new-yorker
Type
Polemic
Category
Culture
Reading

Really, what’s so great about the New Yorker?

Recently I resubscribed to the New Yorker, that bastion of journalism and commentary so often lauded by us literary types. I had a subscription about five years ago that I let lapse after a year. Finding myself with a lot more time to read, it made sense to reacquaint myself with the magazine.

I missed those much-lauded virtues: the sheer skill of the prose (damn they can write!), the research and erudition of the authors, how each perfectly sculpted paragraph revealed a wealth of knowledge and detail, ranging from current affairs to the latest pop music. Its profiles are particular favourites of mine. Any issue of the New Yorker is likely to contain at least one article on or by a great American writer: Faulkner or Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams or Flannery O’Connor. (Indeed, one gets the sense that the New Yorker writers know these classics as a kind of bedrock on which they move.) The ease with which they conjure anecdotes is in equal measure impressive and unnerving. Their journalism is superbly researched; they publish the best Anglophone literary short-story writers – Munro and Theroux and so on. David Denby is often the first person to whom I turn on questions of film.

Yet, for all its virtuosity, again I find myself slightly dissatisfied and disgruntled with the New Yorker. For all its resplendence, the New Yorker feels to me to be, well, flabby. The typical New Yorker article leaves me with a restlessness born of uncertainty: the articles drift around in the sphere of opinion like so many unanchored balloons in the wind. I’m never sure quite what I’m meant to make of it all. Sometimes, I can’t even recount exactly what an article is about. Only its vaguest generalities stick with me.

The source of this pliancy surely lies in the New Yorker’s impeccable liberalism. In the softness of its discourse – a worldview where all perspectives should be heard, all opinions countenanced – particular or strident views ring harshly. In some strange dialectical inversion, its very openness results in the exclusion of certain positions. The liberalism of the New Yorker thus exhibits all the greatness and all the flaws of that ideology: the sense of vast erudition and ‘civilisation’, and its amorphousness. Nothing is ever stated or argued. No position taken, except in some vague circumlocutory way.

Instead, we are offered a kind of whip-smartness that lacks depth, a brilliance that dazzles rather than illuminates. After reading a recent article on The Guardian and Alan Rusbridger, I knew more about the paper and its editor, who has made such an impact through the WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden revelations. Yet, by the end of the piece, I had the impression that Rusbridger (himself a liberal) was a bit of a maverick, perhaps something of a loose cannon, precisely because he had stepped outside the bounds of contemporary establishment practice and made himself a pariah.

Another example is the Ari Shavit article, from the 21 Oct 2013 issue, on the massacre and eviction of Palestinians at Lydda in 1948. Here the author tries to reconcile his grief at the events in Lydda with the fact that those events enabled ‘my people my nation, my daughter, my sons, and me to live’. The choice is stark, he writes: ‘either reject Zionism because of Lydda or accept Zionism along with Lydda.’ Then it turns out there isn’t actually a choice because ‘Israel has a right to live, and if Israel is to live it cannot resolve the Lydda issue’. The author thinks he is describing some contradiction in the world, when in fact it’s simply a contradiction in his mind, one which rests on an unquestioned assumption: that an ethnic, colonial state – an apartheid state – has a right to exist.

Again and again we face the same organising principle to the pieces: within certain limits, the New Yorker offers us detailed and considered journalism; outside of those limits, there is only silence.

This malleability can, of course, take different forms. The vast reasonableness of liberalism allows all kinds of iterations. Take a New Yorker writer like Malcolm Gladwell, whose articles and bestselling books are filled with intriguing research and detail (though some of it disputed) – still, what are we to take away from these articles? Like the New Yorker in general, I could read Gladwell’s work as the world tumbles around us, but I’m not sure I’d be that much the better for it. In a piece which perhaps overstates this case, Stephen Powell has written that in Gladwell’s work, the ‘reader is thus led on a pleasant quasi-intellectual tour, to be reassured at the end that a flavour of folksy wisdom was right all along. Little things really can make a big difference; trusting your gut can be better than overthinking; successful people work hard.’

Meanwhile, New Yorker fiction mostly cleaves to the traditional questions of bourgeois psychological narrative, questions of personal and domestic relationships: affairs and betrayals, the troubles of children or ageing. All legitimate subjects, but always within the same constraints – power structures, politics and history are, all too often, conspicuously absent. As a consequence, their recent science fiction issue was an unmitigated disaster, showing that they know little about genre and so have a restricted vision of literature as a whole.

The quality I’m trying to describe – how a particular politics works its way into questions of form and style – finds its adherents in the relatively safe confines of intellectual New York, but appears to be somewhat at odds with our times. The world has become increasingly fractured and torn, environmentally and socially, and it seems to me that the tone that rings true is the strident one. We are desperately in need of a new Sartre or De Beauvoir – committed writers with something to say – but all the New Yorker offers us is Malcolm Gladwell.

Rjurik Davidson is an Associate Editor of Overland magazine. He is the author of The Library of Forgotten Books. His novel Unwrapped Sky will be published by Tor books in 2014 and his screenplay The Uncertainty Principle is currently in development with Lailaps films. He can also be found rjurik.com and @rjurikdavidson.

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Comments

  1. Very good. I’ve often thought the same myself, but couldn’t put it this well. It is a good entrance point for seeing the problems with modern liberalism – in all its variances. It is unable to provide a coherent critique of well, almost anything!

    My brother has a pile of these next to his toilet, I’ve often thought about putting them where they belong, although at times I am too dazzled by the great writing.

  2. Yasha Levine of the SHAME (Shame the Hacks who Abuse Media Ethics) has a good take-down of Malcolm Gladwell here.

    Extracts:

    During college, Gladwell received journalism training at the National Journalism Center, an outfit that worked with the tobacco industry “to train budding journalists . . . to get across our side of the story,” according to an internal Philip Morris document.

    After college, Gladwell worked at the right-wing American Spectator, the Moonie-owned Insight and a neocon-Christian fundamentalist thinktank called the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which was “established by neoconservatives to promote an increased role of religion in public policy and turn back the influence of secularism.”

    A confidential Philip Morris document from the mid-1990s named Malcolm Gladwell as one of the tobacco industry’s top covert media assets. This roster of “Third Party Advocates” was a who’s who list of known corporate shills, including Bush press secretary/Fox News anchor Tony Snow, Grover Norquist, Milton Friedman and Ed Feulner, head of the Heritage Foundation. In journalism terms, a “Third Party Advocate” means “fraud.”

  3. What’s so great about the New Yorker? Well, the cartoons, to begin with. Utter Genius.
    As for the writing, I actually appreciate the subtlety, and ambiguity. It’s a quality that has become increasingly rare, in an age which sorely lacks humility of thought. If it’s true that the world has become more “fractured and torn” – a debatable point – there is arguably an ever greater need to avoid dogmatic, ideological diatribe.
    The defence of Doubt itself can be strident, as John Ralston Saul demonstrates. Commitment to truth and understanding, however, should not lead us to intellectual arrogance.

    • In the vast ecosystem of corporate shills, which one is the most effective? Propaganda works best when it is not perceived as propaganda: nuance, obfuscation, distraction, suggestion, the subtle introduction of doubt—these are more effective in the long run than shotgun blasts of lies. The master of this approach is Malcolm Gladwell.

      His political aloofness, high-brow contrarianism and constant challenges to “popular wisdom” are all part of his shtick.

      But beneath Malcolm Gladwell’s cleverly-crafted ambiguity, beneath the branded facade, one finds, with surprising ease, a common huckster on the take. I say “surprising ease” because it’s all out there on the public record.

      https://tinyurl.com/c7pouos

  4. Some of the poetry is undeniably good.

    Just as an aside, Gladwell seems more like a tautology than a name.

    I’d enjoy the author of this piece’s views on Private Eye, which is sneerier.

  5. This was a really interesting take(down) of an all too often venerated and unquestioned literary institution, and I was really enjoying it until you took issue with an article that had the courage to wade deep into the complexity of the Israel/Palestine debate. You outed yourself as a knee-jerk leftist (and I write this as a Canadian who finds Obama too right-wing). That you see the issue as black and white suggests perhaps the Newyorker is a bit too complex for a simple minded fellow like yourself.

  6. Really interesting piece, Rjurik with which I generally agree. I wonder, though, is the New Yorker actually a publication “of intellectual New York,” or is it (as Powell describes Gladwell) a “quasi-intellectual” publication, which is to say a middlebrow mag that feels highbrow because of its physical association with the contemporary “centre” of Western culture (New York) and its association with prestigious/elite writers and institutions? I suspect the magazine’s middlebrow nature and its elitism are bound up with the “safe” liberalism that (as you have recounted) it espouses.

  7. What’s so great about Overland? Can’t see your rag has a scratch on the New Yorker and its broad reach to intellectual and not-so-intellectual readers. Tall poppy much?

  8. I started reading the New Yorker during the Watergate revelations – when it was at its strident best. It still has the virtuosity of literary style it had back then, but the ‘detailed and considered journalism’ that I used to appreciate is unmistakably shallower now, and articles all too often end with the kind of idiotic platitudes you describe with the Ari Shavit article. I always considered that the downfall came when they abandoned the long serialised articles. It remains outstanding in one respect, however: it still seems to employ copy-editors and proofreaders.

  9. The last paragraph really doesn’t make sense:

    It reads to me as though the quality you are trying to describe is one you are in favour of, i.e., how politics can work its way into the forms and styles of literary writing (I get this impression because you state in the second last paragraph : ‘power structures, politics and history are, all too often, conspicuously absent,’ from the New Yorker).

    But then you make what seems to be a negative point by stating that supporters of the said quality are found in the ‘relatively safe confines of intellectual New York.’ Lastly, you add that this quality is at odds with our times, which puts your argument at odds with itself.

  10. Thanks for this.

    I switched from the New Yorker to Harpers a few years ago for pretty much these reasons. Will never regret it.

  11. Stridency is everywhere – from shock jocks to opinion pieces to “he said, she said” journalism. What The New Yorker at its best offers is careful attention to fact and subtle, slow-burn arguments that emerge from (rather than being imposed on) descriptions of people and the world. The politics are not radical but in a public sphere saturated with strident, knee-jerk opinion the ethic / aesthetic of well-researched, conceptually complex longform journalism is.

  12. A couple of clarifications: I don’t think that ‘stridency’ and ‘well-researched’ (or even ‘measured’) are necessarily antinomies. I’m not arguing for the shoot-from-the-hip, poorly researched or crudely argued. I see no reason why something can’t be reasoned, well researched, complex (just as the world is) and yet strident also. Perhaps the word strident is the problem. Perhaps it would be better to use committed (the word I use at the very end). For example, I don’t think we need pieces on climate change, the plight of refugees, and so on which are ‘seemingly’ balanced – and this means airing climate change sceptics, etc. We need people who are prepared to step up and say, ‘No, this is wrong.’ By contrast, what I’m objecting to is primarily the way the impeccable liberalism of the New Yorker quite often results in a pliable style, where what is being argued is often hidden, put forward by exclusion or simply intimated rather than stated. And I’m trying to point out that here how a thing is said is an expression of what is said.

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