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.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Imaginary Interview: On the Making of "Mid-Year Top Ten (2017)"

Dolly Faibyshev, "Mermaid Spa"

This year’s “Mid-Year Top Ten (2017)” is the eighth in a series that began in 2010, the year this blog was launched. All were composed by New Yorker & Me staff writer John MacDougall. We asked him to reflect on his work.

What’s the point of these lists?

They’re a way for me to take stock of my New Yorker reading experience.

What criteria do you use to pick and rank the pieces?

Pleasure is my guide.

Well, what do you look for in a piece of writing? What gives you pleasure?

Are you familiar with James Wood’s definition of “thisness”?

Refresh my memory.

Thisness is any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion. Wood wrote that in his great How Fiction Works. It’s one of my touchstones. It expresses perfectly the quality in writing I most relish. The New Yorker brims with it.

I notice that this year’s “Mid-Year Top Ten” contains a “Goings On About Town” list. That’s a new feature, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. Over the last couple of years, “Goings On About Town” has become my favorite section of the magazine.

Why is that?

I think it has to do with my preference for description over narrative. “Goings On About Town” contains an abundance of great description.

Give me an example.

Well, the one that immediately comes to mind is Becky Cooper’s brilliant “Tables For Two” piece on Mermaid Spa, in which, in detail after sensuous detail, she describes the dining room, the sauna, the steam room, and the food. For me, it’s one of the most memorable pieces of the year so far – right up there with Luke Mogelson’s “The Avengers of Mosul” and John Kinsella’s “Milking the Tiger Snake.”

Your lists are always positive. Have you ever considered including a “worst” or “most disappointing” category?

No. My list is a fan’s list. I like to keep it positive.

Is your list in anyway biased?

Yes, I readily admit I have favorites – Ian Frazier, James Wood, and Peter Schjeldahl, to name three. I relish Robert Sullivan’s writing. Anytime he appears in the magazine, I try to get him on my list.

Who do you think reads these lists? Who’s your target audience?

I’m not sure who reads them. I don’t have a target. I make them for their own sake. They’re my way of paying homage to The New Yorker – to the many writers, editors, and artists who produce it. Also, these lists afford me the pleasure of revisiting the magazine pieces and savoring my favorite passages.

Do you foresee a time when your enthusiasm for The New Yorker will wane and you’ll stop making these lists?

No. I’m totally hooked on The New Yorker. If anything, my addiction is intensifying.

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