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.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Heer's Heresy

Jeet Heer’s “Fire in the Hole: The New Yorker’s In-House Radicals” (Los Angeles Review of Books, August 2, 2012) gives William Shawn a bum rap. In his piece, Heer refers to “the interminable torpor produced by William Shawn’s editorial dotage of the 1970s and 1980s,” and to Shawn’s “perverse late-life preference for producing a sleep-inducing publication.” To appreciate just how wrong-headed Heer’s assessment is, consider that during the ’70s and ’80s The New Yorker published, among other great pieces, Robert A. Caro’s “The Power Broker,” Pauline Kael's "Raising Kane," C. D. B. Bryan’s “Friendly Fire,” Susan Sheehan’s “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?,” Anthony Bailey's "The Edge of the Forest,” Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” John McPhee’s “Coming into the Country,” Kenneth Tynan’s “Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale,” Saul Bellow’s “A Silver Dish,” William Maxwell’s “So Long, See You Tomorrow,” Janet Malcolm’s “The Impossible Profession,” Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Bill Barich's "Laughing in the Hills," Joseph Brodsky's "Flight from Byzantium." And this is just scratching the surface of The New Yorker’s rich content during the Shawn era. Clearly, these pieces, no matter what else might be said of them, aren’t “sleep-inducing”; they don’t produce “interminable torpor.” Quite the opposite; they are among the seventies’ and eighties’ most exciting, stimulating, brilliant writings. They were all shepherded into print under William Shawn’s ingenious editorship. 

Credit: The above portrait of William Shawn is by Edward Sorel; it appears in The New Yorker (July 2, 2012) as an illustration for John McPhee's "Editors & Publisher."

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