Magazine subscriptions are the thing in the States. If you buy The Week, the magazine that gives you a weekly news digest, off the shelf in Borders, the cover price is $3. The New Yorker is $5.99. But if you get a subscription, each is around $1 an issue. So when we moved here we decided it would make good financial sense to have a basic portfolio of magazine subscriptions: The New Yorker, Time Out Chicago, and The Week (plus Better Homes and Gardens which we got for free and which is, frankly, rubbish). They all turn up in our mailbox with just a little address label stuck to the cover – no plastic wrapping – which is somehow very pleasing. And since America doesn’t really seem to do newsagents – quite an oversight, but there we have it – it all seemed like a perfectly sensible plan.
Except that I am developing a charged love/hate relationship with The New Yorker. I have accumulated a list of grievances, and I think I’ll start with the most petty and work my way up.
(By way of introduction to British readers who have never come across The New Yorker, I should say that though it has New York listings in the front, most of the magazine is devoted to highbrowish articles on politics and culture, book and film reviews and various think pieces – and a lot of single image cartoons.)
1) The umlaut. Well, I’ve now looked it up and I think it’s more accurate to call it a diaresis, but let’s face it: normal English speakers do not consider the diaresis to be part of their native tongue. The New Yorker likes to place a
n umlaut diaresis over the second vowel in words like coordinate, reentry and the like. I find this absurdly pedantic and precious. You know: we do read these words in a thousand other publications all the time, so we can probably just about manage to navigate them.
2) Eustace Tilley. This is a dandyish made-up man who appeared on the first ever cover (or the début cover, as The New Yorker inevitably prefers to call it), pictured at the top here. On the anniversary of this first issue, either he or some amended version of this image appears on the cover of a special double issue. Why do I find this so irritating? Just: what kind of magazine adopts this stuck-up prig as its mascot? It reminds me of my A-level struggles with The Rape of the Lock, and that can never be a good thing. Plus celebrating your anniversary every single year is for people, not magazines.
3) The incredibly retro, uninteresting design. The entire magazine is set out in three columns with a blah font and the display font it uses for headings (the same one you can see on the masthead on the cover above) – Irvin – is just tedious. It’s as if it’s trying to pretend it’s still the 1920s and Dorothy Parker is still holding court.
4) Shouts and Murmurs. Oh, the New Yorker thinks these are funny. It has anthologised them and everything. But they have never raised even a momentary twitch of the lips in me. They are these one-or-two page monologues on the page, developing a hilarious premise through deadpan character comedy. For example: a Scoutmaster recounts his struggles with the Christian faith and how he has weighed every known heresy, from the Pelagian to the Nestorian in his mind before being taken down by Christopher Hitchens’ discussion of the dinosaurs (subtext: Christopher Hitchens is a berk). Laugh? I almost threw the magazine across the room.
5) The way tedious articles are allowed to run for page after page, after page. I can imagine the smug way this is discussed in the editorial offices: ‘We are no fly by night, superficial publication, trimming great works of literature and reportage to a preassigned length as if our readers had the attention spans of gnats! No, the New Yorker lets stories breathe. Take as many words as it needs, my fine man.’
This resulted in a 26 (or twenty-six, as the New Yorker would have it) page article about a former Scientologist, Paul Haggis, in the anniversary issue. Not, you know, Scientology in general, but this one particular man’s experience with it and the ripples his leaving caused. It was quite interesting for the first 3 pages, and then I ran out of stamina. This is an extreme example, but articles routinely run for up to 13 pages without seeming to be of more than momentary interest to most readers or to really have the content to deserve it: they can spend a good 3 or 4 pages in anecdotal preamble which you can’t help thinking could have been cut to make way for, like, a short and interesting piece.
6) The way so many articles end abruptly. The first couple of times I encountered this I thought it was refreshing. No conclusion, no final aphorism or take home message – OK, not everything lends itself to a neat closing summary. Now I regard it as another smug idiosyncrasy of the house style. I can’t find a really good example among the issues we have lying around the apartment, but here are two from the last couple – both from the section of short pieces at the front, The Talk of the Town, where this disease is endemic. I am now thinking that it may be Mark Singer who is the Typhoid Mary here.
There’s his piece about the revival of Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia that finishes with an inconsequential witticism Stoppard makes over lunch: “‘From now on, I think, we should negotiate our contracts with that stipulation,’ Stoppard said, ‘Billing no smaller than Morgan Stanley.'” Which doesn’t pick up on any theme or idea previously mentioned in the piece. Then he attends a meeting of some French cultural initiative in New York where theorists talk about hair, and he finishes his account of it with some woman saying: ‘The squirrel I put there just for color. I have no idea whether squirrels pluck.’ It just peters out – because life is so complex! And the material is so intractable! And therein lies its ephemeral wonder!
It reminds me of my erstwhile supervisor’s critique of a colleague’s formless research papers: ‘He always says that that’s just how the material is. But that’s how all material is until you find something to say about it.’
Having said all that, I don’t regret the subscription. I like the film reviews, the cartoons are sometimes funny (though never as good as they think they are), and in six months I’ve read lots of articles that I’ll always remember, or that have changed the way I think about things. Malcolm Gladwell on the vacuity of university rankings was brilliant. Joyce Carol Oates on the death of her husband and Tina Fey on whether to have another baby were funny, thoughtful, unflinching. And Rebecca Mead on ‘Middlemarch and me’ was lovely.
But I should note before closing that I am not alone: there is, I now discover, an entire blog called I Hate the New Yorker.