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Ode to a New Yorker Urn

Renata Adler, Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker (Simon and Schuster, 252 pages, 1999)

The last of this summer’s beach reading for me is Renata Adler’s beachy memoir of The New Yorker magazine, Gone. Beach books, characteristically, are the sort of books that fall into your lap accidentally, rather than something you choose to read. If I had chosen to read a book about The New Yorker, it probably would have been Ben Yagoda’s About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (Scribner, 2000), the best-sounding–according to the reviews–of a spate of books about the magazine that have appeared in the last five years. Two other books by New Yorker alumni, Ved Mehta’s Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker and Lillian Ross’s Here But Not Here, a memoir of a several-decade-long love affair with the aforementioned Mr. Shawn, are convincingly trashed in Gone, and so I wouldn’t have picked them to read. As it happened, a friend of mine had just finished reading a remaindered copy of Adler’s 4-year-old book and offered to loan it to me, and I thought nothing more profound than, Oh yeah, some gossip about the famous old New Yorker might be fun for an afternoon at the beach.

Given the legendary reputation of the tenacious and unforgiving New Yorker magazine fact-checkers, I’d better admit up front that I read Gone in my house rather than on the beach, but since my house is only a block or so from Kitsilano beach in Vancouver, maybe that counts. Come to think of it, do people still read books on the beach? Or do they just play beach volleyball? The last book I saw a person reading on a beach was The Lord of the Rings, in a Finnish translation, yet. Okay, okay, I have to stop fooling around and talk about Renata Adler’s horrible book.

Like Lord of the Rings, Gone is about a mythical kingdom and features a full complement of white magic wizards, humble hobbits, a golem or two, and evildoers galore from the rival kingdom of Mordor. The good staff hobbit is Adler, Gone’s grumpy, long-fingernailed narrator, who worked at The New Yorker “nearly all my adult life,” from the 1960s to the early 1990s. The Gandalf-like wizard of the tale, and the book’s ostensible hero, is William Shawn, a.k.a. “Mr. Shawn” to all and sundry, who edited the magazine from 1951-1987, until he was bounced at age 80. The unmistakeable Golem of Gone is Lillian Ross, the “office wife” and mistress of editor Shawn, and the author of a “precious, my precious” tell-all memoir of her relationship with Shawn, who also had an official wife, residence, and some official children during his lengthy affair with Ross.

The folks from Mordor, a.k.a. as Conde Nast publications, include Si Newhouse, who took over ownership of The New Yorker in the late 1980s, and the successive editors he installed, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and currently, David Remnick, as well as a particularly obnoxious person named Adam Gopnick, who became the magazine’s Paris correspondent and wrote a best-selling book about the City of Lights. There is also a cast of well-known hobbits, elves, and striders, which include staffer Roger Angell, better known as the multi-volumed chronicler of baseball’s The Boys of Summer, Charles “Chip” McGrath, currently the editor of the New York Times Book Review and once a candidate for the succession to Shawn’s office, illustrator Saul Steinberg, and such writers as Hannah Arendt, whose Eichmann in Jerusalem was one of the many “definitive” long pieces that once filled the glossy pages of the magazine. The reason that any of this muck is of the slightest interest is because Middle Earth—or in this case, the mythical realm of The New Yorker magazine–is worth caring about as a force for good writing in a Mordor-like world of crappy magazine journalism.

Adler’s point, from beginning to end, is that, “As I write this, The New Yorker is dead.” Oh sure, she concedes, “it still comes out every week, or almost every week. There are the so-called double issues, which resemble, in format, the monthly fashion magazines, and which are ‘double’ not in terms of content but only of duration; they remain on the stands an extra week. Otherwise, not a single defining element on the magazine remains.” That’s on the first page of Gone. On the last pages of Gone, Adler says—this is in 1999–“As I write, the magazine will presumably be sold, or merged, or limited to occasional issues on specific themes, or simply closed.” Point taken.

Adler’s other major thematic is something about “Mr. Shawn,” but I’m not sure what the point is other than underscoring the respect, deference, forelock-tugging, and fawning accorded to the former editor by his minions. Adler claims that she had “hoped to finish this book without addressing” either Mehta’s or Ross’s memoirs, but because both books offer “such serious misrepresentations of the man and his magazine that it is hard to imagine, on the basis of either of them, why Mr. Shawn or his New Yorker should have mattered to anyone,” Adler reluctantly feels compelled to straighten things out. “I don’t intend to discuss them at much length,” Adler says, embarking on a full 15-page shredding of her fellow memoirists. Her main gripe seems to be, “In neither book… does Mr. Shawn say anything of even the slightest depth, wit, or interest—on any subject.”

Unfortunately, in Adler’s book, Mr. Shawn never says anything of even the slightest depth, wit, or interest—on any subject. As John Leonard put it in his review of Adler’s book when it appeared, “Her Shawn is wholly furtive, evasive, self-deluding, if not in fact senile.” A good deal of Gone is devoted to the office politics of the succession to the editorship of the magazine, but it quickly becomes clear that Shawn never had any intention of there being a successor. Adler’s scenes of The New Yorker staff rising up in arms on the occasion of Shawn’s firing by Newhouse is unintentionally slapstick. Since The New Yorker’s warren of offices offers no architectural space for meetings—the magazine was not “collegial,” Adler admits—the beleagured staff is sequestered on a stairwell, with the dithering Shawn in their midst, as they plot to write a humble don’t-fire-Mr. Shawn-or else letter to the new editor or the new owner or someone. Roger Angell is deputed to head the committee that will produce the futile letter, which Adler, who “loves” Mr. Shawn, won’t sign in any case. In the end, as editor Gottlieb rumbles into place, Shawn is pathetically relegated to the Algonquin Hotel opposite the New Yorker offices, editing the copy that the recalcitrant staffers won’t submit to Gottlieb.

Adler’s great skill in her portrait of this nest of vipers and co-dependents is an ability to convey the stupidity of others. Her wrath against Lillian Ross, Roger Angell, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and the hapless Adam Gopnick (why does Gopnick get it in the neck?—beats me) is persuasively deployed. In the end, it’s hard to tell why The New Yorker, much less Shawn, “should have mattered to anyone.”

Well, it mattered because the magazine published good writing, at length. I’ll skip the roster of major pieces, since everyone who read the magazine more than casually is aware of them. Like other New Yorkerists, Adler suffers the myopia of not noticing that a lot of other publications printed some fairly interesting stuff over the years, too. But, still, The New Yorker can claim an honourable place in the history of literate magazines, and Mr. Shawn, for all his passive-aggressive control-freakishness, had something to do with it.

Naturally, after putting down Adler’s aggrieved and ill-tempered reminiscence, I got up from my spot on the beach and walked up to the neighbourhood book store. Premature obituaries aside, there on the magazine rack, crammed in among the Atlantic, Harper’s, Wired, and all the rest, was this week’s issue of The New Yorker. Actually, a two-week issue for Aug. 18 and 25, focussed on the subject of the family. Guess what? It looks pretty much like The New Yorker–obviously the work of a cleverly deceptive embalmer. There is a cover by the late Saul Steinberg, the usual “About Town” listings of movies and whatnot, a Ralph Lauren Polo ad featuring a very cute guy model in a three-piece pinstripe suit complete with gold watch-chain, and a “Talk of the Town” introduction to the issue by, of all people, Roger Angell. I don’t know if it’s any good—I’ve only had time to look at the cartoons—but there’s a lead article by David Sedaris, a short story by Annie Proulx, poems by Louise Gluck, and familiar critics Joan Acocella, Hilton Als, and Anthony Lane on books, music and movies, respectively. Whole thing seems suspiciously very New Yorkerish.

Apropos of Adler’s dead and gone diatribe, my favourite cartoon in this week’s issue has a couple shopping for a coffin, and a mortuary salesman who turns from the big upholstered coffins and points to a shelf with some jars on it, and says, “We also have urns, if you want to think outside the box.”

Vancouver, Aug. 23, 2003

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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