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, August 25, 2017

Nothing "Mere" About It (Contra George Saunders)

Photoillustration by John Ritter (from Nicholas Schmidle's "Getting bin Laden")

George Saunders, in his Introduction to A Grace Paley Reader (2017), says of Paley, "Mere straightforward representation is not her game." That “mere” irks me. It condescends to straightforward representation, i.e., description of reality as it actually is, treating it as a lesser art than fiction. I disagree. There’s nothing “mere” about great reporting pieces such as William Finnegan’s “Silver or Lead” (The New Yorker, May 31, 2010), Nicholas Schmidle’s “Getting bin Laden” (The New Yorker, August 8, 2011), Jill Lepore’s “Battleground America” (The New Yorker, April 23, 2012), Richard Preston’s “The Ebola Wars” (The New Yorker, October 27, 2014), and Luke Mogelson’s “The Avengers of Mosul” (The New Yorker, February 6, 2017), to name five that quickly come to mind. These extraordinary pieces, in their detail, structure, imagery, rhythm, clarity, and texture, are as artful as any fiction, perhaps more so, because, unlike, say, Saunders’s cartoonish fictions, which distort reality, they report it as accurately as possible. 

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