Media Circus

The New Yorker's double sex and love issue is good, but not worth taking the extra week off, reports James Poniewozik.

By James Poniewozik
Published August 20, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

"in the military, the media, the bedroom, the boardroom ... America is undergoing a sexual meltdown. The New Yorker investigates."

These words appeared earlier this summer on promotional inserts touting "Love Lessons," the New Yorker's current double issue on love, sex and relationships. But readers who seek information about America's "sexual meltdown" will remain unenlightened. It's never made clear, for one thing, which sexual meltdown they're talking about. Is it the one embodied by Paula Jones? Or Lorena Bobbitt? Gary Hart? JFK? FDR? Grover Cleveland? "Love Lessons" is a good read, but it doesn't blow the lid off an issue that has pretty much simmered uncovered on the national hearth since our first witch bake-off.

Accepting for the sake of argument, however, that there is a below-the-belt crisis unique to America in 1997, what can we say about it? You might safely assume, for starters, that Cynthia Ozick would be thousands of miles away from it -- but here she is, in the issue's first article, a rumination on lovesickness whose chief delight is that one gets to imagine its author playing Frisbee. You might think that it would have something to do with Americans, but you'd be wrong there too, judging by Allison Pearson's "Letter from London" on the affair of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. And you might think it'd be a big enough topic to fill up Talk of the Town at least, but it isn't -- unless Victor Navasky's stock investments are sexy.

Almost all stories, Louis Menand notes in the opening Comment, are love stories. Plenty of articles, he might have added, are love articles, if you interpret the topic broadly enough. So not only does the subject make selecting fiction for this issue a slam-dunk, it allows the New Yorker, after catching arrows over past special issues -- that the women issue was tainted by Roseanne, that Black in America wasn't down with the underclass -- to deliver a collection so widely ranging as to have no point at all. Well, maybe one: The new New Yorker is still, if you were wondering, not afraid to talk about sex. (Where the default New Yorker cartoon was once some caption slapped under a businessman talking into an intercom, today it is some caption slapped under a couple sitting up in bed.)

Take as evidence James H. Jones on the secret life of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the researcher who redefined the sexual norm in America while, his biographer Jones reveals, hightailing it as far outside that norm as a circle of colleagues-cum-group-sex-partners and various improvised scrotal cuffs would allow. It's a fascinating study, not just for the juicy bits but also for its dissection of the sociopolitical effects of Kinsey's work and his hidden agendas and biases. It's the sort of culturally minded New Yorker science piece you wish would last forever or was available in hardcover (as they often are). But it's also an eye-opening commentary on America's sexual meltdown of, ah, 1948.

Other articles extend the probe as far as the early '90s. Julie Salamon covers the exploding (at some point over the past decade) field of prenuptial agreements, and Meghan Daum relates the face-to-face fizzling of a relationship that began with e-mail from a fan. These are hardly cordite-scented bulletins from the trenches. The schemer in me, though, applauds Daum for selling the New Yorker this chestnut, and the magazine proves just square enough to hawk her affecting examination of urban loneliness with the goggling contents tag, "Brave New World Dept.: A young woman's romance and the dangers of cyberspace." (Spoiler: She lives to tell the tale.)

In fact, as defined by the advertising department's promise, the double issue consists of precisely one article, Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s "The Naked Republic." Gates is one of the biggest surprises of Tina Brown's editorship -- he could have easily phoned in the occasional think piece to lend the magazine academic cred, but he has, almost perversely, contributed some outstanding journalism. His is the Best and Brightest Beat: He brings out his fellow opinion leaders as a viper of the media could not, this time assembling Dick Morris, Jerry Falwell, Susan Estrich, Anita Hill and others on scandal and sexual politics. In Gates' piece, which calls for the restoration of sexual reticence and privacy, even at the risk of hypocrisy ("but don't say it as if it's a bad thing"), you get the first sense of a meltdown that is peculiar to our times, the result of "an intellectual and cultural movement that denounces the very ideal of privacy as an insidious vestige of patriarchy." You might argue with his conclusions -- he's chasing a lot of genies with a pretty tiny bottle -- but you can't accuse him of not taking the assignment seriously.

Perhaps the real, missed theme of the issue, though, is in the implicit debate between its title and its editorial content: How, if at all, do we separate love and sex? For the answer, look to Roger Angell's appreciation of "Lolita." Angell, in an issue about sex titled as an issue about love, reconsiders a book about love misapprehended as one about sex. Nabokov's accomplishment was that his first-person narrative had what our national sex dialogue lacks in spades: balance. "Forever changing sides and withholding judgment," Angell writes, Nabokov "has contrived to forestall both our outrage at his nasty hero and our contemptuous dismissal of his trivial, complicit Juliet." That Humbert Humbert can be both repellent and poignant -- and Dolly Haze both victim and vixen -- is a rejoinder, decades in advance, to our supposedly more sophisticated era, when everything but Megan's Law has been enlisted against the release of the movie remake.

Whether their inspiration is lofty or commercial, Tina Brown's double issues could become a means of distinguishing the magazine from pretenders, as its vaunted 25,000-word features once did. But not if they stick to core-sampling Texas-sized subjects -- Love, Race, Women -- that might have been chosen from a stack of ninth-grade civics papers. The magazine might learn something from Granta, which makes narrower and more idiosyncratic choices -- Ambition, Nazis, The Last Place on Earth -- letting the big picture take care of itself. (October's "Next Issue," on forecasting the future, seems more promising, and the fiction double issues have done better.) I wonder if "The Cuckoldry Issue," "Self-Love" -- or "Self-Abuse" -- might have been more fruitful.

In the end, "Love Lessons" is a better-than-average issue, just not sufficiently better to justify the extra week's wait for the next one; it's a summer's last fling designed to be discarded by Labor Day. I had some laughs -- I really did -- and the sex was good. I guess I was just looking for a little more of a commitment.

James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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