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.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

April 29, 2013 Issue

One of the most intimidating observations I’ve ever read about writing is John Updike’s theory “that if a short story doesn’t pour smooth from the start, it never will” (Foreword to The Early Stories, 2003). Nothing I’ve ever written, including this blog, has ever “poured smooth.” For me, writing is struggle. This is one of the reasons I enjoy reading John McPhee’s pieces on “The Writing Life.” They show a master writer flat on his back on a picnic table, “staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing for The New Yorker” (“Structure,” The New Yorker, January 14, 2013). His absorbing and entertaining “Draft No. 4,” in the magazines current issue, contains this solacing revelation: “Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall.” This from the creator of such consummately crafted pieces as “The Encircled River” (The New Yorker, May 2 & 9, 1977), “Atchafalaya” (The New Yorker, February 23, 1987), and “Season on the Chalk” (The New Yorker, March 12, 2007). “To feel doubt is part of the picture,” McPhee says. This is reassuring to hear; I frequently feel doubt about my writing ability. It’s comforting to hear a gifted writer like McPhee candidly describe his own struggles. Other pieces in his “The Writing Life” series are “Progression” (The New Yorker, November 14, 2011) and “Editors & Publisher” (The New Yorker, July 2, 2012).

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