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.

Friday, December 9, 2016

December 5, 2016, Issue

One trait I can’t abide is snobbery. I detect a trace of it in James Wood. I detect it in the question he asks in his “A Fine Rage” (The New Yorker, April 13, 2009): “Why on earth should Dickens have wanted to resemble the working classes? Why would anyone want to, least of all the working classes themselves?” I detect it in his description of his mother as “petty-bourgeois” (“On Not Going Home, London Review of Books, February 20, 2014), a description he repeats in his memoir of his mother, titled “The Teacher,” in this week’s issue (“Her own origins were lower middle class, petit bourgeois”). Most of all, I detect it in his use of “shabby”:

This semi-fictional England, beautifully described in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” was a rather shabby, stoical, anti-American, ideally classless place, devoted to small English pleasures like marmalade and suet pudding and fishing in country ponds, puritanical about large luxuries like the Ritz Hotel and Rolls-Royces, and suspicious of modern conveniences like aspirins, shiny American apples, cars, and radios.  [“A Fine Rage”]

Route 12D, north of Utica, New York, south of Fort Drum and Carthage, runs through poor, shabby countryside. In the unravelled townships, there are trailers and collapsed farmhouses. Here and there, a new silo, shining like a chrome torpedo, suggests a fresh start, or maybe just the arrival of agribusiness. The pall of lost prosperity hangs heavily. Heavily? No, to the skimming driver aiming elsewhere it falls only vaguely. [“Shelf Life,” The New Yorker, November 7, 2011]

She preferred the security of the law, or medicine (the path my brother took), or the academy (a shabby but dependable cousin to these grander professions). [“The Teacher”]

Obviously, class distinctions are important to Wood. Shabbiness, in his privileged eyes, denotes inferiority. Trump would surely agree with him; I don't. “Nobody better, better than nobody” is my philosophy. The artists and writers I admire most are generously egalitarian. They don’t look down on anyone. W. H. Auden said of van Gogh, “He believed that the truly human subject for art in his day was the life of the poor” (“Calm Even in the Catastrophe”). I believe that’s true in our day, too. Some of the writers Wood admires believed it, e.g., Chekhov, Henry Green. But I’m not sure Wood himself does.

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