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.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

February 4, 2013 Issue

Thomas Mallon’s “Wag the Dog,” in this week’s issue, is a tonic affirmation of nonfiction’s fundamental principle: stick to the facts. This principle is under assault these days by writers who proffer fictional truth as a substitute for the real thing. For example, James Wood appears quite comfortable with essayists who mingle fact and fiction. In his review of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection Pulphead, he praises the contemporary essay’s “sly and knowing movement between reality and fictionality” (“Reality Effects,” The New Yorker, December 19 & 26, 2011). Mallon admirably dissents from this slippery approach. In “Wag the Dog,” a review of two books about Richard Nixon – Kevin Mattson’s Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the “Rocking, Socking” Election of 1952 and Jeffrey Frank’s Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage – Mallon laudably upholds the distinction between fact and fiction, emphasizing that it’s not the role of the historian to “novelize.” He says, “Mattson makes clear from the first page of Just Plain Dick that he would really rather be writing a novel.” Regarding Frank’s book, he writes,

Unlike Mattson, Frank does not surrender to any temptation to novelize, even though he is a novelist, the author of a well-regarded “Washington trilogy” that includes The Columnist (2001). Ike and Dick shows how much life remains in artfully straightforward narrative history.

I applaud Mallon’s criticism of Mattson’s novelizing impulse. It upholds factual writing’s core value: accuracy. 

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