, but it never ran in The New Yorker. The one piece of his Brown did publish, he notes, was about a priest indicted in a child pornography case – a departure for him, he says.
"My kind of pieces aren't running," says Wilkes, whose cover story on Pope John Paul II ran in the New York Times Magazine in December. "She seems to prefer scandals. I like to write about heroes."
Another writer, whose name regularly appears in the magazine and who would not speak for attribution, says: "If it doesn't turn her on immediately, she doesn't run it. What's been lost is the idiosyncratic, the personal." And even Orlean, who has thrived under the new regime, says she misses the kind of unhurried, un-newsy "Talk of the Town" pieces she did just a few years ago – including her un-bylined 1989 piece on ceiling-fan king Leo Herschman.
"I'm very wistful about the leisure, the serendipity of the kind of 'Talk' piece we did in the past," she says. "Now it's peppy and snappy and of the moment."
Ian Frazier has had a more complicated relationship with the magazine. A staff writer for 20 years, Frazier, 44, has contributed "Talk" and humor pieces, some intimate and often sharply funny profiles, and the three-part series on the Great Plains, which several writers and critics cite to me as one of the finest things the magazine has run in recent years.
Like "Great Plains" when it later came out between hard covers, Frazier's 1994 book, "Family," enjoyed excellent reviews. But not a word of it was published in The New Yorker. Instead, The Atlantic Monthly ran an excerpt in October, noting in its editor's column that Frazier's wit, originality and range had earned him comparisons to Twain, Benchley and Thurber.
Partly as a result of the rejection, which Brown says she now regrets – "Three top editors read the book and told me there wasn't a piece in it for us," she says – Frazier did not return his staff contract when he received it late last year. After a subsequent phone call from Brown, he decided to sign it.
Frazier says he did not hide his anger with Brown over the rejection of his "Family" piece and such other matters as the shrinking of humorous essays, which once typically ran to two pages and now are generally confined to less than half that in the back-of-the-book "Shouts and Murmurs" column.
But he wants to put that behind him, he says, even if it means some adjustment to the realities of a new era. "Maybe my relationship to the magazine has changed," he says. "It used to be, 'Hey, I'm showing up with some writing and you figure out what to do with it.' Things aren't like that anymore, and maybe they shouldn't be."
Hertzberg, who shared his New York apartment with Sandy Frazier when the young writer first came to New York, has his own perspective. He calls Frazier "a major voice in American letters" and terms the rejection of his book "a disaster" but also a lesson.
The landscape of the new New Yorker, he says, has "more cracks for a writer to slip between... I think we learned to take better care of Sandy and the Sandys of this world."
In the weeks after I return from New York, I speak with Brown several times by phone. She is eager to talk about her newest hires, Buford and Wickenden, and about what she sees as the resurgence of "Talk of the Town" under David Kuhn, the third editor Brown has had in the slot.
She is planning another fiction issue and is excited about a themed issue scheduled for later this year on black America. She talks about "opening the pages to debate" and says she wants to run more pieces like Arlene Croce's provocative January essay on choreographer and AIDS activist Bill T. Jones, which touched off a passionate response in both the magazine's letters column and outside its pages. (As Newsweek's Laura Shapiro reported, but The New Yorker did not, the magazine solicited responses from big names in the arts community.)
I ask her what she is not happy about.
"One thing I haven't done enough of is foreign reporting," she says. "I felt very, very guilty that we went one whole year without a major piece on Haiti or Bosnia."
Though she thinks that the magazine ought to be even more closely pegged to events than it is right now, not less, she will concede that in her first year, topicality did not always mean quality. Some 20 percent of the timelier pieces, she says, were not as well written as they should have been.
Even now, Brown says, she can't get some of the best writers to tackle some of the biggest subjects, often because they're busy with books. "You want the great big piece on gun control, but you can't get it. I do have Jane Kramer working on it now, which I'm delighted about, but it can take a long time to bring these pieces in."
But why gun control in The New Yorker, when you can read about gun control almost anywhere else?
"I haven't seen one good piece that really talks about the American obsession with guns," she responds. "Why shouldn't we do it? I think it would be trivial to do a piece on rock climbing instead."
And then Brown says: "You've been studying the magazine. What are your impressions?"
I hesitate – who knows how much an editor wants to hear? – but then plunge in. I tell her that I rarely skip the letters to the editor but rarely finish a piece on which company is devouring which other. I tell her I read much more of the notorious fashion issue than I thought I would. I tell her that I like many of the covers, particularly the outrageous one by Art Spiegelman in which a Hasidic man and a black woman share a kiss, but that for my money a Roz Chast cartoon is just as funny in black and white as in color. I tell her that I don't mourn the much-parodied "A friend writes.." ledes in "Talk of the Town," but that the new rat-a-tat style seldom gives me the pleasure the column used to.
We talk about women. Though, as Brown says, many top-flight female writers and editors have kept or found a voice in the magazine, it's also true that women are poorly represented among its critics and commentators. Politicial opinion and "Shouts and Murmurs" are particularly lopsided. Of the more than 100 pieces of humor and social comment Brown published in the "Shouts" column since her arrival through the end of 1994, I counted only five by women: three by Bobbie Ann Mason, one by Kennedy Frasier and one, early in Brown's tenure, by the cerebral and fiercely funny Veronica Geng.
"I've just put David Kuhn in charge of 'Shouts and Murmurs,' and that's something we're going to have to address," Brown says. "I know there must be some funny women writers out there. We're trying." Just this March, in fact, two more entries were by women. What about Geng? Brown says the writer was one of those who "stormed off" shortly after Gottlieb was fired. (Geng did not respond to an interview request for this article.) "The door is open for her return," Brown says.
In mid-February, the gold-toned cover of the 70th anniversary double issue shines forth from the nation's newsstands.
The same week, the New York Post devotes a giddy Page Six Special ("Tongues are still wagging..") to the magazine's birthday bash for 500 guests. A highlight of the evening was the reading by five actors of letters and memos from the magazine's files. John Lithgow declaimed from the resignation letter of satirist and profile writer George W.S. Trow, who angrily departed from the magazine last year after nearly three decades there.
Incensed by The New Yorker's fascination with O.J. Simpson, Trow wrote to Brown: "For you to kiss the ass of celebrity culture at this moment that way is like selling your soul to get close to the Hapsburgs – in 1913." Lithgow's bit was followed by Debra Winger's reading, "in a suitably immaculate English accent," according to the Post, of Brown's response: "I am distraught at your defection, but since you never actually write anything, I should say I am notionally distraught."
In a less festive spirit, the Washington Post's Bill Powers weighs in with an anniversary piece. Far more critical than most of his previous comments, it is headlined: "A Too-Hip New Yorker, Past Its Prime at 70." The magazine still holds treasures, he writes, but they're surrounded by too much "flash and cant." In Harold Ross' day, he observes, E.B. White went to the 1939 World's Fair and came back enchanted. Today, Powers supposes, "Tina Brown would send Ken Auletta to the fair, and on the way over he would get on his car phone with David Geffen and Barry Diller about what the fair will mean for Sumner Redstone." In Shawn's day, the magazine became one of the first forums for informed, principled environmental writing and criticism of the Vietnam War. Now, in Powers' eyes, it lacks "a kind of moral center."
The last observation calls to mind a remark Rick Hertzberg made in 1989, a few years before his return to The New Yorker as executive editor. Under Gottlieb, Hertzberg wrote, the magazine "has continued to publish articles of high quality. But The New Yorker is no longer a kind of secular religion. It is merely a magazine."
Has it, I ask him in a phone conversation some time after our meeting, regained that transcendent status under Brown?
"I think those days are gone," he says. "Depending on how you look at it, it's either a level of pretentiousness that has been dropped or a level of moral aspiration that has faded."
But, Hertzberg adds, "I think the magazine still has a mission, and that has to do with preserving literacy... The level of the writing is as high as it's ever been."
I think of Hertzberg's remark again when the anniversary issue arrives in the mail. Its half-inch thickness gives me a greedy reader's rush, and I tear into it.
Much of the heft comes from the heavyweight stock on which the advertising inserts are printed, and the names on some of the weightier ads – Calvin Klein, Moschino, Nautica sportswear – suggest that the fashion industry has returned the compliment of Brown's interest.
Between the ads for jeans and jewels, much of the prose gleams. There's a piece on costume and character by the irresistibly peculiar Jamaica Kincaid. Susan Sheehan adds a final chapter to the extraordinary story of Maxine Mason, the schizophrenic woman whose life she chronicled (as "Sylvia Frumkin") for the magazine in the early '80s.
The issue also holds a piece by Ian Frazier on his Brooklyn neighborhood that, inch for inch, is as full of vivid images, odd juxtapositions and just plain astonishing writing as "Great Plains." The difference is that, where New Yorker readers could once spend hours on the prairie if they chose, they now get 15 minutes in Frazier's Prospect Park before they have to move on.
Brown would no doubt respond that her busy readers no longer have hours to spend in somebody's neighborhood. Certainly, almost anywhere else in journalism, where a piece that takes even 15 minutes had better be worth all that precious time and type, that's a foregone conclusion.
The New Yorker used to rise majestically above such conclusions. Now, for all its excellence, it seems subject to the same laws as other magazines: that what everyone is talking about is clearly worth writing about; that a picture of Roman Polanski is worth a thousand words; that the magic is less in some eccentric writer's vision of the world than in a carefully concocted mix. l ###