The New Yorker under siege, with Renata Adler bombing it

On Books

January 23, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

Next month, Eustace Tilley, superfop, will appear on the cover of the New Yorker, just as he has done every year since that incomparably distinguished magazine's first issue 75 years ago.

The New Yorker came by mail when I was a child. Since then I have, with a few breaks, been a subscriber. I learned to think about writing there -- from Edmund Wilson and Dorothy Parker. I learned most of what I know about the lavishness of irony from Charles Addams, and about the limits of civility from Peter Arno. My earliest lessons about the infinite fun of language came from Ogden Nash and James Thurber. Saul Steinberg first instructed me that there is no limit to how far an idea can stretch.

Although their work is immortal, those giants are now dead. But they were ably followed. The magazine has been vital sustenance to me -- until relatively recently, if a decade can be called that.

I have found the nonfiction and fiction becoming increasingly trivial and faddish. Still, I feel a deep sense of familial affection -- and there is still work of important substance: Seymour Hersh on the NSA, last week's remarkable article on second medical opinions by Jerome Groopman.

The magazine had two historically great editors, Harold Ross and William Shawn. In the first more than 60 years of the life of the New Yorker, they had forbidden anthologies of the work published there -- though, of course, dozens of books grew from writing originally in the magazine.

That time has passed. S.I. Newhouse, not long after he bought the magazine, fired Shawn and through a series of editorial and business-side appointments changed the magazine, almost certainly forever.

A minor symptom of those changes is a vast outpouring of books exploiting its contents. More significant is a large number of books examining its heart, soul and professional family.

Current derivative books include "Letters from the Editor: The New Yorker's Harold Ross," edited by Thomas Kunkel, a faculty member at the University of Maryland (Modern Library, 428 pages, $26.95); "Life Stories: Profiles from the New Yorker," edited by David Remnick, now editor of the New Yorker (Random House, 530 pages, $26.95); "Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker," edited by David Remnick (Random House, 480 pages, $26.95); "The New Yorker 75th Anniversary Cartoon Collection," edited and with a foreword by Bob Mankoff (Pocket Books, 291 pages, $40). This is mostly fine, even classic, stuff.

Current books about the magazine include "About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made," by Ben Yagoda (Scribner, 400 pages, $30); "Some Times in America," by Alexander Chancellor (Carroll & Graf, 320 pages, $25); "Janet, My Mother and Me," by William Murray (Simon & Schuster, 224 pages, $24); and "Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker," by Renata Adler (Simon & Schuster, 252 pages, $24).

Still to come, next month, is "Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, The Marketing of Culture," by John Seabrook (Knopf, 221 pages, $23). Earlier, but recent, other books include "Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker," by Ved Mehta (Overlook Press, 368 pages, $29.95) and "Here But Not Here," by Lillian Ross (Random House, 240 pages, $25).

By far the most controversial -- and, in my view, the liveliest -- is Renata Adler's.

Adler began working at the New Yorker in 1963 and continued, with breaks, on staff or as a contributor, until 1989. She has an impressive background: Bryn Mawr, Harvard, Yale Law School, the Sorbonne. She has been chief movie critic for the New York Times. She is a novelist and also writes for lots of magazines.

Her book is a dashing, dishy delectation that sends the publication she has most loved in her life to a tawdry, hateful grave. She characterizes it as finished: "As I write this, the New Yorker is dead." She believes it was already in decline in 1987, toward the end of Shawn's 36-year editorship.

She dismisses Mehta's and Lillian Ross' depictions of Shawn as "serious misrepresentations of the man and his magazine." Her criticism turns into a savage tirade, which finds targets way beyond those books. Few New Yorkerites emerge unscathed.

There has been a matching avalanche of response -- ranging from vitriolic (Roger Angell, a longtime New Yorker editor: "wildly inaccurate") to paternalistic (Robert Gottlieb, who succeeded Shawn as editor: "I can't take this particular attack very seriously because it's both so wacky and so bizarrely inaccurate").

The bitterness and back-biting related by Adler are complex and fascinating, and seldom trivial. She exhibits passions and blind sides. She vehemently defends Janet Malcolm's atackes on the purpose and practice of journalism.

Adler endorses Malcolm's notorious charge in a New Yorker article that "every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." Adler claims that the blood libel against the trade -- which surely applies to Malcolm but not very many others -- is "now cited as classic." It is not; it is trash, and dishonest trash.

Deeply fond of William Shawn, Adler is convinced he was one of the great geniuses of 20th century letters. She is very hard on his immediate successor, Robert Gottlieb. She vilifies Tina Brown, his successor -- for whom she blames the swift and unflinching wreckage of the character, integrity and quality of the magazine. Brown is succeeded by David Remnick, who gets barely a mention.

It's a bitter tale -- one-sided, ugly and enraging. But for readers of The New Yorker -- whether or not you loved it under Shawn and loathe it under his successors -- it is absolutely fascinating.

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