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The International Writers Magazine: Wither the New Yorker?

The New Yorker, Collusion and All That
Chris Roberts

The New Yorker building sits at 4 Times Square in New York City. If a writer or artist were to come before this edifice, what would he or she see? That is to say the free-spirit with few publications or gallery showings in their resume. Or the poet that is lacking in the requisite amount of readings. What do they see?

Hope? No, the prefabricated rejection letter will crumble up hope, as you too, crumble that letter and throw it into the wastebasket. In an interview on www.hararetz.com, entitled, “How to Put a Legendary Magazine Back on its Feet,” The New Yorker editor David Remnick said it best, ‘It is hard when you publish one story and two poems a week - and you, for instance, get a yet unpublished poem by Elizabeth Bishop - to prefer a new poet over it.’

Of course, how can you possibly prefer a vibrant, new voice to that of the familiar racehorse trotted out? What this editorial mindset makes for is an increasingly numb audience. How can you have a cadre of poets and writers, more then less, appointed for life and not have their works blend, carryover and homogenize into the cookie cutter variety of Norman Rockwell paintings. Look once more at the monstrosity of architecture that is The New Yorker. Surely if you dally to long, you will be escorted by New Yorker drones, “thought police,” to a modern Bastille prison for subversion to the sense of esthetics so proudly bandied forward by the magazine, ad nauseam. With that said, I will show that words=equal=money and the questionable pursuit of it in The New Yorker’s fairly recent past.

“Nevertheless, under Remnick's editorship, The New Yorker not only survives against all odds, but even earns profits. Not long ago, for the first time in the life of the magazine, it surpassed the one-million-reader threshold.” Orna Coussin, writer from above mentioned article. In furtherance of the strong financial stability enjoyed by The New Yorker. Remnick adds this quip, "But I expect good in-depth work for the good pay," Makes perfect sense. A fair statement. Wouldn’t expect anything less from the renowned New Yorker. But less is exactly what happened. As reported by Jack Shafer of Slate, in his article, ‘Money Talks,’ “This week, an anonymous e-mailer asked if I knew that two New Yorker staff writers, Malcolm Gladwell and James Surowiecki, collect speaking fees from corporations and trade associations while writing on business topics for the magazine. Although the Anonymouse acknowledged that he could name no specific New Yorker article, paragraph, or sentence tainted by a speaking fee, he demanded that I bring this subject to the public's attention.”

Well, Shafer goes on to say that Gladwell is a close friend of Slate editor Jacob Weisberg and Surowiecki is connected to the magazine through a personal relationship. The all that is the nothing of the investigation by The New Yorker is contained in this sound bite, "[H]e spoke at their luncheon for a fee; that was the sum total of his activity, and then, after it came up as an issue, we discussed it, and that was that," Remnick writes. Remnick was speaking about Gladwell. The matter was dropped by Remnick with that sentence. Ethics, collusion and the obligation to report the truth unfettered by the draw of money – where was this brought up in Remnicks minimalist “dressing down” of Gladwell?

To Jack Shafer, something must be said. He did have the willingness to report the apparent conflict of ethical interest. But, sadly, he is connected too closely to at least two involved, “I've edited Surowiecki and consider him a friend,”
As for David Remnick, Schafer is obvious throughout his piece that he holds the man in high esteem, bordering on worship. Not too much objectivity there. At least one other writer took New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell to the woodshed and that was New York Times reporter David Carr. He delved into the relationship between Gladwell and Simmons Market Research. SMR stated it had forged "a research advisory alliance" with the writer. What transpired was a lobbyist of SMR wooed and gave money to a salaried staff writer of The New Yorker. So what we are left with in this matter of accountability is that the chief editor, who by very virtue of his title, should, but does, next to nothing. Two brief reportages, a knuckle rapping (if that) for those involved and an episode best not talked about around the water cooler.

What is the big picture for The New Yorker? Does its eighty-three year history speak to success? If increased advertisements space and therefore added revenue is success, then yes. If, as a result, there are a dwindling number of pages dedicated to art, then it is unsuccessful. If you look back to 1925 when founder Harold Ross launched his dream of a “sophisticated humor magazine” then you get to the root of “it.” Three works of fiction, poetry and the light zaniness of The Talk of the Town. Between the covers what lay in wait were such entirely whimsical cartoons. To bring such joy! But now, here is the current New Yorker, and what Harold Ross famously declared in a 1925 prospectus for The New Yorker: "It has announced that it is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” The obvious slur on old ladies and Dubuque aside, that’s just what the magazine has become. Not only for the “old lady” but all of Dubuque and beyond.

See the old lady has a thirst for reportage; in her hands, The New Yorker. A Dubuque garbage man is in terrible wont for current events, a schoolteacher with a perverse attraction to cartoons of the one-dimensional, stick figure kind and the local beat cop, so unblessed by Ross to have been born in the heartland (American Gothic not withstanding), why this young enforcer of law must have his fix of Goings On About Town because it is so utterly, dearly important to him in his life - so relevant. With the current editor’s dogmatic pursuit of hard driving political world events, (ten years with The Washington Post will do that) The New Yorker has become little more then a glorified news journal with an interestingly drawn front cover that changes from week to week. Little else between its two covers does.

Not long ago, I set my copy of The New Yorker out on the curb with the recyclables. I thought, no, it goes with the regular trash. Because trash is something you don’t want to see again – resurface. So to The New Yorker goes the The New Yorker and others of the same ilk who believe that to express oneself differently, to take an alternate, unpopular position is akin to treason against the established order and the very nation itself. Well this headset is intricately woven and taken as gospel by a wide grouping of intellectuals who unfortunately hold the key to what is and what isn’t: the Professors who desperately pound out scholarly papers to retain tenure and little else, philosophers that stick to a dogma of theory to the death, novelists that indulge in a prescribed school of expression even be it lacking originality, literary critics who in their whimsical, utterly subjective way are bought and sold according to the politics of reviewing, lexicologists who spout words and definitions and are confined in their self-made rigid jail cells.

All of the above hang their hats on The Elements of Style and it is a crowded, rickety hat rack. The denigration, devaluation and defamation afforded those writers that use free-thought, free association and others of like expression are whom I advocate for. I take pride as I rail against the writing organizations, professors who are literary magazine editors, and professional literary editors. Every and all who cloak themselves in the established order. A place for everything and everything out of place. That said, I take all that are named in this narrative down, down to Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell. Here stands Satan, hip-deep in a frozen lake, himself frozen, much like the group that accompanies me, their minds atrophied imagination subjugated to Satan’s realm. Here is their eternity. And me? Free as ever and ever free, I am free, free to leave.

© Chris Roberts November 12 2008
Chris Roberts writes short stories, poetry and essays. In 2003, he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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