And why not? Brown is finally enjoying herself at the New Yorker, she told Smith, “now that the dragons have been slain and I am surrounded by talents like David Remnick and Joe Klein and Adam Gopnik.” This is an interesting comment — and not merely because Joe Klein and Adam Gopnik aren’t necessarily the first names that pop into one’s head when contemplating the glories of the New Yorker circa 1997. It is an interesting comment because it makes you pause to wonder: What dragons, exactly, is Tina Brown proud of having put to death?
Brown is surely referring, at least in part, to the petrified mummies she has driven from the magazine’s editorial staff. (The New Yorker is famous for its tenured ghosts, the lit-world Boo Radleys who lurk in corners decades past their prime.) She is also probably talking about gifted writers such as Ian Frazier and Jamaica Kincaid, who never bothered to hide their loyalty to the earlier William Shawn (1952-1987) and Robert Gottlieb (1987-1992) regimes. Frazier and Kincaid have spit plenty of fire since quitting the magazine; in an interview with Salon last year, among many others, Kincaid called Brown a vulgarian who has turned the New Yorker into “a version of People magazine.”
For longtime readers of the New Yorker, however, Brown’s remarks resonate on a more metaphorical level. The only dragons that have been slain, her admirers argue, are the snobbery, pretension and profound self-indulgence that marked the magazine under her predecessors. (No more 25,000-word articles about soybeans! No more coy phrasings — “A friend writes,” “We’ve always felt” — in Talk of the Town! Fewer autumnal Ann Beattie short stories!) Her detractors lament that Brown has cold-bloodedly spiked whatever commitment the magazine has traditionally had to thoroughness, modesty and non-topicality. (Shirtless photos of Kato Kaelin? Roseanne as editorial consultant? Ken Auletta?) Depending on whom you ask, Brown is either her generation’s most adroit zeitgeist surfer or the lead zombie in a highbrow remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” There’s not a lot of middle ground.
It has been almost five years since Brown leapt from her perch as editor of Vanity Fair to take control of the New Yorker, the world’s most venerated magazine — enough time for her to have left her mark on nearly every aspect of the journal Harold Ross founded in 1925. And it is probably time to tear a question from the mouth of another publicity-minded New Yorker, former Mayor Ed Koch: How is she doing? The business report — to use a measure beloved by Brown herself — has been mixed. The magazine has yet to turn a profit under her editorship, although the New York Times reported last fall that subscriptions are up nearly 40 percent, to more than 860,000. Yet Brown has succeeded brilliantly at what has always seemed to be her primary mission: creating an almost deafening weekly buzz around the magazine. “She has made the New Yorker hot, hot, hot,” says Forbes FYI editor and New Yorker humor writer Christopher Buckley. “To borrow what one might call a barnyard epithet, she has put together a fucking great magazine. People read it, and they talk about it.”
America’s chattering classes may talk about the New Yorker almost as obsessively as the rest of the country talks about movies, but God help the journalist who tries to get anyone in the media industry to talk about it on the record. It is perhaps the surest measure of Brown’s enormous clout in the publishing world that even the most established writers are terrified — absolutely terrified — of offending her in even the slightest, most glancing way.
“My God, man, are you crazy?” one internationally known journalist said to me (he hasn’t published in the New Yorker, yet) when I called with a few questions about the magazine. “If I told you what I really want to tell you, I’d be cutting off my nose to spite my face.” A normally loquacious social critic was suddenly “too busy” to talk. A book critic at a national magazine wiggled off the hook by claiming, implausibly, that he “didn’t read” the magazine. A perfectly pleasant interview with Christopher Buckley — who proclaimed himself “a master of the suck-up” and then gracefully proved that assertion — took a tailspin when I asked, toward the end of our talk, if there was anything about the current incarnation of the magazine that he did not love. Buckley paused for what seemed like an eternity. Then he chortled and said: “My friend, do not bullshit the bullshitter.”
One frequent New Yorker contributor explained the pervasive Fear of Tina in these terms: “Appearing in this magazine can literally turn your career around. My book editor told me, point blank, that the fact that I wrote for the New Yorker was the deal clincher for her publishing house. It got me my book contract. It’s really that childish.” Will Blythe, formerly the fiction editor for Esquire, put it a little differently: “The New Yorker brings out the grade-grubbing schoolboy in almost every writer. Everyone — even people you think would be well above it — wants that gold star.”
Whether everyone in the literary and journalism worlds believes that Tina Brown herself deserves a gold star, however, is another matter altogether.
With a few exceptions, the articles themselves could have been culled from a much earlier era. The long profiles (poet James Laughlin, botanist Richard Evans Schultes) were generally of figures somewhat out of the public eye, and they were not timed to give a boost to anything the subject might be promoting. John McPhee was publishing his three-part “Annals of the Former World” series on geology. The centerpiece of almost every issue was a notebook-emptying report from one of the magazine’s “far-flung” correspondents: Stan Sesser on Singapore, Fred C. Shapiro on Mongolia, Robin Wright on Turkestan. The year’s biggest controversy was over publisher Stephen T. Florio’s announcement that subscribers would no longer receive the magazine in a plain brown wrapper; it would now arrive attached to an eco-friendly peel-off label.
What the New Yorker needed, if you believe the critic (and occasional New Yorker writer) Stanley Crouch, was a lightning strike — something to get this monster on its feet again. “Tina Brown was just the person the New Yorker had to have,” he says, “because she really is the last great circus master.” Brown not only cajoled and tamed the New Yorker’s rumbling elephants, Crouch said, but she brought in some much-needed “trick-shooting marksmen, clowns, and women in bikinis” to jazz things up. Crouch declined to speculate on who those “clowns” at the New Yorker might be, but he feels that livening up the magazine does not run counter to its loftier goals. “Shakespeare had jokes in his plays, things to amuse the people in the pits,” he says. “Even Duke Ellington had clowns who would perform during his shows in between the great numbers. Tina Brown cares about the weighty things, but listen — she wasn’t hired to help the magazine go out of business.”
Brown’s first issue of the New Yorker appeared in late September 1992 — the issue was dated Oct. 5 — and everything about it signaled her intentions for the magazine. On the cover was an Edward Sorel drawing that depicted a scrawny punk sprawled across the passenger seat of an elegant horse-drawn carriage, much to the driver’s chagrin, in Central Park. Most observers assumed that punk was a stand-in for Brown herself. That issue’s longest feature story, Mark Singer’s profile of a prisoner who claimed to have once sold pot to Dan Quayle (he was lying, Singer discovered much later), was as topical as could be. So was Robert Hughes’ meditation, titled “Fetus, Don’t Fail Me Now,” on the bizarre mascot chosen for Atlanta’s Olympic Games. In the Talk of the Town section, James Wolcott — whom Brown had brought with her from her tenure at Vanity Fair — wrote a signed piece in which he took a passing jab at gadfly book editor Morgan Entrekin. (Entrekin’s motto, Wolcott wrote, is “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Comb.”) A friend writes? Not anymore.
Brown’s first two years at the New Yorker saw plenty of genuine triumphs: Janet Malcolm’s extended meditation on Sylvia Plath; Mark Danner’s investigation of genocide in El Salvador, titled “The Truth of El Mozote,” which occupied nearly an entire issue; and two remarkable pieces about AIDS — Ted Conover’s report on riding with truckers through the East African AIDS belt and Stan Sesser’s piece about why AIDS is such a taboo subject in Japan.
But it was also a turbulent, and slightly surreal, time. The ongoing Janet Malcolm libel case was rubbing some of the mystique from the magazine’s vaunted fact-checking department, and it didn’t help when the magazine had to admit “errors of reporting, checking and editing” in a Talk of the Town piece on Court TV head Steven Brill. (The Talk section, which seems to go through a new editor every six months, was then the source of almost weekly mini-scandals: a complimentary piece about ex-East German leader Erich Honecker turned out to have been written by his lawyer’s wife; John le Carré complained publicly that Talk had attacked a book merely because it was unfavorable to Harry Evans.)
There were other problems. New Republic writer Sidney Blumenthal had replaced Elizabeth Drew as the magazine’s chief Washington correspondent, but his pieces were so unabashedly pro-Clinton that they quickly became the butt of countless jokes. (Blumenthal recently, and unsurprisingly, took a job as a Clinton aide.) Suddenly, the magazine’s far-flung reporters weren’t so far-flung anymore. One bantamweight report, under the heading “Our Far-Flung Correspondents,” appeared in March 1993 with the groaning title: “Why ‘Northern Exposure’ isn’t exactly a hit in Roslyn, Washington.” Peter J. Boyer was reporting breathlessly on Jay Leno’s travails, and Ken Auletta (whose soothing portraits of Hollywood mucky-mucks and media moguls are frequently cited by critics as epitomizing the worst of the buzz-and-power obsession of the Tina Regime) on New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
It was often amusing — or a little sad, depending on your point of view — to watch Brown nudge some dawdling party guests out the front door. When she devoted a huge chunk of real estate in 1993 to one of Ved Mehta’s meandering reminiscences of Oxford, she broke up Mehta’s essay with so many diversions — a slew of cartoons, two poems, an appraisal of Reggie Jackson by Roger Angell, a column-length Barry Blitt cartoon panel riffing on “Norman Mailer’s Picasso,” a full-page Roz Chast cartoon and some Sue Coe drawings of scenes from criminal court — that it was like watching a nervous host rushing to plunk ice in her guest’s drinks to distract them from the ramblings of an embarrassing uncle. It felt like short attention span theater.
The New Yorker lost many admirers in those years, and most of them it has not gained back. “There was a time in my life when the New Yorker made a difference,” says Barbara Ehrenreich, the journalist and Time magazine essayist. “I can remember, to give just one example, when my father read Frances Fitzgerald’s ‘Fire in the Lake’ in the New Yorker in the 1960s. That writing literally changed his mind about Vietnam. There are no articles like that in the New Yorker today.”
Ehrenreich has kept her subscription to the magazine, but says she will not renew it. “There is not enough I care about in it any longer,” she says. “As a reader I’m not above trash. But there is so much fashion and celebrity in the New Yorker now, and that’s stuff I can get in People magazine or the tabloids.” Ehrenreich says, for example, that she tried to read a recent New Yorker memoir about having a beautiful best friend, but it had problems that many of the magazine’s articles do now. “That’s a great topic, and it could have been a wonderful piece,” she says. “But it kept getting lighter and lighter. By the end it was all about famous guys and clothes.”
Another writer, a well-known literary journalist, says that he looks forward to the magazine each week — “You’ve got to see who’s in there, you know” — but that he deplores the magazine’s current tone. “Tina Brown does have a terrific eye for what’s interesting about a piece,” he said. “But the whole tone tends toward mere journalism now. There is an emphasis on the celebrity profile, on the report that is no more than a report.”
More worrisome, this writer said, is that many of the New Yorker writers he knows have begun to censor themselves. “There has been such a loss of reflectiveness, of meditative prose, and of regard for the turning of a
thought,” he said. “Writers have learned to leave such things out of their pieces, because they know the New Yorker editors will cut them. So they try to publish the stray bits and pieces elsewhere — and they are often the best parts of an article.”
Not everyone shares this critic’s disdain for the magazine’s editing, however. Indeed, according to several current New Yorker writers, the editing is precisely what draws them to the magazine — not its pay (usually $1.50 or $2 per word, roughly the industry average for glossies) or its prestige.
“People bitch about the editing,” says one journalist. “But as exhausting as that kind of word by word editing is, I love it. It’s the only place where a group of extremely capable people apply themselves with this amazing force and concentration to something I’ve written. You have these moments where you realize: This is as good as it gets. Everything else is a come-down.”
Other writers, though, say they’re lucky to have survived the experience. They claim to have been tortured by multiple, and often contradictory, rewrites. “They’ve got layers upon layers of editors over there, and they’re always second-guessing one another,” says a well-known female writer. “Even the shortest pieces I write go through about seven editors, and at the end of all that I can often barely recognize my voice in the article.”
The same writer says she was forced to rewrite one article nearly 10 times. “It’s not worth it, either emotionally or financially,” she said. “You get 10 grand — but you realize you’ve lost 10 months in the process.” This fact, as well as Brown’s penchant for overassigning articles and killing many of them, says another writer, is why “half of the writers in New York want her head on a pike.”
For his part, Stanley Crouch says that most of the New Yorker’s critics are merely jealous. “If resentment and envy were radioactive,” he says, his booming laughter echoing into the telephone, “then New York City would be 500 times worse than Chernobyl!” As for Ehrenreich’s remark about Francis Fitzgerald’s Vietnam writing, he says: “If there’s a great writer out there with something to say, you know the New Yorker will find him or her.”
crouch likes to call Brown a circus master. What she may really be, however, is journalism’s most deft party host — which might explain why the magazine’s huge and tumultuous special issues, which she initiated, have often seemed among her most successful. With a few exceptions (notably the special fashion issue, which seemed to shimmy more for advertisers than readers), these are books that, as one publishing world observer put it, “no other editor in the world could have pulled together. They keep you in beach-house reading for weeks at a time.” A special Hollywood issue in 1994, for example, not only dredged up work from the magazine’s past masters (Benchley, Perelman, Flanner) but featured Nicholson Baker on movie projectors, Henry Louis Gates Jr. on the young black filmmakers the Hughes brothers, John Updike on Gene Kelly’s moves and an extended interview with Pauline Kael. A fiction issue in 1995 snagged work from a huge swath of this century’s literary killer elite: Roth, Styron, Ford, Amis, Oates, Doctorow, Updike, Naipaul and Theroux. When you have this much buttered popcorn, to paraphrase a Pauline Kael film review, it hardly matters whether every kernel pops.
The New Yorker’s special issues don’t appear all that often, however. And if Brown claims that she’s finally slain her dragons, is finally having fun and running the magazine she wants to run, the real question is: What kind of magazine, week in and week out, is that?
For many readers, this one included, the New Yorker has long been defined by the back of its book, and the magazine’s longer-term critics (Kael on film, Updike on books, Croce on dance) have influenced a generation of writers. Of the three most notable critics Brown brought in with her, two are imports from the U.K. — Anthony Lane from the Independent and the American-born John Lahr, who also worked for the British press. Another, James Wolcott, tiptoed over from Vanity Fair.
Lane, who shares film reviewing duties with Terrence Rafferty, wasted no time in establishing himself as the magazine’s most accessible, and probably most beloved, critical voice. A merry sprite, Lane strews comic riffs like pixie dust as he gambols along. (“To lap-dance,” he explained in his review of “Showgirls,” “you undress, sit your client down, order him to stay still and fully clothed, then hover over him, making a motion that you have perfected by watching Mister Softee ice-cream dispensers.”) Lane also happens to be one of the few film critics remaining who can send you rushing out of your chair and into a movie you never thought you’d want to see — “Speed,” for example — if only to share the giddy buzz in his cranium. Lane’s most obvious fault is that, when he comes to a fork in the road, he’ll always go low instead of high, settling for a hammy joke instead of reaching for something more exact. Entire truckloads of his cracks are already browning at the edges: “He’s blond, and he’s thoughtful,” Lane chirped about the title character in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Zoe Baird-era film “Little Buddha,” “and his nanny, so far as we know, is not an illegal alien.”
John Lahr has made a bigger splash with his profiles (Woody Allen, Roseanne), which he dashes off in a high style reminiscent of Kenneth Tynan’s, than he has with his theater reviews. Wolcott is a special case. The most caustic cat in captivity, on a good day he’s the most fearless and rangy critic alive. At the New Yorker, however, he was boxed into the TV beat, where he grappled futilely with an endless parade of talk shows and Fox sitcoms. (It was as if Brown had hired H.L. Mencken and told him he could only review breakfast cereal.) Wolcott has since fled back to Vanity Fair, where his eponymous column once again scorches a monthly hole in the coffee table.
The New Yorker’s book criticism, oddly, leaves a slightly less distinct impression. John Updike’s pieces are always worth seeking out, but other worthy bylines blend together. James Linville, an editor at the Paris Review, says “The world of letters needs a Robert Hughes, if not another Lionel Trilling or Alfred Kazin — that is, an authoritative critic who addresses a wide audience on a regular basis. The first place one should look for someone like this would be the New Yorker, and they simply haven’t given us that.”
Linville does have praise for the New Yorker’s fiction editor, Bill Buford, whom Brown hired away from Granta magazine in 1995. “With Buford’s arrival they’ve dropped that sense of their own sacredness,” he says, “and it’s been exciting to see the vital currents of the culture, high and low, flowing through the magazine.” Buford has kept many of the magazine’s longtime contributors (Tobias Wolff, Lorrie Moore, Tim O’Brien) while opening the New Yorker’s doors to younger writers like David Foster Wallace, Donald Antrim and A.M. Homes. Buford has also been scanning the horizon for international fiction, like the fine story by Vladimir Arsenijevic, a young Serbian writer, that ran in January 1996.
Linville — and several other book-industry observers — do have one beef with the current state of the New Yorker’s fiction, however. “It gives you pause to see in their pages, in place of a beautifully made short story, a brilliant set piece from a hot novel that appears on the very week of a publisher’s release,” Linville says. A New York book review editor put it this way: “the New Yorker used to encourage fiction writers, and publish their best work well before it found its way into book form. Now they’re often simply grabbing choice excerpts and publishing them as the writer’s books appear. It’s as if they’re simply hoping some of that writer’s glamour rubs off on them.”
When it comes to the New Yorker’s nonfiction, nearly every writer interviewed — those who work for the magazine, as well as those who do not — professed to have more respect for the magazine’s longer reported pieces than for its profiles. “The profiles are always solid, but they are far more formulaic than they once were,” says one regular New Yorker writer. “It almost doesn’t matter whose byline is on top of them. They’re like journalism school exercises.”
If the magazine’s profiles have grown more formulaic, one reason might simply be space limitations. When Jervis Anderson published a magisterial profile of Ralph Ellison in 1976, for example, you felt like he had all the room in the world to climb into his subject’s soul — his lovely, unhurried piece ran to what felt like (I didn’t count them) 20,000 words. Anderson had spent what felt like weeks with this subject. In 1994, David Remnick revisited Ellison for a short, topical profile (“While the literary world awaits a second novel from Ralph Ellison, now eighty, his early work is once again in the forefront of black intellectual debate”), and while Remnick is as sure-footed as any journalist alive, his piece was a quick hit — the kind of thing that any good writer could have tossed off with a few week’s advance notice.
Anderson’s long Ellison profile ran under the spare headline “Going to the Territory,” with the novelist’s name in small print under a line drawing. This makes an interesting contrast with the topical and almost comically leering headlines that are dropped on the magazine’s literary profiles today. A piece about Ayn Rand was subtitled: “Ayn Rand — cult figure, Nietzsche disciple, founder of Objectivism — was also a girl who was crazy about boys.” A profile of Iris Murdoch promised, “If you know Iris Murdoch’s wild and dark novels, you won’t believe her life with John Bayley.”
The real competition, New Yorker writers say, is for the extended center-of-book reporting pieces. These articles may not be as lengthy and meditative as they once were — “Thank God,” says Stanley Crouch — but the magazine continues to showcase, on a regular basis, the best literary
journalism being written in America. Open almost any issue and you find pieces like Lawrence Wright’s on the mysteries of identical twins, Alec Wilkinson’s on witnesses to Khmer Rouge atrocities who’ve gone blind, Jonathan Harr’s on the “crash detectives” probing the causes behind the crash of USAir flight 427, Tina Rosenberg’s on the legacy of Apartheid, Joe Morgenstern’s on the confessions of the engineer of New York’s towering Citicorp Center, who realized his building could be blown down, and Henry Louis Gates’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man.”
Articles like Gates’ have won over some of Brown’s critics. “One thing I hated about the old New Yorker was that it had such a predictable, and very unsophisticated, white liberal perspective on race issues,” says one contributor. “When Tina got there, to her credit, she changed that. She has hired not only many black writers but many gay ones, and there is no whiff of affirmative action. It’s meant a great deal to me to see pieces by writers like Gates, Malcolm Gladwell and Hilton Als in the magazine. They make up for all of those Ken Auletta pieces about Michael Ovitz.”
Brown’s New Yorker has pushed other boundaries, too. Susan Faludi’s long story about male porn stars introduced the phrase “waiting for wood” into the vernacular, and it featured long stretches of quoted dialogue — a female star “can choose who she wants to fuck, when she wants to fuck, the script that she wants to fuck in, what day they are going to fuck” — that almost certainly had William Shawn spinning in his grave. (Shawn was so sensitive to vulgarity, Louis Menand has noted, that he once coerced Kenneth Tynan into replacing the term “pissoir” in a theater review with the phrase “a circular curbside construction.”) Shawn has been kept spinning — the following week’s issue featured an Avedon photograph of a half-dressed Nadja Auermann getting bonked in a doorway by a skeleton — and he’s not likely to be at rest anytime soon.
The New Yorker needed to unleash its language. But many critics have argued that the magazine’s other attempts to be “provocative” — that Avedon fashion spread, Annie Leibovitz’s racy photos from the O.J. Simpson soap opera and some of Art Spiegelman’s covers (an Easter bunny crucified on an IRS tax form) — have often felt merely shallow and stagy. When longtime New Yorker writer George W. S. Trow handed in his resignation, he complained bitterly about the magazine’s fascination with the Simpson case. “For you to kiss the ass of celebrity culture at this moment that way,” he wrote, “is like selling your soul to get close to the Hapsburgs — in 1913.” To Brown’s credit, she gave Trow’s overheated letter a very public hearing at the magazine’s 70th anniversary party in 1995. The actor John Lithgow read the letter, and then Debra Winger — in what the New York Post described as “a suitably immaculate English accent” — read Brown’s response: “I am distraught at your defection, but since you never actually write anything, I should say I am notionally distraught.”
ultimately, the issue probably isn’t whether or not the New Yorker can survive the occasional cheesy stunt — or, as Stanley Crouch might put it, the occasional clown or bikini babe. Instead it is whether, as Maureen Dowd suggested in a 1995 New York Times column, it might be worthwhile for Brown to use “her shock tactics more creatively — on bold fiction or reportage.”
As good as the New Yorker has often been under Brown’s tenure, and as dramatically as she has revamped it, it is arguable that she has failed thus far to take some essential risks — that is, to do the fundamental work of a pioneering editor. Her magazine, for example, has been far better at acquiring hot writers than discovering new ones. (“Who has she launched?” asks an editor at a national magazine.) Nor has her New Yorker delivered a fresh, original vision of America or the world in the way that, say, Rolling Stone did in the early ’70s with Hunter S. Thompson, Joe Eszterhas and Timothy Crouse, or that Harold Ross did in the New Yorker’s early days with writers like James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and S.J. Perelman. There’s no statement behind the buzz.
Whatever power, mystique and moral seriousness the old New Yorker possessed was accumulated by staying above the fray — by resolutely refusing to surrender to the urgencies of the moment. Under Tina Brown that mystique has been stripped briskly away. The magazine that remains is more like a supercharged cigarette boat, complete with flashy decals, than the roomy, well-worn frigate it once was — it’s agile, adept at tight turns. It’s easy to find yourself admiring its sleekness while mourning its reduced throw weight.
Above all, you mourn the loss of the old New Yorker’s stubborn individuality. Brown has made the New Yorker more readable by performing one fairly simple trick: She has made it more like every other magazine in America. Despite its high seriousness and its marvelous writers, the New Yorker feeds at the great trough of celebrity culture like all the rest.
At this moment, Tina Brown’s magazine is probably the finest cigarette boat roaring through the choppy waters of American journalism — but the sea is full of cigarette boats. She has entered her magazine in the race, and as she steers it toward the millennium, it’s hard not to imagine others gaining on her.