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.
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