Brown and out in New York

Tina Brown took the New Yorker off its pedestal and brought it down to dirty earth. Her next stop: Hollywood.

By James Poniwozik
Published July 9, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Tina Brown resigned yesterday as editor of the New Yorker magazine. Brown will join Miramax to run a division that will produce a magazine, books, movies and television programs. Though no successor has been named at press time, "friends of Brown" cited by the New York Times bet on former Spy and New York magazine editor Kurt Andersen.

That you give a rat's ass about any of the above is testimony to Brown's success as editor.

For in the Elysian days before Brown, a reader of the New Yorker was not supposed to think much about such pedestrian matters as who actually ran The Magazine and how. During the decades-long editorship of the monkish William Shawn, the New Yorker had assumed the status of the summit of American letters, with all that "summit" entails -- the immutability, the arid beauty, the dizziness and hypoxia after the long trek to the top of a Ved Mehta essay. Certainly Shawn would not be editor forever, but one would hardly assume that a human could "change" the New Yorker any more than one would assume that a new head of the National Parks Service could change, say, Mount McKinley.

Well, William Shawn was forced out by new owner S.I. Newhouse, the New Yorker has been subsumed into the Condé Nast range and that's "Denali" to you now, bud. In 1992 Brown left Vanity Fair to follow the caretaker interregnum of Robert Gottlieb, but really -- as she instituted modernization and glamorization measures antithetical to the old New Yorker's ethos -- she was seen as succeeding Shawn. Or betraying him.

Brown instituted a number of changes to boost the magazine's circulation, profile and cocktail-chatter status. She introduced photographs, threw huge publicity events, rushed copies into the hands of media buzz-makers and -- most important -- declared that the New Yorker would be timely: It would handicap politics, send writers around the world to follow events, even (gasp!) cover the entertainment industry.

That is, Tina Brown turned the New Yorker into a magazine. Whether you consider that statement praise or damnation pretty much sums up what you think of Tina Brown. Frankly, I have to wonder whether the people who rail over Brown's editorship really like magazines at all -- damned glib, flimsy, ephemeral things that they are with their pretty little pictures and wisecracking stylists. Whoever takes over from Brown will have the unofficial mandate of much of the community of Good Readers -- all those saintly folk who dogear their E. B. Whites and never leave the diereses
off their "coëfficients" -- to lead the magazine out of hell, and plenty of armchair Virgils offering road maps (not to mention résumés and clip files).

So, did the New Yorker go to hell under Tina Brown? Damned straight; and sending it there was probably the best thing she could have done for it. The magazine before her tenure was heaven indeed: pristine and flawless and timeless and best suited to the dead. Hell, as Sartre defined it, is other people, and the compromised New Yorker that Brown created is aimed at readers as they are -- filthy and profane and a little more concerned about sex and celebrity than is probably good for them -- not as they should be.

As a result, certainly, the magazine has published plenty of hogwash over the past six years: a lamentable "women's issue" edited in consultation with Roseanne; numerous celebrity love letters by writers who know better (like the recent Warren Beatty piece by the usually excellent Henry Louis Gates); and, memorably, two breathy, you-are-there-journalism pieces penned by Brown herself on Princess Diana and President Clinton.

But it has also become a magazine one can turn to in an attempt to understand more about the petty, dirty world we live in, rather than escape it through high-minded timeless features on literature and geology. It is not, despite the way it has been caricatured -- largely as a result of Brown's admittedly crass publicity tactics -- a stupid or shallow magazine. It is no less intellectually important than it was before she came to it; and in some ways it is more so. Several times over the past year I've gone to the New Yorker for analysis of a current political issue -- the settlement in Northern Ireland or a political crisis in Israel -- and found an article that miraculously managed to offer a fresh take on the subject, actually getting me to think in a new way about whatever bromide-ridden topic it addressed. Likewise, the fiction section has been converted from a museum of honest, plain, Shaker-style declarative sentences to a wild assemblage of interesting voices: If that means publishing the occasional Fiction 102 manque avec buzz like Sapphire, that's the price you pay.

The next few weeks will be one of those gleeful blessed epochs in journalism: a time when writers and colleagues get to tee off on the record and with gusto against somebody who was recently powerful. For as Brown heads off to her Miramax post, she is not exactly becoming a nobody -- but she will not be the somebody with the keys to what is still, whatever one thinks of its present incarnation, the world's most coveted byline. Couple Brown's departure with the recent exile of her husband, Harold Evans, from Random House to a lower-wattage post under Mort Zuckerman, and Sanitation may be sweeping the skeletonized remains of the erstwhile power couple off Fifth Avenue by the time you read this article.

Well, hell, dig in and enjoy. Save a drumstick for me, in fact, and if I'm not around, bundle it up for me in a greasy tear sheet emblazoned with the profile of Eustace Tilley. That might be the best tribute, in fact, to that woman who dared bring a sense of perspective to that maga-- sorry,
that institution. That Brit who dared suggest that, after all, yesterday's news was something you use to wrap fish and chips.

James Poniwozik

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