The New Yorker’s old world

Posted: December 2, 2013 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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I spent part of the four-day weekend catching up on the old New Yorker magazines that piled up on a table by the couch. Grabbing one from the bottom, I noticed the pile started with one from September. I haven’t caught completely up and I certainly didn’t read every story in every issue — that would have left no time for eating, sleeping, watching TV or tending to basic hygiene — but I read tens of thousands of words. It’s still one of the best magazines, obviously, but I was also recently reminded of just how different the publishing world has changed over the years, even though the New Yorker’s place near the top has rarely changed.

I recently completed Ben Yagoda’s 2000 book About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made. This is probably the fifth or sixth history of the New Yorker I’ve read — maybe I think that if I one day prove my knowledge of the institution’s history it will impress the editors into taking a submission from me. Yagoda’s is my favorite, perhaps because it’s written by an outsider with more of a biography feel. The others were mostly memoirs from old writers or editors, all of them good. But Yagoda looks at the history of the magazine through its stories, writing and famous personalities and you know there aren’t any grudges being settled.The book basically stops when William Shawn’s reign over the paper ended in 1987. Yagoda briefly mentions editors Tina Brown and David Remnick, who continues to lead the magazine today and is acknowledged as being the premier magazine editor in the business. But the world of the New Yorker — the old world, which started when the magazine began under Harold Ross in 1925 — changed forever when Shawn finally stepped aside. It was a world that’s difficult to comprehend today. Here, then, a brief list of some of the more striking parts of Yagoda’s book, the parts that make a reader go, wait, that’s the way magazines once worked?

* Right away in the intro, Yagoda writes about the letters he received from people who answered his query looking for people to tell him how the magazine changed their life. One of the letters came from a woman who worked with the Red Cross in Italy in World War II. She wrote about bonding over The New Yorker with a wounded soldier. It gave him a few moments of pleasure. Later, the woman wrote to Yagoda, she learned that the man had died on the trip to the hospital. Imagine any form of media — a TV show, a newspaper, a magazine, a website — bringing comfort to someone in a similar situation today.

* A letter from Ross to E.B. White dissecting the use of the phrase “satin tissue” in an ad. White wanted the magazine to call it what it was: toilet paper. Ross replied, “Nevertheless, the word toilet paper in print inevitably presents a picture to me that is distasteful, and, frequently, sickening. It might easily cause vomiting.”

* You know how you might watch, say, Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary and marvel at the letters people used to write to each other? The same holds true for the language in the letters The New Yorker received. “What a satisfaction to know a magazine like The New Yorker is being published weekly! I have all my secret joys and dreams about New York that I do not talk to anyone about. Yet, why should I. The New Yorker writes about them just as I see them. Oh! Source of boundless delight that The New Yorker gives to me. Without it my life would lack seasoning.” The only place that gets letters like that today? TVFury.

* When the magazine started the author’s name only went at the end, and there were no Table of Contents. The magazine added a TOC in 1969 and people probably blamed it on hippies.

* The length of stories was incredible, although the magazine didn’t start out that way. But even in 1927 a piece on William Randolph Hearst stretched out over five issues (in today’s world, it would mean clicking on “Next” 765 times). There was a 20,000-word story on the Met. A six-part piece on Joseph Duveen had 10,000 words — in each piece.

* The most famous of those long pieces was John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which was originally going to run in several issues but instead was the only story in one issue. It came in at 31,000 words and remains perhaps the most famous magazine story ever. But even if something today approached the story in terms of literary merit, nothing will match its effect on the country. Yagoda writes, “All newsstand copies sold out the day they appeared, and when Albert Einstein attempted to buy one thousand copies of the magazine, he was told none were available. Within two weeks a secondhand copy brought $18 at auction. …In four half-hour installments, the evenings of September 9-12, the American Broadcasting Company presented a reading of the entire text of the article, with no commercial interruptions, and in England the BBC did the same.” For a magazine article.

* For years The New Yorker had a policy that if a story took place in a certain season, it had to run in an issue that season. So you couldn’t have a winter’s tale run in a June issue. Strange.

* You read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery in school (probably). Village, lottery, stoning. Still rightfully blows the minds of 10th graders everywhere. The story was originally published in The New Yorker and Yagoda writes about the letters the magazine received, which they sent to Jackson. One wrote, “I resent being tricked into reading perverted stories like The Lottery.” And, “a Minnesota reader” — probably one from up north — wrote: “Never in the world did I think I’d protest a story in the New Yorker, but really, gentlemen, The Lottery seems to me to be in incredibly bad taste. I read it while soaking in the tub and was tempted to put my head under the water and end it all.” Imagine that reader’s horror when his grandson started reading it in school.

* William Shawn preferred to communicate through cables. He asked someone to burn their correspondence. He didn’t write letters and when he once did reply to someone, he clarified that it was not a letter but a note. Noted.

*  When The New Yorker kept bringing in more and more advertising it had to get more pages for editorial. But eventually Shawn had to put an end to the expansion and the most pages the New Yorker could take was set at … 248. One of the issues I’m working my way through is the Nov. 25 Tech issue. A mere 136 pages.

* New Yorker writers led a strange existence, sometimes pampered, often frustrated — either by the editing or assignments. Actually there weren’t really assignments. Yagoda writes, “He or she was expected to come up with all story ideas, to which Shawn offered only a kind of passive approval, with no deadline, no length requirement, no guarantee of any kind that the finished work would be published or paid for.” Shawn would show a writer his office, then leave them to fend for himself, even after he asked the editor for guidance. Many writers couldn’t handle the pressure to handle that themselves, especially not knowing if the story would ever run. One writer named Kevin Wallace didn’t write anything that ran in the magazine for 11 years, though he typed away every day in his office. Think Jack in The Shining. Joseph Mitchell was the ultimate example of this. He never published a story between 1964 and 1996, even though, Yagoda writes, “He came to the office regularly, he was his customary courtly self with other members of the staff…he continued to receive a salary of roughly $20,000 a year. As far as it is possible to tell, no one in all that time asked him what he was working on or when he expected to finish it.”

Yagoda’s book is superb, and not just because of the way it reveals a lost world. Anyone interested in great writing would enjoy it. But one theme throughout it is about how The New Yorker eventually struggled because many of these odd ways remained in place for too long. The New Yorker remains great, but there are surely people who lament that it’s not what it once was. And they’re right — but it has nothing to do with the quality of the magazine.


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