What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Objectivist Takeover?

New Yorker writers divide into two broad categories – Objectivists and Subjectivists. Objectivists write mainly in the third person; they’re loath to say “I.” Subjectivists write mainly in the first person; their pieces read almost like excerpts from their personal journals.

Throughout the magazine’s history, Subjectivism has predominated; I much prefer it. Liebling, Mitchell, Bailey, and Rouché wrote in the first person, as do McPhee, Singer, Frazier, Bilger, Friend, Kolbert, Wilkinson, Remnick, Thurman, Paumgarten, Collins, Batuman, and Mead. But lately, it seems to me, the number of Objectivist pieces appearing in the magazine has been on the rise. Jill Lepore’s “American Chronicles” pieces, Kelefa Sanneh’s “Fish Tales” (March 7, 2011), David Grann’s “A Murder Foretold” (April 4, 2011), Nicholas Schmidle’s “Getting Bin Laden” (August 8, 2011), George Packer’s “A Dirty Business” (June 27, 2011), George Packer’s “Coming Apart” (September 12, 2011), Nicholas Schmidle’s “Three Trials for Murder” (November 14, 2011), and Kelefa Sannah’s “Sacred Grounds” (November 21, 2011) are all written in the third person. (Packer and Schmidle may protest the Objectivist charge on the basis of a line or two of first-person perspective buried deep in their otherwise impersonal narratives), but they can’t deny that the gist of their approach is fundamentally Objectivist.) In the magazine’s November 28th issue, all four features are essentially Objectivist: Mattathias Schwartz’s “Pre-Occupied”; Ariel Levy’s “The Renovation”; George Packer’s “No Death, No Taxes”; and Raffi Khatchadourian’s “In The Picture.” I say “essentially” because some of these pieces contain a light sprinkling of “told me” and “said to me” – feeble attempts to mitigate their over-all machined, Objectivist feel and look. The last section of Khatchadourian’s “In The Picture” suddenly turns Subjectivist (“When the video ended, JR had to rush out. He wanted to surprise Nourry by showing her a SoHo rooftop that he had discovered. Two days later, he flew to Edinburgh, and then to Paris, where I caught up with him”), but it’s too little, too late.

I prefer the Subjectivist approach because it’s closest to the most true-to-life form of writing, namely, the journal. A journal tells what happened from the point of view of the writer as he or she actually experienced it. It seems to me that journalism is most effective when it is journal-like. Here are a few examples of quintessential journal-like sentences taken from recent New Yorker articles:

One day, Cagan took me to visit the Aras station, an hour’s drive south-east of Kars, near the Armenian border. (Elif Batuman, “Natural Histories,” October 24, 2011)

Beach trials the next morning were called off owing to rain, so I took a train to Amsterdam and visited the Rijksmuseum. (Ian Frazier, “The March of the Strandbeests,” September 5, 2011)

It was after 6 P.M. when we sat down at Dean’s editing machine, a twelve-thousand-dollar 35-mm. Steenbeck, to look at some rushes. (Emily Eakin, “Celluloid Hero,” October 31, 2011)

One day in July, I watched Grimaud play the pieces on “Resonances,” her current CD, in the Stadhalle, in Bayreuth. (D. T. Max, “Her Way,” November 7, 2011)

At the end of May, when I visited Yusuke Tataki, the worker who was inside Reactor Building No. 4 at the time of the quake, he said that he had passed up offers to go back as a jumper. (Evan Osnos, “The Fallout,” October 17, 2011)

On a recent Saturday, Worsley and I and a few others attempted to whip up the dinner that King George III ate on the evening of February 6, 1789. (Lauren Collins, “The King’s Meal,” November 21, 2011)

Such sentences make pursuit of the story part of the story. They clue the reader in on what the writer is thinking and doing. Most importantly, they help authenticate what’s being described. Objectivist pieces feel and look synthetic. Yes, they’re often magnificently crafted (see, for example, Kelefa Sanneh’s “Sacred Grounds,” The New Yorker, November 21, 2011). But they feel as if they’ve been manufactured (I almost said “made-up”) rather than experienced first-hand.

Fortunately, there are still lots of Subjectivists writing for The New Yorker. But the number of Objectivist pieces appearing in it seems to be on the upswing. The November 28th issue is filled with them. Objectivism appears to be trending at the magazine. I think it should be discouraged.

Credit: The above portrait of Joseph Mitchell is by Al Hirschfeld; it appears in The New Yorker (February 22, 2004), as an illustration for Mark Singer's "Joe Mitchell's Secret."

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