After a lifetime dedication to the weekly New Yorker, I find myself reading less and less of each issue now. The magazine is no longer the literary periodical it used to be. It was literature that first drew me to the magazine and why I always looked forward to it so much. As a young high school student, it became my Literature 101.
The magazine introduced me to the cultural life of this country, at least as reflected in the goings on in New York. I became aware of the people who were profiled in the magazine, the heroes of high culture, the books they wrote and films they made or appeared in. I was taken away to worlds I never knew existed by the two or three short stories that were published then in each issue and by those remarkable letters from foreign cities. What better introduction to Paris than those memorable Letters from Paris by Janet Flanner?
Indeed, the arrival of The New Yorker used to be one of the main events of my week. It bothered me when it wasn’t delivered on time, and if it didn’t arrive the next day, I would usually go out to buy a copy at the newsstand. Of course, it usually drifted in the day after but I'd didn’t want to run the risk that it might not, or, as happened now and then, it was delivered by mistake to someone else.
With the exception of the recently introduced double issues, the magazine has been published every week for the past seventy-eighteen years. Frankly, I find this rather astonishing. Putting together a magazine of this quality week after week for as many years as this (with no reason to believe it will be any different in the years ahead) seems something of a miracle to me.
And yet, while the quality of the magazine has been maintained, the subject matter has changed significantly. Today there is far less literature with a significant shift toward more domestic and international political issues, as well as pop-cultural and media themes.
Non-fiction articles now make up the bulk of the magazine. Consider for example the newly arrived Special Issues. There is the Money issue, the Fashion issue, the Cartoon issue and last week’s Food Issue, one that was a disappointment to me.
There was no discussion about hunger in America and elsewhere throughout the world. Not a peep about obesity or eating disorders (bulimia and anorexia), nothing about the increasing price of food, recent discussion of vegetarianism or the animal rights movement, and nary a word about corporate farming, food shortages, the impact of droughts on food production, etc. Are these not food related topics?
Instead, the issue treated the reader to articles on something called spit pie, breaking news from the rising wine culture in China, a job description of a Michelin inspection, and the challenges of preparing a Thanksgiving meal abroad and, oh, yes, the secrets of how to create really tasty new food flavors. Really now, is this The New Yorker we used to love?
In truth, there is also a special Fiction Issue early in the year. Finally an issue with more than a single short story. Those in the Fiction Issue are largely by new, relatively unknown authors. Indeed, the stories that do appear in The New Yorker now are much more varied that used to be the case, with a goodly number set in foreign lands and translated from their native languages. This trend is refreshing to readers growing weary of all those domestic conflicts of East Coast couples.
So I keep reading The New Yorker, scanning the pieces more than I ever used to, still heading off to the bookstore to get each weekly issue. I no longer have a mail subscription since the delivery was so unreliable. Sometimes an issue didn’t arrive until a week after it was published in New Yorker. By then I had already read much of it on the Web or, if I wanted to, in its digital edition that as far as I can tell is identical to the printed version. With all these changes, William Shawn must be dying yet another death in his grave.