Introduction

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 Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Interesting Emendations: James Wood's "The Fun Stuff"


I’m curious why James Wood, when he collected his New Yorker pieces in The Fun Stuff (2012), rejected many of the magazine’s edits. For example, in The Fun Stuff’s “Lydia Davis,” commenting on the narrator in Davis’s “Glenn Gould,” Wood writes, “The woman speaks patiently, intelligently, with a slightly fraught lucidity, and it is only by accident, as it were, that one notices the absolute devastation of her sentences” (my emphasis). That “it is only by accident, as it were” is deleted from the New Yorker version, which reads, “The woman speaks patiently, intelligently, with a slightly fraught lucidity, and one does not immediately notice the absolute devastation of her sentences” (my emphasis). The New Yorker version is clearer and more concise. Why reject it in favor of a wordier version containing a parenthetic phrase (“as it were”) indicating that the preceding phrase  (“it is only by accident”) might not be formally accurate?  

Here’s another example. In The Fun Stuff’s “ ‘Reality Examined to the Point of Madness’: László Krasznahorkai,” Wood says of Krasznahorkai’s writing, “The prose has about it a kind of self-correcting shuffle, as if something were genuinely being worked out, and yet, painfully and humorously, the corrections never result in the correct answer” (my emphasis). In the New Yorker version, the superfluous “about it” is deleted and the “the” is dropped in favor of the more specific “these.” The sentence reads, “The prose has a kind of self-correcting shuffle, as if something were genuinely being worked out, and yet, painfully and humorously, these corrections never result in the correct answer” (emphasis added). This is a much cleaner, sharper version. Why revise it to add needless words?

Here’s one more example. In The Fun Stuff’s “Life’s White Machine: Ben Lerner,” Wood quotes a passage from Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, and says, “Again, this is funny and wily, but beneath it runs dread, the dread of nullity” (my emphasis). In the New Yorker version, the first “dread” is deleted, shortening the sentence to “Again, this is funny and wily, but beneath it runs the dread of nullity.”

I could cite dozens of other Fun Stuff passages that restore cuts made by The New Yorker. A few of the revisions are substantive and deepen Wood’s analysis (e.g., the addition of “This antinarrative, this deliberate avoidance of the conventional grammar of ‘realism,’ this reaching for what cannot be disclosed or confessed in narrative” to the last paragraph of “Life’s White Machine: Ben Lerner”). But most of Wood’s Fun Stuff changes restore needless words that The New Yorker had rightly deleted.

Wood has a hairsbreadth sense of words. His rejection of the New Yorker edits when he assembled his Fun Stuff collection has to be taken as deliberate. Why reject changes that make his writing more concise? In his great "The Fun Stuff: Homage to Keith Moon," he defines the “ideal sentence” as “a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but disheveled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.” Perhaps that explains his rejection of New Yorker editing. Concision isn't his governing aesthetic. He wants his sentences to be Keith Moon-like – “attired but disheveled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.” 

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