Slit From Navel to Sternum: Slasher New Yorker Memoir

Gone: The Last Days of ‘The New Yorker’ , by Renata Adler. Simon & Schuster, 252 pages, $25.

Come sit for a moment, prop your chin on your hand and gaze–like Gibbon regarding the grandeur that was Rome–upon the ivy-covered ruins of the noble New Yorker . Here and there among the shapeless hummocks juts a fragment of exquisitely chiseled phrase, or the weathered bust of some vanished fact-checker. In the rising wind a scrap of paper flutters past, on which can be discerned these faded words: A friend writes …

How quaint and improbable it already seems! It was only eight years ago when Tina Brown’s appointment as editor sealed the doom of the storied magazine built by Harold Ross and William Shawn, and yet already their New Yorker is one with Poor Richard’s Almanac , or The Spectator of Addison and Steele. What shocks most now is not that it is “gone,” but rather that it managed to survive as long as it did–coexisting, if not quite alongside the Drudge Report and Nerve.com , at least with Details and Martha Stewart.

And now Renata Adler, a still dazed and bleeding survivor, comes stumbling forth to tell the world her tale. She opens with a breathless, if belated, announcement of calamity: “As I write this, The New Yorker is dead. It still comes out every week, or almost every week.… Otherwise, not a single defining element of the magazine remains.” For Ms. Adler, who joined the New Yorker staff in 1963, those defining elements included “the format, the look, the content, the humor, the level of seriousness; the ambition, at the top; the standards in the middle; the limits beneath which it would not sink.”

These delicate scruples meant, in other words, no special fashion issues, no advertorials, no top-25 lists, and no photographs of naked Indians with large rocks suspended from their penises. But then, as everybody knows, Condé Nast came along, bringing with it these things and more. Ms. Adler is probably right to think that Shawn, had he lived to see them, would not have been amused.

Poor Shawn, indeed! These days, it is not just the Visigoths at Condé Nast who trample on his legacy of reticence, but also his former disciples themselves, who shanghai him into service as a mascot for their own grievances and vanities. In fact, with Ms. Adler’s book following close on the heels of other memoirs by Lillian Ross and Ved Mehta, the sainted editor’s afterlife has begun to resemble one of the Weekend at Bernie’s movies, in which the hapless corpse gets dragged off on a series of picaresque adventures.

Ms. Adler’s Shawn is a Gothic figure haunting a labyrinth of his own construction–in which, as she notes astutely, “the aversion to personal publicity for editors and writers, the increasing respect for the privacy of subjects [turned] into a reluctance to publish at all.” Small wonder that the magazine’s two most renowned authors of fiction and nonfiction–J.D. Salinger and Joseph Mitchell–eventually became renowned for their failure to produce.

Indeed, one of the problems with Ms. Adler’s book is that her saga of decline and fall presumes the existence of a vanished Golden Age–which, however, she fails to portray with any conviction. It is all very well to declare, as she does, that “for more than 30 years, The New Yorker was not only the finest magazine of its time but probably the finest English-language magazine of all time.” And she does begin her narration of her career at the magazine in orthodox mythopoeic fashion (she’s the fated editorial assistant plucked by Shawn from her job sifting the slush pile). Yet aside from this, a tone of sour disillusion prevails even in her description of the Shawn years. Anyone who has worked in an office before will recognize her type: the talented malcontent, stewing continually behind closed doors over slights and betrayals.

Obscure succession crises and feuds from the 1970’s are recited as gravely as if Ms. Adler were chronicling the collapse of Weimar Germany. And by the time she reaches the centerpiece of her book–her account of Shawn’s unexpected ouster in 1987 and its aftermath–the level of detail is numbing, clearly taken from notes that Ms. Adler dashed off furiously at the time. (One’s confidence in Ms. Adler’s accuracy is undercut by several flagrant errors involving dates. On her book’s first page, she says that Tina Brown took over the magazine in 1993, when it was 1992. Elsewhere, inexplicably, she twice describes Richard Nixon as having resigned the Presidency in 1976, not 1974–and Ms. Adler observed the impeachment inquiry at firsthand.)

Inadvertently, too, Gone manages to demonstrate all the deficiencies, or at least the dangers, of the famous New Yorker flat style, which presupposes the vast importance of the subject at hand. This was all well and good when it was John Hersey on Hiroshima: “There was no sound of planes. The morning was still; the place was cool and pleasant. Then a tremendous flash of light cut across the sky.” It is somewhat less compelling as Ms. Adler puts it to use: “Stefan Kanfer, a friend and former colleague of Robert Hughes, called me. He had had lunch with Art Cooper, the editor of GQ . Mr. Cooper said Adam Gopnik had told him not only that Bob Hughes was recommending him as his successor at Time , but that Mr. Gottlieb as well was planning, when he left The New Yorker , to recommend Mr. Gopnik to succeed him.”

What is anyone, with the possible exception of Messrs. Kanfer, Hughes, Cooper, Gopnik and Gottlieb, supposed to get out of this? And perhaps that is the point. Before it is halfway to its conclusion, Gone begins to read like one long, unsent internal memorandum, a calendar of complaint that works itself finally into a drawn-out crescendo of wild-eyed rage.

From the beginning of her book, Ms. Adler freely indulges her penchant for cutting others down to size–at first, with Shawnian delicacy (the magazine’s longtime fiction editor, Roger Angell, is identified here as “a fine baseball writer”). But by the final pages she is knifing almost everyone within reach–notably the unfortunate Mr. Gopnik, a peripheral player at most in the change of regime. In a series of excruciating asides, she slits him slowly from navel to sternum. One suspects that there is no fact about Mr. Gopnik–no physical attribute, no intellectual or moral lapse–that Ms. Adler would have left unsaid if she had thought it would embarrass him.

In this gush of bloodletting, Ms. Adler loses her grip on the important question that lent her book its reason for existence: Who, or what, killed the old New Yorker ? For her, the answer is to be found in the Byzantine annals of office politics. She rejects–convincingly enough–the idea that the magazine had to change in order to keep up with the times, to meet the expectations of an impatient public: A great publication, she writes, “goes its way, and forms its audiences as it goes.”

Yet The New Yorker ‘s cozy scribblers were probably fated to succumb to one barbarian horde or another: By the 1980’s, at least, when Condé Nast’s parent company began buying up shares, there were simply too many Visigoths at large in the world. And with this book, ironically, Ms. Adler has taken the once-cozy genre of the New Yorker memoir and brutalized it beyond recognition–exactly what she accuses others of doing to the magazine itself.