A Friend Writes: The Old New Yorker 7

In 1985, soon after the New Yorker was sold, Shawn wrote a “Notes and Comment” piece designed to defend the magazine’s editorial position against possible encroachments by the new ownership, and to reassure the magazine’s readers. “We, the editorial people,” he ex¬plained, “knew by instinct that to be able to make the New Yorker the magazine we wanted it to be we had to separate ourselves from the business side of the venture. … In this atmosphere of freedom, we have never published anything in order to sell magazines, to cause a sensation, to be controversial, to be popular or fashionable, to be ‘successful.’ ” The analysis is entirely correct, and it explains the true commercial genius of the New Yorker.
Nearly all American culture is commercial. It is either market- driven, as in the case of popular music, paperback fiction, and movies; or it is advertising-driven, as in the case of radio, television, newspapers, and magazines. And this culture is, of course, only an aspect of the American way of life generally, in which virtually every good—food, housing, furniture, clothing, cars, shaving cream-—is understood to be designed to extract the greatest possible profit from the market conditions available, and to be susceptible to alter¬ation the instant those conditions change. Because it is the chief tool for making conditions change, thereby creating new areas of demand and new sources of profit, advertising has become for most people the symbol of the thoroughgoing commercialism of Ameri¬can life.
Everyone participates in this system, and partakes of its benefits (individual economic opportunity and national economic expan¬sion) and puts up with its drawbacks (cheap goods, an often banal and sometimes exploitative popular culture, financial uncertainty). The group that has benefited the most from this way of life, and that has done the most to shape it and to keep the system producing more of it, is the group of upper-middle-class professionals— lawyers, bankers, stockbrokers, designers, advertising executives, editors, publishers, business executives, television producers, and the college professors who educated them. These people were made possible—were made necessary, in fact—by the spectacularly successful commercialization of American life in the twentieth cen¬tury; for they supply its creative and analytic intelligence. They are the society’s most highly prized and highly rewarded members. But until recently, this group always demonstrated one peculiarity. Its tastes, its values, its lifestyle were all anticommercial. The Wall Street banker lived like a member of the English gentry in a mock- Tudor mansion in Mount Kisco. The Madison Avenue adman had a place in Vermont with outdoor plumbing and no electricity. The television producer bought his filet at an old-fashioned butcher, where it was wrapped in old-fashioned butcher paper. The pub-lisher of a magazine for teenage girls watched public television—or had a passion for Mozart, or Trollope, or vintage wines. He vaca¬tioned in the cathedral towns of France. He didn’t like motorboats, or billboards, or big American cars. And so forth. His face was turned away from the culture that gave him his living. The upper- middle-class professional had these tastes and values because they were part of his socialization. In midcentury America, this man was, prototypically, the graduate of an Ivy League college, married to the graduate of a select women’s college or a major public university. His and his wife’s education stressed the values of the liberal arts, which were understood to be opposed to everything transient and commercial. The consumables in their world were not mass- market: the features they shopped with an eye to were traditional-ism, craftsmanship, longevity.
Of course, this couple represented a market—by virtue of their income and education, a highly desirable market. But they were not people susceptible to anything that smacked of opportunism or commercialism. Nor could they be reached by gossip about the suc¬cessful and celebrated. Their taste—their great virtue, really—was for the self-effacing, the unpretentious, the literate and witty. They were secure enough to enjoy poking fun at themselves and their world; that was part of the nobility of their sense of humor. And it was a satisfaction, given their view of commerce and coercion, to imagine themselves to be ineffectual, silly, powerless. But they were genuinely insecure enough to require assurance that they would not be “out-browed”—that they would find their cultural experiences accessible and unthreatening, without being flavorless or incurious or prudish.
The old New Yorker looked terrific, as everyone knows, on a cof¬fee table. Its covers were invariably pleasing, and some of them were modestly artful. But the most distinctive design feature of the New Yorker cover was that it said nothing about what was inside. Unlike the cover of every other commercial magazine in America, the cover of the New Yorker was not a piece of advertising. In fact, nothing in the old New Yorker was advertised. It ran no table of con¬tents. Its reported pieces carried generic titles: “Reporter at Large,” and, in much smaller print: “Soybeans.” There might be, by way of illustration, a small, hand-lettered map. There was no accompany¬ing blurb (“You will never feel the same way about this amazing foodstuff again!”). There were no pull-quotes or subheads. The writer’s name appeared only at the end, in type that was the same point size as the type in which the article was printed. The cynical explanation for this is that the editorial matter in the New Yorker was subdued (for instance, no color) so that the ads would be more vivid. That may be how it worked for the advertisers; but Shawn was right. On the editorial side, the idea really was to give the New Yorker’s readers what they wanted: a straight dose of fiction, poetry, reportage, and criticism, without patronizing help or hype. If soy¬beans didn’t interest you, you were free to turn the page (well, pages).
If you grew up in a household in which the New Yorker was a constant presence, you probably retain, whatever reservations your superior sophistication now requires you to make, a residual fond¬ness for the magazine’s cultural traditions. If you grew up in one of those households and had an interest in the arts, you are likely still to feel a debt to one or another of the magazine’s regular critics: Harold Rosenberg on art, Arlene Croce on dance, Pauline Kael on movies. And if you had an interest in becoming a writer yourself, the magazine almost surely formed part of your sense of what good writ¬ing was like. But the anticommercialism, the carefully maintained distance from the crass, capitalist world, will not mean to you what it meant to your parents. For among today’s upper-middle-class pro¬fessionals, the separation between culture and commerce has col¬lapsed. Nor is the sense of membership in a common taste group as strong as it was. The social class of professionals is much less homo¬geneous than it used to be, and the education those people receive is less of a pious and clubby affair. And they do not find the pose of ineffectuality attractive.
Of course, upper-middle-class tastes still run to the traditional, the custom-built, the exclusive. But there is no special conscience about the relation between these tastes and the values of the mar¬ketplace. There is often, in fact, a kind of promiscuous delight in the commercialism of upscale pleasures, and an uninhibited inter¬est in whatever mid- and mass-market experiences seem attractive. The younger professional today has become so adept at reading the language of advertisement and promotion that it has become a stim¬ulation to be welcomed rather than a blight to be evaded. There are surely as many things that are hateful about this new upper-middle- class cast of mind as there were about the old one; but there are surely many things to be admired about it, too. It is an audience that could use a little help understanding which things are which, which is one of the needs magazines exist to serve.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *