Steady hand on the Tilley

The double "New York" issue finds David Remnick's New Yorker sailing smoothly. Maybe too smoothly.

Published March 23, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Even if you don't live in New York, you live in New York. Those of us who actually reside in the city share it not just with 7 million residents but with billions of readers, movie buffs and sitcom fans who expect us to live the dream on their behalf, to endearingly oy-vey over its foibles, to meet their expectations of streetwise (but friendly! charming!) bada-bing-bada-boom vitality when they visit.

Likewise, even if you don't edit the New Yorker, if you read it, you fancy yourself its editor. So when Tina Brown left last July, succeeded by the magazine's star reporter, David Remnick, every wag -- particularly Brown's hidebound detractors -- had a raft of suggestions for following Tina's controversial, glamour-seeking act.

You may think you're the editor of the New Yorker, that is, but to the readers, you're really a docent, a custodian not only of the storied magazine but of its city -- or rather, their image of that city. Its historic disavowal of the little old lady from Dubuque notwithstanding, the New Yorker's job has long been to sell a certain mid-to-highbrow New York to honorary Upper West Siders throughout Saul Steinberg flyover country. And with the magazine's double "New York" issue (Feb. 22-Mar. 1), Remnick gives them the city and magazine they expect, with nary a Brownian shock in sight: a city, as Cynthia Ozick depicts it in her unctuous love letter, of "lectures, readings, rallies, dinner parties, chamber music in someone's living room."

New York the city makes great writers. But New York the subject makes great writers do terrible things, as proven in the stinking nosegays to Gotham the Times still occasionally bloats its Weekend section with. Before its grandeur and history, artists melt into besotted dime-store Whitmans, slathering another coat of purple on the tall masts of Mannahatta.

Firmly in that tradition is the issue's Edward Sorel cover, which depicts the city as a grand ocean liner (a gutsy image for a mag coming off a cruise scandal), composed of cultural and commercial monuments: the World Trade Center towers as smokestacks, Carnegie Hall as cockpit and, as figureheads, the lions of the New York Public Library main building (the romantic touchstone for the literary elite, who shower this midtown "symbol of democracy" with cash and valentines while the branch libraries languish; in one of his first public appearances as King of Quality Literature, Remnick genuflected at the "secular Sistine Chapel," addressing a highbrow lovefest for the $15 million renovation of the Rose Reading Room). Elegant couples dance and moon on the foredeck, while a businessman catches dollar bills in his hat. It's enough to make you wish Roseanne had signed on as guest editor to torpedo this hoity-toity barge.

Remnick -- a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist's journalist who has continued writing sharp features from his editor's chair (in unignorable contrast to Brown's ex cathedra love letters to Princess Diana and President Clinton), who is young and good-looking and well-spoken and well-liked and who, hell, can probably catch bullets between his teeth -- has received a respectful honeymoon from observers who would give a Steve Brill or a Michael Kinsley five seconds before cranking up the rack. And he has in fact quietly put out a solid, steady magazine. Editorially, he's done no harm, except perhaps for playing to the literate-class rage over the Starr investigation in a slew of articles starting last fall. (There is, of course, no irony whatsoever in making that statement in Salon Magazine.) The magazine is a little less celebrity-oriented but even more politically topical, and it's published attention-getting pieces like Seymour Hersh's on the anti-bin Laden air raids.

But the Sorel cover captures perfectly the worrisome, subtly conservative shifts in the first half year under Remnick, many of them aesthetic. The New Yorker covers of the Remnick era, for instance, are militantly cautious. Last fall, they harked back to the olden days with a geriatric "Brave New World Dept." technology theme: droll little pictures of archetypal upper-class New Yorkers using tech toys in archetypal New York situations. A power couple brunching on a roof terrace, reading -- no, not the newspaper -- their laptops! A pretty young socialite and a snowy-mustached geezer sit at the opera watching -- no, not the opera -- a hand-held TV! In another, a fortune teller gazes at a crystal ball -- hooked up to a computer! Tellingly, this last was by Art Spiegelman, who seems to be on a leash of decorum after having shocked bourgeois readers of the Brown era with Cupid skewering two lovers through the crotch, a Hasid kissing a black woman and the Easter Bunny crucified on a tax form. Tina Brown gave us a pustular, scary Eustace Tilley on the cover; the back page of the "New York" issue offers a subway car of clean-cut, mostly upscale Tilleys standing politely and talking on cell phones.

These are minutiae. But minutiae are the semaphore of the New Yorker, a walled fortress that turns readers into Kremlinologists. (And certainly Kremlin expert Remnick knows well that Brown heralded her reign with eye-grabbing covers, from her first street punk riding in a Central Park horse cab.) To readers, the New Yorker is its minutiae; for instance, former fiction editor Frances Kiernan implored Remnick to cut -- hiss! -- "Tina Brown's crossword puzzle" (a one-column diversion that lowered the New Yorker into the knuckle-dragging company of Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly). So it's a little worrisome that Remnick's noticeable changes have largely involved turning back the clock -- tamer covers, no more photos in the contributors' section, restoring his mentor John McPhee, frozen out during the Brown era (with the pointed contrib note, "John McPhee was first published in the New Yorker in 1963"). Remnick may not mean to promise Tilleyphiles a soothing snifter of brandy after Brown's fizzy cocktail, but that's the message he's sending.

It's a message unfortunately reinforced in this competent, classy and utterly safe assessment of its home city ("There's no place like it anywhere else," Nancy Franklin boldly avers in the opening "Comment"). This New York, like Sorel's luxury liner, is almost all swanky Manhattan: Susan Orlean follows a real-estate agent selling pricey Manhattan apartments; Remnick himself profiles the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera; and the venerable Lillian Ross gamely covers teens dancing to the Offspring and Aaliyah at a private-school mixer (leading contender for the Wish I'd Seen That Story Being Reported Award for 1999: "their tiny, firm backsides revealed no gelatinous motion"). Meanwhile, Frank McCourt recounts his first encounter with -- what else? -- the New York Public Library main branch, with trademark naif's charm ("The librarians are friendly. Of course I can have a library card, and it's so nice to see young immigrants using the library" -- reading McCourt is like reading "Portrait of the Artist" if Joyce never dropped the "baby tuckoo"-speak of the opening pages).

All this serves a long-standing New Yorker function: literary demographic branding, providing a vision of comfortable culture for well-heeled Nora Ephron fans. Coincidentally(?), the sweet McCourt reminiscence about Irish immigration and reading comes with a Hibernian-themed platinum MasterCard ad ("Plane tickets to the town where she was born: $1,200 ... pints at the pub where she met your dad: $8 ... finally understanding where your mother was coming from: priceless") and a corporate-caring ad about Philip Morris' sponsorship of literacy programs.

And this picture leaves out the New York that people who live here see. You'd think a New York issue might acknowledge, for example, that the four outer boroughs are where Franklin's "people (who) come to New York because they're looking for something" tend to land nowadays. But Manhattan's satellites, in the "New York" issue, are simply where one finds exotics (Philip Gourevitch's excellent profile of a young Indian-American woman resisting an arranged marriage) and Serious Urban Problems (Hilton Als' affecting Brooklyn "Dope Show"), where Joseph Mitchell (profiled by Mark Singer) went prospecting for characters.

The classicists who rebelled against Brown resented her for recognizing what we know: that that sepia-toned Wonderful Town exists no more, if it ever did. It's too early to judge the Remnick Era, but it will be welcome when the magazine really starts reflecting his own new vision. (He might start by upgrading the paltry electronic insult that Condé Nast calls the New Yorker Web site.) It may be boorish to want change for change's sake, nor is all preservationism a bad idea, but Remnick is too accomplished, too smart and too young to be a caretaker.

Sorel's cover is an apt metaphor for Remnick's task; a vessel this size may be slow to turn, but why step up to the helm if you don't want to see what that baby can do at full throttle, even if you rattle the swells waltzing on the bow? Which, yeah, yeah, invites the inevitable "Titanic" jokes -- but that megadisaster movie, you'll recall, enticed a stampede of travelers to sign up for cruises. And I submit that that wasn't just because people are idiots. It is precisely the sense of risk, the possibility that you just might crash and beautifully sink, that makes the waltz so exhilarating.

By James Poniewozik

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

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