The definition of a great institution: long-established, and ‘not as good as it used to be’ (which it’s always been). It only takes one leader to disrupt a single tradition for no good reason – then a decline can begin. The New Republic didn’t decline, it collapsed: founded in 1914, it enjoyed a century as one of America’s most influential intellectual journals. Then a co-founder of Facebook bought it in 2012 and tried to remake it into a “vertically integrated digital-media company”. The New Republic has lost two-thirds of its staff, three-fifths of its readers and is now basically an unpopular version of Buzzfeed; its owner sold it in February at a steep discount. At least the New Yorker has decayed more gracefully.
The New Yorker was founded in 1925 as a humour magazine. Its founder, Harold Ross (1892–1951), dropped out of school at the age of thirteen and spent his teenage years as a newspaperman in Colorado and Utah. Between February 1918 and April 1919 he served in the U.S. Army in France; his service was undistinguished, though he did edit the regimental journal, and also wrote for the Stars and Stripes (the Armed Forces’ daily newspaper). In Paris he befriended the New York Times drama critic Alexander Woollcott (1887–1943), who had a chaotic provincial upbringing but managed to graduate from Hamilton College in New York and thus looked sophisticated to Ross. Ross looked to Woollcott like “a dishonest Abe Lincoln”.
The two men became founding members of the Algonquin Round Table, an informal group of actors, writers, critics, and bitchy gossips who met every day for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York between 1919 and 1929. These lunches became nationally famous because everybody who attended them was an obsessive self-publicist and either wrote about what happened in a newspaper column or else described the proceedings in detail to a journalist. H. L. Mencken said of the Algonquin Round Table: “their ideals were those of a vaudeville actor – one who is extremely ‘in the know’ and inordinately trashy”. The New Yorker is the main legacy of this group.
The cover of the New Yorker’s first issue (21st February 1925) features a vaguely Art Deco drawing of a dandy in a high collar and top hat looking at a butterfly through his monocle, which he pinches elegantly between thumb and forefinger (of course he is wearing white gloves); the pose suggests refined indifference. The artist (Rea Irvin) copied the figure from an 1830s portrait of the Comte d’Orsay that he’d found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. ‘Eustace Tilley’, as this dandy was later called, became the New Yorker’s mascot, and remains so to this day.
By the 1930s the New Yorker had become a forum for what Ross regarded as serious literature and journalism. He had a gift for attracting prominent writers, and used the magazine as a covert device for educating himself. For ninety years the secret to the New Yorker’s success has always been its attractiveness for autodidacts and would-be sophisticates: as an affordable status symbol for intellectual snobs the magazine has won over a million regular readers in America alone.
William Shawn (1907–1992), Ross’s chosen successor, edited the New Yorker from 1952 to 1987 and paid special attention to fiction; the magazine has long been famous for its short stories, which stereotypically involve low-key epiphanies among the suburban middle class. In a Paris Review interview published in 1989 the Anglo-Canadian novelist Robertson Davies dismissed this sort of writing (and indeed most American literature) thus:
They seem to be infinitely concerned with very subtle details of feeling and life. I find this exemplified, for instance, in many stories in The New Yorker where whether the family will have pumpkin pie or something else on Thanksgiving Day is a decision with infinite psychological and sexual repercussions. I take this quite seriously. I admire their subtlety – but I get so sick of it. I wish they would deal with larger themes.
Yet the magazine’s aspirations have changed.
New Yorker writers used to imitate the grand-bourgeois civilisation of Paris, Vienna and Milan (operas, cafés, salons), and dreamt of an England that looked like Oxford in that last summer before the Great War. Now the magazine features: “Pharrell Williams, the pop and hip-hop multi-hyphenate with the big hat” (p. 38); the 69-year-old 1970s TV star Rob Reiner (p. 40), who just made a film inspired by his son’s struggles with drug addiction; and a movie director who graduated from New York University at the age of seventy-eight (pp. 36–37). The New Yorker’s Anglophilia has transformed rather than disappeared: a music review (pp. 106–107) focusses on a white man from Peterborough who moved to South London to make Jamaican dancehall music. Mass culture has replaced ‘high culture’ even for middle-aged readers.
David Remnick became the New Yorker’s editor in 1998 and decided to make the magazine more openly political: in 2003 he supported the invasion of Iraq; in 2004 he and his staff endorsed John Kerry’s doomed presidential campaign against George W. Bush; it has become explicitly a magazine of the Democratic Party. But whose Democratic Party – Barack Obama’s, Hillary Clinton’s – or that of Bernie Sanders?
The New Yorker’s film critic Anthony Lane – long its finest writer – was an early casualty of its growing internal confusion. Lane’s wit and erudition are wasted on bad Hollywood movies – which is why his criticism is so relentlessly funny. Or was so relentlessly funny: he has had to lose the jokes ever since his 2008 review of the Sex and the City film was attacked for ‘misogyny’. His attack on the ‘shopping and fucking’ culture of Sex and the City offended more capitalistic liberals, who decided to accuse him of anti-feminism to shut him up. As a horrified feminist he naturally acquiesced.
This year’s ‘Fiction Issue’ demonstrates just how wary New Yorker writers have become of each other. The fiction is limited to three short stories and one hitherto-unpublished fragment by the African-American writer Langston Hughes (1902–1967). Hughes, a leader of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ movement in the 1920s, flirted with Communism as well as men, and remained uncommitted to any single position on the left. Alas he wasn’t much of a writer, as ‘Seven People Dancing’ (pp. 60–61) demonstrates. This is a short story without much story: a few memories, observations and reflections have been combined into a memoir-like narrative about a party in Harlem. It evokes a mood and a place; sex, race, class, gender and sexuality are all in the air – and stay up there: Hughes doesn’t dare commit to a position or give this story a point.
Is it really so dangerous to make up a story, or imagine another life? ‘The Polish Rider’ (pp. 50–59) by the poet/ novelist/ Creative Writing professor Ben Lerner is an account of how an artist and her poet/ novelist/ Creative Writing professor friend try to recover some lost paintings the night before her exhibition opens: she had been taking them home from the gallery in the middle of the night to retouch them and left them in the back seat of her Uber. As with all Lerner’s prose this feels like it all really happened; nobody would make up characters that were so clichéd and narcissistic.
This piece is basically an excuse for Lerner to record some thoughts, childhood memories and Wikipedia research in profound-seeming form. At the end of the story the paintings likely haven’t been recovered, but no matter: the narrator has decided to write an essay about losing these paintings in order to turn a sorry situation into “part of the artistic process”. This story, presumably, is that ‘essay’. But fiction isn’t a matter of writing down all your memories and then changing a few details to avoid getting sued.
These writers are afraid to write beyond their own experience. Zadie Smith’s ‘Two Men Arrive in a Village’ narrates, in fewer than 2,000 words, the story of two sinister strangers who show up in a West African (?) village, cut off the head of a fourteen-year-old boy, then walk off unopposed. It could have been told in four sentences; but Smith, a Cambridge-educated Londoner who teaches Creative Writing at New York University, didn’t feel entitled to imagine the story fully or make up details. Instead she padded the narrative with ‘philosophical’ ruminations on the nature of fiction – the sort that even the French stopped doing in the 1970s because nobody was interested. Yet in ‘Miss Adele Among the Corsets’ (Paris Review, Spring 2014) Smith had felt perfectly free to imagine an event in the life of a middle-aged New York drag queen; and a disaster narrative in ‘Escape From New York’ (from the New Yorker’s 2015 ‘Fiction Issue’). Both stories were failures – because Smith was desperate not to seem politically incorrect. Now she doesn’t even really try.
Like Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer teaches Creative Writing at New York University and (over-) wrote an ambitious novel in his twenties; though his (Everything is Illuminated, 2002) was even more autobiographical than hers (White Teeth, 1997). ‘Maybe It Was The Distance’ (pp. 63–77) tries hard not to be autobiographical: the main character is a 43-year-old novelist rather than a 39-year-old one. The story recounts the visit to Washington (where Foer grew up) of a crass Israeli cousin; events include an encounter with Steven Spielberg in an airport toilet (he turns out not to have been circumcised). Foer seems reluctant here to invent anything other than lines of ‘comic’ dialogue; the story reads like a set of notes meant to be fleshed out later by a funnier writer. Surely he is young to have run out of stories already.
There are five brief essays on ‘Childhood Reading’ in this New Yorker: none talks straightforwardly about books. In one the author humblebrags about how fast he read children’s classics when he was ten; in another The Secret Garden is criticised for not being liberal enough; two other writers complain about growing up in households where there weren’t any books. ‘Childhood TV’ might have been a safer topic for these pieces: not only is writing fiction a cause of great anguish for New Yorker writers – even reading it seems fraught with anxiety.
The only satisfying pieces in this ‘Fiction Issue’ are Anthony Lane’s essay (pp. 94–101) on a new biography of the photographer Diane Arbus (1923–1971); and ‘Citizen Khan’ (pp. 78–89) by Kathryn Schulz, which tells the story of “Hot Tamale Louie”, an Afghan immigrant who arrived in Wyoming in 1909, opened a popular hamburger stand there in 1916 and was murdered in Pakistan in 1964 (aged around 77). These narratives are skilfully composed, and if Diane Arbus is less sympathetic a figure than “Hot Tamale Louie”, then at least something can be learnt from her life too. Lane and Schulz entertain because they instruct, not the other way round.
In an age of compulsive autobiography it seems natural that the New Yorker’s writers want their fiction to look like memoir or biography – or perhaps only memoir, given that they don’t want to be seen appropriating anybody else’s life stories. It’s much safer to “stick close to home” and “write what you know”. Ben Lerner, Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer may have already reached the final stages of their careers: as tenured professors of Creative Writing they are guaranteed a modest (though comfortable) income for life, with no real work to do in exchange – as long as they don’t anger any of their students.
The New Yorker’s writers have committed themselves to today’s most fashionable political positions. But these fashions shift without warning: you only know you have crossed a line when you are punished for it. Whence these writers’ tactical self-absorption. The problem isn’t politics or fashion, but the violence with which anyone can be shamed for transgressing the one or the other. These writers live in a culture that has not defined heresy, but is nonetheless eager to root out heretics – not least among creative artists. There is little incentive to invent a character or make up a story if it’s dangerous to offend someone by doing so. What a delicious irony: writers who teach Creative Writing, yet feel compelled to keep their mouths shut.