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, June 18, 2013

In Praise of Journalism (Contra Dirda)

Michael Dirda, in his absorbing review of James Salter’s new novel All That Is, says, “Robert Phelps once told me that the true test of one’s devotion to a writer is a willingness to collect his or her journalism” (“‘The Glory of Certain Moments in Life,’” The New York Review of Books, June 6, 2013). I’ve never felt that way. For me, it’s the opposite: it’s a writer’s journalism that I prize; I have to force myself to read his or her fiction. The way I look at it, fiction is merely a tune-up for the creation of the really important stuff – journalism. For me, Hemingway’s 1933 Esquire piece “Marlin Off the Morro: A Cuban Letter” is one of the best things he ever wrote. The same goes for Mailer’s 1968 Harper’s article “Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Pritchett’s 1956 Holiday Magazine travelogue, “South America,” Brodskys 1986 New York Review of Books memoir “In a Room and a Half,” Nabokov’s 1972 Saturday Review essay, “Inspiration,” Zadie Smiths 2008 New Yorker memoir, Dead Man Laughing, Seamus Heaneys 1978 Irish Times essay, Full Face, Martin Amiss 1993 New Yorker essay, Don Juan in Hull, Joyce Carol Oatess 1987 Art & Antiques essay, George Bellows: The Boxing Paintings, John Updikes 1972 Horizon essay, Remembrance of Things Past Remembered, Margaret Atwoods 2002 Globe and Mail piece, Of Myths and Men. I could go on and on. Far from being a “test of true devotion,” a great writer’s journalism is often the source of my deepest reading pleasure. 

Credit: The above portrait of Norman Mailer is by David Levine.

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