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.

Monday, March 14, 2016

March 7, 2016 Issue

Reviewing A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism, in this week’s issue, Nathan Heller sets the tone by quoting from George Orwell’s bleak “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”: “In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing-gown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it.” This crushed figure in a dressing gown is Orwell’s image of the book-reviewer. Heller calls him “Orwell’s hack.” Heller’s next move is to quote Gore Vidal: “I can’t name three first-rate literary critics in the United States.” Heller doesn’t take issue with Orwell’s seedy portrayal of the book reviewer. He doesn’t question the validity of Vidal’s observation. It seems that the inference he wants us to make is that book reviewing is a low business and that all book reviewers are hacks. A bit later in his piece, Heller says, “Reviewers write with skill, but so do lots of tax-accountant bloggers.” Then he quotes from Scott’s book (“Will it sound defensive or pretentious if I say that criticism is an art in its own right?”) and says,

It does sound a little defensive, though one understands the impulse. When Duke Ellington composed “The Queen’s Suite,” he was working from the blank page; he brought a previously unimagined musical offering into the world. Orwell’s hack, by contrast, produces his review by standing shakily on other works.

I enjoy reading criticism more than any other form of writing. My heroes are Pauline Kael, John Updike, Helen Vendler, Janet Malcolm, and Whitney Balliett – all of whom wrote stylish, subtle, perceptive, writerly criticism for The New Yorker in the seventies, eighties and nineties. Vidal said he couldn’t name three first-rate literary critics in the United States. I just named five. And the tradition of superb writerly New Yorker criticism continues today – James Wood, Peter Schjeldahl, Dan Chiasson, Judith Thurman, Anthony Lane, Alex Ross, Joan Acocella, Richard Brody, Andrea K. Scott. They speak to art in its own language.  

Heller, in his disappointing piece, asks “What’s the point of a reviewer in an age when everyone reviews?” Substitute James Wood, Peter Schjeldahl, or any of the other New Yorker critics I’ve mentioned, for Heller’s generic “reviewer,” and the cogency of his question vanishes.

The problem with Heller’s perspective is that he disregards inspired writing as a key ingredient of great criticism. In his cynical view, it seems, all critics are hacks.

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