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What Has Happened to The New Yorker

April 25, 1993|JACK MILES

Something has changed when Buzz and The New Yorker finish in a dead heat for the some story. Like Time and Newsweek ending up on the newsstands with the same cover subject in the same week, the April issue of Los Angeles' struggling, inside-dopey city magazine features an edited monologue by superannuated super-agent Irving Lazar, while The New Yorker features, in its March 29 issue, Lazar as remembered by studio-brat-grown-old Michael Korda. The ever-puckish Korda regales us with Swifty stories in a piece that should have come with a laugh track. Buzz does better with two pages of Swiftian prose and historic photographs of the agent in action.

But if Buzz emerges the winner, how do we emerge, we of book-reading Los Angeles, who used to subscribe to The New Yorker as to a genuinely national magazine? We emerge with another piece of evidence. The New Yorker, under its new editor, has ceased to be a calm magazine, reflecting and shaping a broadly American and democratic culture, and has become an increasingly anxious magazine, buying and selling the buzz. There are people who want the buzz, of course; but having renewed my own lapsed subscription out of hopeful curiosity, I find myself reading each successive issue in fewer and fewer minutes. Rightly or wrongly, I think I already know all I need to know about Irving Lazar.

That The New Yorker of old was an American magazine matters because of what, over the years, has followed from this premise. Minnesotan Garrison Keillor was welcome in The (old) New Yorker because his brand of humor, though decidedly un-New York (as well as un-Hollywood), was unmistakably American. And now? Well, to be sure, Irving Lazar's Hollywood is farther from New York, as the crow flies, than Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon; but taking both places as mythical, one is on the international celebrity map, the other isn't, and that makes all the difference. Much of Southern California is without celebrity appeal. John McPhee wrote in The (old) New Yorker about debris flows in the San Gabriel mountains; William Murray wrote about San Diego and Tijuana as twin cities. The unglamorous Southern California they wrote about was fully a part of America; but in The (new) New Yorker, that might not be enough.

With admirable directness, editor Tina Brown told Eric Utne of the Utne Reader (see Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 1993): "I edit for what interests me basically, and I think it is the only way to edit. . . . I feel that if it interests me it interests the readership." Tina Brown has come to The New Yorker from Vanity Fair, where she was spectacularly successful putting together a package joining glamour to gossip at just the point where the line between them begins to vanish.

Michael Korda on Swifty Lazar would have interested the Brown of Vanity Fair no less than the Brown of The New Yorker. But what of the readership of the two magazines? How deeply does the average New Yorker reader crave glamour? If the readership Brown has inherited at The New Yorker, as distinct from one she may be trying to attract, responds less to glamour than she does, her assumption--"if it interests me it interests the readership"--becomes dubious.

Location counts in the pages of The (new) New Yorker in a second, less mythical way. In Saul Steinberg's endlessly pirated New Yorker cover, a foreshortened United States is viewed from an implicitly smug Manhattan. If Steinberg were alive to do a cover for The (new) New Yorker, his view would have to rotate 180 degrees: It would have to look eastward across the Atlantic rather than westward toward the Pacific. Thus, in the April 5 issue, English drama critic John Lahr reviews revivals of Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" in London's West End. In the same issue, book critic Richard Jenkyns reviews Charles Sprawson's "Haunts of the Black Masseur," noting: "The book is about swimming--in ancient Rome, in Japan, Germany and America, but, above all, in England, to which four of the eight chapters are devoted. . . ."

Tina Brown is an English woman living in America; and since her arrival at The New Yorker, not only have specifically English topics and English contributors appeared with greater frequency in the magazine but, on too many occasions to ignore, so has the special perspective of someone operating between London and New York. It is almost as if The (new) New Yorker were attempting to manage from this side of the water the transatlantic marketing trick that the Economist has managed from the other side: to be a magazine for sophisticates at home in both cultures, the inhabitants of a glittering Anglo-American archipelago.

In one recent New Yorker story ("Full Moon Over Milan," April 5) Andrea Lee writes:

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