New and improved?

Linda Turbyville

February 10, 1993|By Linda Turbyville

LAST week, a close friend phoned me late at night. He had just opened his mail.

"Guess what I have here!" he said mischievously. "It's a subscription offer to -- it says -- a magazine with probably the greatest editor in the world."

"Who's that?" I asked, reaching for my bedside alarm clock. It was almost midnight.

"Tina Brown," he said firmly. "Don't you read the new New Yorker? They're offering it to me for one year -- 16 bucks."

"Send me the subscription!" I pleaded. "I need it."

Like many writers, I'm worried about the New Yorker. Every week, with feelings of anticipation and apprehension, I rush out to buy the latest issue. I tear off the stiff onion-skin flap that obscures the cover illustration (hoping not to pull out the binding staples), bring it home and retire to a solitary spot where I can read it, or, better said, study it, from cover to cover.

I have many questions. Do I detect the rhythm of another heartbeat, the outlines of a new style? Do these colorful drawings, cartoons and full-page photographs add visual appeal detract from the richness of the prose? Will some of the magazine's venerable departments -- "Reporter-at-large" and especially "The Talk of the Town" -- eventually fall to Ms. Brown's hatchet?

For a time, Ms. Brown's move from Vanity Fair to the New Yorker was the talk of the town. The talk has quieted since, but we New Yorker watchers are still abuzz.

Four of us were discussing the magazine the other night in a Baltimore pub.

"I don't mind it," a professor said with a wicked smile. "It's getting garish and cheap. It's getting brittle and shiny."

"The writing has become mostly opinion -- opinion that is flamboyantly dressed up or covertly snide," the other professor piped in. "I'm really enjoying it."

"I'm worried that maybe it's becoming Eurocentric -- you know, like the fashion magazines," I said. "The major articles have been excellent, but I'm troubled by "The Talk of the Town." Are Princess Di, Queen Elizabeth and Sotheby's really worthy of the attention they've received? Mon Dieu! If Americans don't eat clementine oranges, why are they dished up so juicily?"

"Because New Yorkers like them," the fourth reader said. "As I understand it, Tina Brown is trying to shorten some of the articles. Too often, you feel that you should read something -- but when can you find the time to read a piece that's book length? The fiction is already better."

On the whole, the Baltimore readers I've talked to seem to be amused by the changes.

Writers, however, are anxious. Everyone who has put pen to paper to try to make a living has at least one New Yorker piece tucked away somewhere, on a computer disk or in a special room in the imagination, a room with "New Yorker" lettered respectfully on the door.

Without a doubt, the standards of the old New Yorker have been internalized by many writers. Long pieces often had an ethnographic quality. There was an attentiveness to subject matter that precluded the writer's drawing attention to himself or herself.

People, landscapes and events -- ordinary and extraordinary alike -- seemed to come to life under the reader's scrutiny. The reader, too, was treated respectfully as an active participant, not as a passenger on a joy ride. Attention was rewarded with informative narrative containing priceless gifts of insight, humor and knowledge.

On the other hand, there is a kind of special effects writing -- almost the antithesis of the old New Yorker style -- that seems to be popular these days. The masters of this genre fire off brilliant but incomplete images until the dark sky of the reader's imagination is lit with mental fireworks.

The author is smartly present, challenging the reader to an intellectual striptease. Too often, the special effects vanish, leaving little behind. My anxiety is that glitzy writing is displacing the thoughtful provocation of the old New Yorker.

My friend called me again a few days later.

"Did you subscribe to the New Yorker for me?" I asked hopefully.

"No," he said, "the offer was for addressee only.

0 "But when you come over, you can read mine."

Linda Turbyville is a Baltimore writer.

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