Thursday, July 5, 2012
July 2, 2012 Issue
This week’s issue contains a curio – John McPhee’s “Editors & Publisher." It connects McPhee’s memories of three key people in his writing life (Robert Gottlieb, William Shawn, and Roger Strauss) through the use of “fuck” or variations thereof (e.g., “fucking,” “motherfucker”). McPhee writes: “Fuck, fucker, fuckest; fuckest, fucker, fuck. In all my days, I had found that four-letter word – with its silent ‘c’ and its quartzite ‘k’ – more shocking than a thunderclap.” Of the various “fuck”-themed anecdotes that McPhee relates in his piece, the one I most enjoyed was Roger Strauss saying “Fuck you” to McPhee when McPhee asked him for an advance. What I like about it is the way McPhee reveals, in the aftermath of the shock of hearing what Strauss said, that he (McPhee) may have teasingly provoked it (“Truth be told, though, the book was an amalgam of fragments of other books, for which he had long since paid advances”). “Editors and Publisher” raised a question in my mind: when it came time to publish “The Survival of the Bark Canoe” in book form, why didn’t McPhee change it to reflect what Warren Elmer actually said (“You fucking lunatic, head for the shore!”)? Why did he keep the bowdlerized New Yorker version (“You God-damned lunatic, head for the shore!”)?
“Editors and Publisher” provides valuable insight into The New Yorker’s evolving usage of “fuck.” But there’s another word I’m even more curious about. In my opinion, no expletive packs more punch than the blunt, concussive “cunt.” According to Erin Overbey’s “Bonfire of the Profanities” (“Back Issues,” newyorker.com, June 2, 2011), it first appeared in the magazine in Philip Roth’s short story “The Ultimatum” (June 26, 1995). I notice that John Updike uses it in the version of his great short story “Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer,” included in his 2003 collection The Early Stories (“The stagy light webbed them, made her appear all circles. She said she could feel the wind on her cunt”). “Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer” was originally published in The New Yorker, June 14, 1976. Checking it now, I’m not surprised to see that “cunt” has been airbrushed (so to speak); the line reads, “The stagy light webbed them, made her appear all circles. She said she could feel the wind now.”