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.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

In Praise of Criticism - I (Contra Gopnik)

For a tonic alternative to Adam Gopnik’s recent, dismaying, dismal view that “Criticism serves a lower end than art does, and has little effect on it” (“Postscript: Robert Hughes,”, August 7, 2012), check out Dwight Garner’s “A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical” in this week’s The New York Times Magazine. Garner says, “The best work of Alfred Kazin, George Orwell, Lionel Trilling, Pauline Kael and Dwight Macdonald (to name just a few of the past century’s most perceptive critics) is more valuable – and more stimulating – than all but the most first-rate novels.” I totally agree. I’ll take critical analysis over narrative any day. As Garner says, “Give me some straight talk. Give me a little humor. Give me something real. Above all, give me an argument.”

Interestingly, in conjunction with “A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical,” Garner posted a list titled “5 Critics Who Deserve a Statue” on the Times’ blog “The Sixth Floor” (, August 16, 2012). Three of the five are New Yorker contributors: Helen Vendler, Clive James, and Kenneth Tynan. They’re excellent choices. I particularly like what Garner says about Tynan:

Elegant theater critic. His critical profiles, which appeared in The New Yorker, are master classes. His smoking style — he held a cigarette between his two middle fingers — will give his statue an unbeatable élan.

Tynan’s smoking style is shown in the above portrait by Snowdon, which was used to illustrate a series of entries from Tynan’s journals, titled “The Third Act” (The New Yorker, August 14, 2000). Tynan’s piece on Johnny Carson, “Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale” (The New Yorker, February 20, 1978), is perhaps the finest profile ever to appear in the magazine. On the basis of this piece alone, Tynan deserves to be immortalized in stone.  

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