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.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

September 23, 2013 Issue

The New Yorker’s new look, unveiled this week, consists of, among other stylistic changes, a revamped Table of Contents (the writers’ names are now in bold, black, sanserif script; the titles of their pieces are in a thinner, bold, black sanserif; and the departmental names, e.g., Profiles, The Wayward Press, The World of Fashion, are omitted), a new “Goings On About Town” title page (gone are the notes about upcoming events; the all-most full-page photo dominates; at the foot of the page there’s a tiny sanserif-printed note related to the event that’s illustrated by the photo; and in the lower left and right corners there are clasping, jaw-like heavy bars of black ink in the shape of right-angles), “Night Life”’s “Critic’s Notebook” now receives full page treatment (with “Night Life” events printed on the next page in tiny, black serif script that lacks the grace of the old “Night Life” typeface), capsule reviews of movies are now crammed into three columns per page instead of two (and are printed in the same ugly script as the “Night Life” notes), Richard Brody’s “Critic’s Notebook” is reduced to a lower-left corner blurb printed in a thin, anemic-looking sanserif font, “Dance” also has one of those pointless Art-Deco-ish black right-angle decorations (like a piece of swastika) and is printed minutely in a dumbed-down version of The New Yorker’s classic serif typeface, “Tables For Two” is now allotted almost a full page (and there’s a new column called “Food & Drink, printed in tiny, thin sanserif), Andrea K. Scott’s “Critic’s Notebook” is expanded to a full page (including illustration), the art gallery notes are, like the movie notes, squished three abreast down the page (titled in soulless, bolded sanserif), ditto re the “Theatre” notes, Alex Ross’s “Critic’s Notebook” on classical musical is expanded to a full page (plus illustration), and “Above and Beyond” receives, in place of an illustration, one of those hideous, useless black corner brackets. The overall effect of these changes is that the magazine looks a little less like its old self and a bit more like Vanity Fair.

Fortunately the content is as rich and stimulating as ever, and continues to be printed in The New Yorker’s elegant, textured serif font. Pick of the Issue this week is Janet Malcolm’s terrific “Nobody’s Looking At You,” a profile of clothing designer, Eileen Fisher. I particularly enjoyed Malcolm’s parenthetical observation about women wearing scarves: “Eileen knows how to wear scarves the way women in Paris know how to wear them and American women almost touchingly don’t.” That “almost touchingly” is pure Malcolm. 

Second Thoughts: Let’s begin again. Rereading my above rant on The New Yorker’s “new look,” I’m struck (and embarrassed) by its petulance. I’ll not delete it just yet; let it stand as evidence of my first reaction to the magazine’s attempt at stylistic refreshment. But now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, I want to post a cooler appraisal. I applaud the expansion of two of my favorite “Goings On About Town” columns: “Tables For Two” and “Art.” I’m a fan of Andrea K. Scott’s writing, and I welcome her increased presence in the magazine. I’m only lukewarm about the print reduction of “Art” and “Movies” capsule reviews. I find the tiny, pinched typeface off-putting. It reminds me of the small print of The New York Review of Books’ “Galleries and Museums,” which, I think, repels reading. Design shouldn’t get between the reader and the magazine. This leads me to my main complaint: the erosion of The New Yorker’s classic, elegant, easily readable serif typeface. I’m not talking about the Rea Irvin-designed font. I like it, too. I’m referring to the wonderful serif letterform that the entire magazine (with the exception of illustration and photo credits) was heretofore printed in. Maybe sanserif is considered more legible on the computer screen. But on paper, whether in magazines or books, serif strikes me as more textured, more readable, more beautiful than sanserif, and I much prefer it. I detect in The New Yorker’s new look a move away from serif typeface. This is regrettable. I realize that stylistic changes are part of The New Yorker’s vibrant history. But certain changes strike at the heart of the magazine’s identity. The shift from serif to sans is one of them.

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