New Yorker excels at intelligent, pithy copy

Jul 2 issue reaches peak with McPhee, Finnegan, Lahr, Denby

Is there a new editor responsible?

Have New Yorker writers found new inspiration with the arrival of some new editor, or is there some other explanation for its current burst of ideal not-very-long form magazine writing?

This week’s issue (Jul 2, found in the mail Jun 26 Mon) is exemplary in many of its pages, with the unusual exception of a Shout and Murmurs which is gratuitously rude about our sterling neighbor to the North.

Steve Coll kicks off Talk of the Town with Comment on A Nation of Immigrants, which deftly exposes the disloyalty of Marco Rubio to the memory of his Cuban grandfather, whose very own illegal immigration into the US ina flight to Miami without a valid visa was quietly allowed by the grace of some lenient immigration officials.

Radical nativism is turning America’s foundational narrative into a wedge, and Republican leaders are going along, unwilling to challenge their base’s dislocated anger. They are undermining national cohesion in ways large and small. Almost all immigrantsuccess stories involve serendipity and empathy from those who arrived earlier. Sometimes the stories turn on the restraint of local police officers. That seems to be the import of Pedro Victor Garcia’s experience, of only his grandson—and his grandson’s party—could discern it.

McPhee on the writing life

A few pages on we have the amusing and well turned essay on The Writing Life by the seasoned John McPhee, famous and eventually derided by some for the leisurely length of his long form nonfiction on geological topics. McPhee describes his life under three editors, William Shawn and Robert Gottlieb at the New Yorker, and Roger Straus his friend and publisher.

The most memorable quote comes from Shawn, when McPhee expressed astonishment for Shawn’s ability to spend the time on editing his piece given that there was so much else for Shawn to attend to. Shawn simply replied, “It takes as long as it takes.”

Then there is the matter of titles, written by the writer and too often lopped off by editors at other magazines:

Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative—that they can buy a piece, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New Yorker—Vogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title. Editors’ habit of replacing an author’s title with one of their own is like a photo of tourist’s head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong. But the title missing on the Bill Bradley piece ((his first for the New Yorker, this was a 17,000 word profile of Bradley who was then a student at Princeton)) was my oversight. I put no title on the manuscript. Shawn did. He hunted around in the text and found six words spoken by the subject, and when I saw the first New Yorker proof the piece was called “A sense of Where You Are” I have been grateful for that for nearly fifty years.

In a small but rather dismaying irony the subhead of the piece is The name of the subject shall not be the title, yet its title is precisely the names of its subjects. The rule was a principle of Shawn’s, even though as it happens he was once persuaded to allow McPhee to title his second piece (on oranges) for the magazine “Oranges”, even after he had crossed out “Oranges” as the original title and substituted a line from Andrew Marvell (“Golden lamps in a Green Night”).

Yet this present piece is flatfootedly titled Editors and Publisher, disregarding Shawn’s rule entirely for some unfathomable reason possibly to do with an attempt at inside humor, but one which would make George Booth’s dog even more crosseyed, to borrow a phrase from McPhee.

The drug war in Mexico

Following that we have a fine Letter from Mexico, The Kingpins, The fight for Guadalajara. This tour de force by William Finnegan manages to give a clear picture of how Mexico is tormented by its drug gangs despite the many layers of secrecy and speculation curtaining that reality. There have been 50,000 deaths so far in the battles of rival gangs for territory which now center on Guadalajara, and in busts by the Mexican army and often corrupted police, who may even return the drugs quietly later.

When Mexicans discuss the news, they talk often about pantellas—screens, illusions, behind which are more screens, all created to obscure the facts…I can’t count the number of times I have been asked about a news story and been told, “Pantella.” This is a problem for journalism. You fish for facts and instead pull up boatloads of speculation, some of it well informed, much of it trailing tangled agendas. You end up reporting not what happened so much as what people think or imagine or say what happened. Then there is the entirely justified fear of speaking to the press, particularly to foreign journalistrs. I have had to offer anonymity, pseudonyms, and extraordinary assurances to many sources for this account. The reprisals that people are trying to avoid would come not only from crime groups but, in many cases, from factions within the Mexican government.

Finnegan starts off his piece with a cruel description of presidential candidate, now elect, Enrique Pena Nieto at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, in a Sarah Palin moment, awkwardly trying to name three books that had influenced him.

He mentioned the Bible, or, at least, “some parts” (unspecified), and “The Eagle’s Throne”, a Carlos Fuentes novel (though he named the historian Enrqiue Krauze as the author). And, for a few excruciatin minutes, that was all he could come up with. The crowd laughed wickedly. Pena Nieto’s wife, a former soap-opera star, squirmed in the front row. His teen-age daughter didn’t help matters when, in a tweet, she scorned “all of the idiots who form part of the proletariat and only criticise those they envy.”

Now that Pena Nieto and the PRI have regained the power they lost in 2001 after seven decades of rule, Finnegan’s conclusion is especially relevant. It predicts that the violence may now abate, though the industry will continue to flourish:

He changed the subject, to politics. “If the PRI wins, everything’s going to change,” he said. “Everybody will start getting paid again. They know how to do it.” He pantomimed a payment, counting out cash to a circle of people. “The media, too,” he said, mock paying me.
It was true: the PRI, when in power, paid some journalists extravagantly, and supported mmany newspapers and other media in return for coverage that suited its purposes.
“There will be just one big group”, Rodriguez said. “Maybe it will be El Chapo. But there will be peace.”

The piece is not only a cliffhanger but exhibits the extraordinary level of articulate compression that seems to have been exclusively patented by the New Yorker.

Critics Lahr and Denby excel

John Lahr’s review of Love’s Labor Lost in the Delacorte Theater is another distinguished piece, displaying an imaginative and informed response to the performance and the work on a level rarely seen in other periodicals these days, yet written and edited with the casual ease which remains a hallmark of the magazine. In fact we dare say the piece is more enjoyable and rewarding than the performance itself, judging from an early preview we saw at the Delacorte, where the famous soliloquy on the Ages of Man was rushed and limp beyond repair.

(Lily) Rabe’s charisma is helped by her graceful, athletic body and her husky voice, but what really shines across the footlights is her authenticity. At the finale, swept up in the high spirits of the wedding hoedown, Rabe’s Rosalind kisses Orlando and lets her lips linger on his as they start to sashay around the stage in a kind of spirited Texas two-step. Shakespeare provides a song for the elegaic moment: “Hey-ding-a-ding ding/Sweet lovers love the spring.” For me, whatever the Bard had to say about joy and passion and the fragile hope for fulfilled desire was clinched in Rabe’s gesture.

The critics of the New Yorker are noble appreciators of the works they review, and in their sense of noblesse oblige they are the other end of the spectrum from the young men and women starting out in the field who like to smash the works they are offered with vicious if clever cruelty whose real aim seems to be to make a name for the critic rather than act as a helpful guide to the uninitiated. Perhaps the finest specimen of the latter came in the Times the other day, when a British violinist was reviewed in terms which must have left his pride in shreds if he made the mistake of taking it seriously. We dealt with this in the last post. One of the marks of intelligence and worldiness in the New Yorker is its essential kindness.

David Denby’s column on The Current Cinema, That’s Amore, “To Rome With Love” is another flight of brilliant fancy, where Woody Allen’s latest inspires such an admiring description that one wonders if one will share it when one sees the film. This is explanatory writing which may be essential to read beforehand, or risk not appreciating the work as one should.

The idea leaps into nutty showmanship, which is both hilarious and possibly a metaphor for Allen’s own life: exploiting his own confinements (Brooklyn obscurity, shrimpy size, neurotic fearfulness, etc.), he launched a tremendous career….
Allen is redoing as surrealist farce his old distaste for the invasive idiocy of fandom (which he skewered in Stardust Memories) and his amazement at the universal longing for an instant in the media lights (“Celbrity”)….
Allen is suggesting that narcissists are so powerfully appealing because you feel blessed when, even momentarily, the beam of their self-love turns towards you. In “To Rome With Love”, no one is destroyed by hooking up with the wrong person. Some lives are altered; some couple split up, others go back to their original partners and embrace their old existence again. The only crime imaginable in this benevolent movie is the unwillingness to take a chance.

Not only does the review expertly delineate the film with kind appreciation but it also somehow conveys its weaknesses which may suggest that you don’t want to see it, which is a very neat trick.

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2 Responses to New Yorker excels at intelligent, pithy copy

  1. DenisSkinner says:

    Maybe all this is the result of having a genuine, very accomplished writer as editor?

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