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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

May 7, 2012 Issue

Brimming with choice quotation and brilliant descriptive analysis (“all is alive, silvery, alert, rapid with insight”), James Wood’s "Invitation to a Beheading," in this week’s issue, is a model book review in every way. Yet, it fails to persuade. It’s a rave review of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels. But what is so wonderful about novels that fudge the facts? Wood says that Mantel “knows that what gives fiction its vitality is not the accurate detail but the animate one, and that novelists are creators, not coroners, of the human case.” Implicit in Wood’s position is that, in order to make the story interesting, it’s okay to invent details. For example, Wood refers to the Fugger bag that Mantel says was fashionable in Cromwell’s time (“This season young men carry their effects in soft pale leather bags, in imitation of the agents of the Fugger bank, who travel all over Europe and set the fashion”), and comments:

Do you know if Mantel has manufactured or borrowed from the record this information about the fashionable Fugger bag? In some sense, it doesn’t matter, because the writer has made a third category of reality, the plausibly hypothetical. It’s what Aristotle claimed was the difference between the historian and the poet: the former describes what happened, and the latter what might happen.

I’m not convinced. The “plausibly hypothetical” isn’t reality. Reality is, as John Updike brilliantly defined it, “a fabric of microscopic accuracies” (“Accuracy,” included in Updike’s 1976 collection Picked-Up Pieces). The “coroners of the human case” are writers who eschew accuracy in favor of fabrication. 


  1. Besides, isn't the "plausible reality" exactly the big stink in fiction and in journalism these past few years? All the way from Janet Malcolm and Joe McGinnis to what's-his-name-the plagiarizer, dismissed in ignominy.

    Though I'd hate to read New Journalism without it ...

  2. There’s a limit on the journalist’s scope of invention. Janet Malcolm, in her great “The Journalist and the Murderer,” describes it as follows: “The writer of nonfiction is under contract to the reader to limit himself to events that actually occurred and to characters who have counterparts in real life, and he may not embellish the truth about these events or these characters.” Therefore, if Malcolm is correct on this, and I strongly believe she is, Wood’s “third category of reality, the plausibly hypothetical” is totally off-limits to journalists.