I Like The New Yorker and Renata Adler, Too

When I read Renata Adler’s Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker , “Uh, oh,” I said to myself, said I. Like me, Renata–who’s a friend of whom I don’t see enough, although now that I’m leaving the Château d’If of Sag Harbor, that may change–doesn’t believe that felonious assaults on civil and artistic culture are committed by persons unknown or anonymous. The invisible hand that holds the dagger is always attached to a wrist that’s attached to an arm that’s attached to … well, you get the idea, and the bottom line is that the knife wielder invariably turns out to be someone very real and ranking high in the dubious estimation of headwaiters. Usually, but not always, Donald Trump or Barbara Walters. There is no such thing as the Unknown War Criminal, although an entire parasite class, of which Howard Rubenstein is perhaps the most conspicuous example, and John Scanlon the most egregious, has grown greatly prosperous by trying to make us believe that there is.

Anyway, Renata knows this, and in Gone she takes–with a certain beguiling ferocity–(1) names and (2) no prisoners. She is especially mean to Adam Gopnik, a young man whose writing I have always found interesting, persuasive and elegant, hardly what would be expected from the slimy toady portrayed by Renata. Still, to paraphrase Macbeth ‘s King Duncan, “There’s no art to find a man’s construction in his prose.” After all, look at Christopher Buckley, declared by his friends to a man to be, in person, the veriest prince of chaps and soul of wit, but whose attempts at humor in print assay out at 99.9 percent lead, or so is agreed by most people whose standards for risibility predate Drew Carey.

Since ad hominem is as ad hominem does, I was interested to see what form the attacks on the author would take. Direct–as to her veracity–or tangential, as to her character. A bit of each, I expected, and I frankly looked forward to the fray with a connoisseur’s enthusiasm. By now, I consider myself to have as good a nose for ad hominem as Robert Parker has for red wine, based–like Mr. Parker–on years of firsthand tasting: After all, since Hanover Place , I need only declare an adverse opinion on the weather or the Mets’ prospects to incite accusations of anti-Semitism from the likes of that bullet-headed cretin in East Hampton with the wife who looks like Eddie Cantor and has a voice that can open an oyster at 20 paces (a conceit derived from the immortal P.G. Wodehouse.)

If it got ugly, I even imagined that perhaps I, in my new capacity as Mr. Nice Guy 2000, might play a mediatory role. Perhaps in the style of my idol, Brook Club member Henry Kissinger, who–presumably in the belief that no peace is as profound and lasting as the sleep of the dead, and the more the quieter–employs the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to trample down the grapes of wrath, an approach presently under review in a Cambodian war crimes trial. Indeed, since Renata would be the only one of the dramatis personae in this business whom I knew personally, my efforts to spread balm on roiled waters would flow from almost perfect ignorance of the material circumstances, as well as the personalities involved. Since postmodern theory–oh, the irony!–holds ignorance to be the only reliable basis of knowledge and therefore of truth, any mediation conducted by yours truly would be on theoretically solid ground.

Sure enough, on the heels of Bob Gottlieb’s rejoinder to Gone , published a fortnight or so ago in these very pages, Renata sought my advice as to what she should do next. Mr. Gottlieb is one of the sacred cows of upper-middlebrow Manhattan culture, and as might be expected of any gored herbivore with a fat severance deal from S.I. (Si) Newhouse Jr., his wounded bellowing had focused mainly on impugning the accuracy of Gone ‘s account of the last days of the empire of William Shawn. I urged Renata to forswear getting into an ongoing “You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to” dispute as to matters of allegation; one bad revival of Annie Get Your Gun is enough for any season. She sticks by her account; Mr. Gottlieb sticks by his; there the matter should rest.

In the course of our conversation, which I had hoped to reproduce in part as a Q.&A. interview, an expectation put paid to by a faulty tape recorder (the recording light shone, but sound there cameth none) Renata and I moved beyond the “who did or didn’t do what” issues, including the question of Mr. Shawn’s own culpability in the magazine’s “decline.” As we talked, a couple of thoughts came sharply into focus, notions that seem worth further reflection.

One has to do with the definition of “decline.” Practically every account I have seen has had to do with a change (for the worse, as perceived by this writer or that) in the magazine’s editorial culture. Post-Shawn, it became a worse place for a certain kind of writer to work, from which has flowed the presumption, in my opinion of conjectural accuracy, that a magazine’s decline as a place to work necessarily equates with a magazine’s decline as a magazine. I speak, of course, as a rank outsider. I have written exactly four pieces for the magazine: three Talk of the Town squibs–one of which was spiked–and a long profile (also spiked) of Heywood Hill, the eminent London bookstore on which a great many prominent Manhattan types depend for literary advice and book choice. The latter is a fine piece, or so say those who’ve read it, and all express mingled dismay and puzzlement that it never ran: My own theory is that Tina Brown killed it because I was unable to prove that O.J. Simpson ever bought a book at 10 Curzon Street.

I’ve had a subscription to The New Yorker since around 1960. Is it a worse magazine now than then? I’m not sure. I do know it’s about the last magazine (after The Spectator and Gramophone ) that I’ll cancel if the Council of American Book Publishers finally succeeds in its conspiracy to reduce me to absolute penury.

Sure, there are differences. There’s been a notable decline in the quality of the humor it publishes, but I’m pretty certain that this isn’t specific to The New Yorker . We live in a dumbed-down culture, and a culture’s sense of humor is the first victim of dumbing-down. There are no Thurbers out there today, no Perelmans, Benchleys, Peter Arnos. The ecology’s changed. But the critical departments remain first-rate, the fiction’s O.K. if you like that sort of thing, and I know of no one who laments the passing of the editorial that gave us Charles Reich’s The Greening of America or whatever that truly dreadful jeremiad by Jonathan Schell about nuclear warfare was called.

Complain all you want, but The New Yorker hasn’t degenerated the way Time has, into perfect uselessness and vapidity, with Roger Rosenblatt thrown in as a final insult. Despite strenuous efforts to turn it into an advertiser-driven property (a sure formula for dumbing-down) The New Yorker remains reader-driven. The switch from full-rate to discount-rate subscriptions was a key part of that strategy (cut price subscription equals larger circulation equals more advertising) but my guess is, it backfired. It works for some magazines, but not for others; indeed, for the latter, it can be the first whorl in an economic death spiral. The fact is, The New Yorker is by its nature “unleverageable.” I worked with some smart magazine people to try to buy it from Peter Fleischman in the mid-1970′s, and their eyes were full of starry visions about how “the franchise” could be traded up and broadened–until they realized that what they would have to do would wreck the magazine’s core profitability. Mr. Newhouse should have been given the same advice.

The New Yorker is what it is, and to a great extent, what it always has been, at least to its readers, if not to this or that generation of alumni-alumnae. But the world into which it is published every week has changed, and not for the better. If we’re going to fix blame, I feel, and I think Renata would agree, it’s all very well to point the finger at Bob and Tina and David and Si and various Florios, and there would be some justice in so doing, but–to be perfectly fair–we would also be advised to sneak at least a sideways peek at the mirror.