Tony Kushner and Other Gay Writers Criticize a John Updike Review

Is there room on the shelf for yet another New Yorker memoir? John Seabrook hopes so. A New Yorker staff writer, Mr. Seabrook is nearly finished writing the first New Yorker book that will directly take on the Tina Brown years (1992 to 1998). The publisher is Alfred A. Knopf and the title is No Brow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture .

“I had started writing under Bob Gottlieb,” said Mr. Seabrook, referring to Ms. Brown’s predecessor. He had written for Ms. Brown at Vanity Fair before and said he was “a little dismayed” when she got the job of New Yorker editor, because of her liking for what he called “celebrity-oriented” articles.

“The great thing about the old NewYorker ,”saidMr.Seabrook,”was,’we aren’t doing any of that stuff.’ That’s why we were distinctive … That was only possible in a world where there was a high culture over and above the pop culture. But that hierarchy died. And as it died, The New Yorker began to seem irrelevant. So when Tina came it became, This is what we have to do to survive.”

UnderMs.Brown, Mr. Seabrook wrote on George Lucas and the Star Wars phenomenon, Bill Gates, the perils of e-mail and his own family.

His conclusion about what Ms. Brown tried to do with the magazine? “It doesn’t really work. Because there’s no distinction to be made in this world when there are no distinctions. The New Yorker and Vanity Fair and Esquire all end up chasing the same thing, which is the buzz.”

Still, he doesn’t really blame Ms. Brown, and the book is not a tell-all. “I haven’t talked to other people about their experiences with her,” he said. “It’s just my take. Which is not Tina was good or bad. Tina is Tina.” But he did say that when you do a special issue on the future called “Next,” as The New Yorker did, “You are making predictions and getting into trend-spotting, which is hard to distinguish from hype.”

“For me, writing the book was about helping figure out the whole Tina Brown era,” he said. “It just sort of ended, rather abruptly. She was there, and then there was this incredible announcement. She was supposed to stick around for a month or so for the transition but didn’t. You just want to figure out what happened. I never saw her again.”

Now, The New Yorker is “a more leisurely paced thing,” he said. “The thing about Tina was that she’s a lot of fun and makes you feel like a star, but it’s sort of exhausting.” And as the move to 4 Times Square approaches, with The New Yorker situating itself in the same building with its corporate siblings Allure , Vanity Fair and Vogue , Mr. Seabrook wonders: “Will it survive inside the Condé Nast building? That’s where [the book] ends–with me standing in front of that building, sort of looking up at it. It looks nothing like my idea of The New Yorker .”

In the May 31 issue of The New Yorker , John Updike reviewed The Spell , by Alan Hollinghurst. Given the book’s subject matter–intertwined love affairs among a group of gay Englishmen–Mr. Updike ended up making a number of general statements about homosexual life. A number of gay and lesbian writers don’t like what he wrote.

“It really feels like an attack,” said Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner.

Writer and activist Larry Kramer circulated an e-mail alert among gay writers on May 31, with certain of Mr. Updike’s lines highlighted. Among them: Mr. Updike reporting that Mr. Hollinghurst’s books are “relentlessly gay in their personnel, and after a while you begin to long for the chirp and swing and civilizing animation of a female character”; “quarantined from female rhythms and scruples, the male sex drive functions at a fever pitch”; and “Boredom swoops in without heterosexual clutter to obstruct its advent.”

In the review, as Mr. Kramer pointed out in his e-mail, Mr. Updike also argued that “novels about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous … involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient, sacralized structures of the family.”

Novelist Sarah Schulman, who is a lesbian, said she wrote a letter to The New Yorker “the second I read the piece. It was so outrageous.” Craig Lucas, the writer of the movie Longtime Companion , also wrote a letter. “What he basically wanted to do is turn up his nose to distasteful sex,” he said. “This coming from the author of Couples ! The idea that heterosexual sex is ‘sacralized,’ in his absurd phrase.”

Mr. Updike told Off the Record that he was assigned the review by The New Yorker , and sounded bemused by the objections. “My reviews seem to get me in hot water lately,” he said, referring to his dismissal earlier this year of Tom Wolfe.

He said he had never read Mr. Hollinghurst before, and that when he did, this was his reaction. “As with all books that you are reviewing, you try to give your impression of the atmosphere within the book, which seemed kind of gloomy and pointless to me,” he said. “So I’ll just have to withstand whatever letters come.”

It’s not like he wanted to make generalizationsabout homosexuality. “I’d

be happy not to discuss it,”he said. “Hollinghurst made it kind of tough. It makes it the unavoidable topic of discussion. It’s all about it. And for me to avoid his own emphasis would certainly be not doing my reviewer’s job.”

Mr. Kushner thought Mr. Updike knew what he was doing. “I have a suspicion that he thought he was being cute and naughty.”

So far, none of the letters have appeared in the magazine; New Yorker editor David Remnick didn’t return calls for comment. A New Yorker spokesman said, “It’s our understanding that Hollinghurst was not displeased by the review.”

Mr. Kushner said Mr. Updike’s review “represents a kind of genteel tradition of disdain for homosexuals,” that has long been present at the magazine, going back to E.B. White and James Thurber.

Kim Master’s piece on the Katzenberg-Disney court battle in the July issue of Vanity Fair contains the following parenthetical statement about Jeffrey Katzenberg’s lawyer, Bertram Fields: “who also, I should add, is representing me in a dispute with Broadway Books, which recently canceled a book I have been writing about the Disney empire.”

Why did Vanity Fair allow Ms. Masters to write the article, given that she shared a lawyer with Mr. Katzenberg’s attorney in the very dispute she was covering?

“When Kim pitched story to us, she told us that Bert had been representing her,” said Vanity Fair spokesman Beth Kseniak. “It was agreed that that fact would be disclosed in the story. And we believe the story was fair and stands on its own.”

Broadway Books was not going to reach an out-of-court settlement with Ms. Masters, it seemed, even though she was represented by the mighty Mr. Fields, a California-basedentertainment lawyer. So that meant the writer had to get a lawyer who could represent her in a New York venue against Broadway Books.

For a time, Ms. Masters and Mr. Fields had no business relationship. But then, MSNBC’s Jeannette Walls broke the story that the Kim Masters book had been killed–and Ms. Masters turned to Mr. Fields once again. In addition to traditional lawyer, Mr. Fields is a press-stroker; he was to handle the calls that came Ms. Masters’ way.

At that time, the Vanity Fair story was at the printer’s, with its little disclaimer saying that Mr. Fields had represented Ms. Masters. The magazine decided to update the disclaimer to reflect that Ms. Masters and Mr. Fields were still professionally entwined.

Asked if her relationship with Mr. Fields tainted her coverage of Mr. Katzenberg and Disney, Ms. Masters said, “I think the article speaks for itself.”

Ms. Masters’ article in the July Vanity Fair is not exactly kind to Mr. Katzenberg’s opponent, Disney chief executive Michael Eisner, painting him as overpaid, vindictive, possibly perjurious and, maybe worst of all, “having his perennial sartorial difficulties,” including the day at the trial where he wore a new jacket without removing the stitching from the vents. How does Mr. Katzenberg come off? Like a deeply ambitious guy who helped turn Disney around, only to have Michael Eisner call him a “midget.”

Ms. Masters’ contracts with both Time and Vanity Fair are up this summer. “Every few months, I get called about rumors that she’s not going to continue her part-time contract,” said Time managing editor Walter Isaacson. “At some point, that may end up being true, but I don’t know of anything in the works right now. I hope she continues a relationship with Time .”

Asked whether Vanity Fair would be renewing Ms. Masters’ contract, the Vanity Fair spokesman said, “Kim remains a valued contributing editor.”