We'll Never See Those Days Again

A friend and I have been bemoaning the changing character of the once-great New Yorker. Those of us who were first drawn to the magazine when William Shawn was editor expect a different magazine than the current editor David Remnick puts together. In the old days, it was primarily an intellectual periodical that focused principally on literature. No more. Now it is politics, fashion, crime, the media, food, and celebrities.

All you have to do is pick up the latest issue to see what has happened to the magazine. This week, for example, there is profile of a rap star legend, a piece by David Sedaris whose humor escapes me, an essay on the Senate, which may be worth reading given the way it has paralyzed the nation, and one about video games that I will probably skip. Indeed, sometimes I find myself skimming the magazine and finishing it in five minutes. That was inconceivable in the old days when it was more like five hours before I had read everything.

Or compare the film reviews of David Denby and Anthony Lane with those of Pauline Kael. The thoughtful and sometimes clever Denby and the always-pretentious Lane are lucky if they get a half page to review a movie. Kael sometimes filled up a quarter or more of the issue when she wrote and if you were lucky enough to read her essays, you came away thinking you had really learned something. There you have it.

As Shirley Hazzard wrote a few years ago, “The atmosphere of The New Yorker, in those years, can never come again. It was a place of temperamental people, yet of eccentric goodwill, civility, amusement, liveliness. Yes, of generosity. Of literature and of fun. Any issue might contain a story by Nabokov or Pritchett or Frank O’Connor; a poem or a review by Auden; an essay by Edmund Wilson or Lewis Mumford. There was Cheever. There was on occasion, Salinger. There was Maxwell. There was the infant Updike. There was the gentle Joe Mitchell, and the ebullient Dwight Macdonald. William Shawn held it together, and Maxwell presided (although no one had a “title”) over the fiction. No one acted presidential.”

Of course, the magazine Shawn created would be bankrupt today after a single issue. I don’t think it ever made any money, but that never seemed quite so important. What was important was maintaining a tradition of literary excellence--period. While we’ll never see those days again, to a certain extent they are carried on at The New Yorker Book Bench, where a young and clever and sometimes very funny group of writers blog about the literary world. They blog each weekday, with an average of five interesting posts, including photos, videos, author interviews and an online book group that reads a different book each month. It is worth bookmarking.

In reading the magazine each week, I used to feel part of the community of other readers who value polished writing and serious commentary. The symbolic nature of this community made it no less real. In The World Through a Monocle, Mary Corey captured this bond quite well: "Some felt a profound kinship with the magazine because it spoke for them, giving a public voice to their own private intelligencies intelligences.”

One of the respondents to a recent survey of dedicated New Yorker readers conducted by Ben Yogoda recalled an experience she had while serving as a nurse during World War II in a remote section of northern Italy. She reported being asked by a wounded soldier, "If you could have anything right now, what would it be?" In an instant she replied:, "An issue of The New Yorker magazine.," Whereupon the two--wounded soldier, and American nurse, in that far off time and place--began reminiscing about their favorite New Yorker cartoons and writers. I am not sure any more if I would respond the same way.

My friend, a long-time devoted reader of The New Yorker reports: I let my subscription to The New Yorker lapse a couple of months ago: They sent me an issue warning me in a wrapping that this was it. And it was one of the worst issues I've seen. That was, indeed, the problem. Too often, I would pick up the magazine in the mailbox at the end of the drive, leaf through it on the walk back to the house, and by the time I got inside, I would simply pitch it into the trash.