Stealing From the Enemy:
The New Yorker and its Critics

By Jeet Heer
Gravitas (Summer 1997)

It was a bit surprising to see the respected essayist Joseph Epstein review a book in a recent issue of The New Yorker; only a few years ago, Epstein had written a lengthy indictment of that magazine in the Times Literary Supplement. In a general survey of The New Yorker’s history, Epstein argued that each new editor has made the magazine worse than before. “One of the recent functions of current editors of The New Yorker is to make past editors look good. Certainly [Robert] Gottlieb did this for [William] Shawn; and perhaps now Tina Brown...will do something similar for Gottlieb.” Observing that the “spirit of Vanity Fair, under Miss Brown’s editorship, has been that of with-itry laced with cruelty,” Epstein dreaded her take-over of The New Yorker. Yet four years later we find Mr. Epstein happily perched in the pages of Miss Brown’s New Yorker.

Upon closer inspection, Epstein’s reconciliation with Tina Brown falls into a curious pattern. From its inception in 1925, The New Yorker has been constantly belittled by intellectuals who have mocked it as a frivolous, commercialized, and trivial publication, and the editors of The New Yorker have had a singular response to these attacks: they’ve consistently opened their pages to their critics. Thus, over the last seventy years the best way to get a job at The New Yorker has been to pen a devastating critique of the magazine and to hurl insults at its writers, its editors, its advertisers, and its readers. But why has The New Yorker been so quick to embrace its critics? Have the editors been cleverly co-opting their enemies? Or have these critics been successful in shaking the confidence of a publication self-assured enough to call itself the “best magazine in the world, probably the best magazine that ever was” in its smarmy T.V. ads?

In the 1930s and 1940s, the main criticism of The New Yorker came from the radical intellectuals associated with Partisan Review, writers like Edmund Wilson, Dwight Macdonald, and Robert Warshow. The rivalry between The New Yorker and Partisan Review was so intense that J.D. Salinger once joked that New Yorker people and Partisan Review people could only read each other’s magazines after covering them in plain brown wrappers.

The hostility between The New Yorker and Partisan Review was based upon competing sensibilities. Back then, Partisan Review was an astringent quarterly defined by its commitment to modernism and Marxism. It was a magazine that published T.S. Eliot alongside Leon Trotsky. By its uncompromising advocacy of difficult art and radical politics, Partisan Review was in conflict with the easygoing style of The New Yorker. Partisan Review was highbrow; The New Yorker was middlebrow. Partisan Review was a small quarterly that numbered its readers in the thousands; The New Yorker was a slick weekly selling in the hundreds of thousands. Partisan Review was radical, earnest, engaged, and anti-capitalist; The New Yorker was too bemused, ironic and above-the-fray to take a hard political stance. No wonder Partisan Review writers like Dwight Macdonald lacerated The New Yorker for its smug complacency and commercialism. (Even during the Depression, the magazine was notable for its sumptuous ads.) Yet little more than a decade after writing his fierce 1937 polemic, Macdonald ended up as a regular contributor to The New Yorker, although he continued to use Partisan Review as a venue for his more controversial observations.

Commentary’s Norman Podhoretz once analyzed the love-hate relationship that existed between the two magazines. “The New Yorker was almost universally taken by highbrows as the quintessence of commercialism (all those ads) and middlebrow philistinism—a reputation which, ironically, Dwight Macdonald himself had in the [nineteen] thirties done much to establish by his famous attack on it in (where else) Partisan Review. For its part, The New Yorker responded with an aloof disdain which, as is often the case with disdain, concealed a considerable degree of unease and an even greater degree of vindictive anger. (After I had begun writing for it, my editor at The New Yorker once asked me in the driest possible way whether they had special typewriters in the Partisan Review office with entire words like ‘alienation’ stamped on each key.)”

Why did the editors of New Yorker in the 1940s and 1950s work so hard to bring on board radical critics like Macdonald? Perhaps because the social upheavals of the Great Depression and the Second World War caused the editors of The New Yorker to reorient their editorial stance. Born in the jazz age of the 1920s, The New Yorker was in its earliest years an entirely frothy humour magazine. The ‘20s tone of relentless irreverence seemed increasingly false in a world racked with economic turmoil and mass slaughter. Hence, starting in the late 1930s, The New Yorker actively recruited writers who could deal with serious issues, including writers from the Partisan Review who had criticized the magazine for its lack of social consciousness. The revised New Yorker began to feature articles on such weighty topics as the bombing of Hiroshima, the Nuremberg Trials, and the social work of Dorothy Day.

In the 1960s, again with the help of such Partisan Review writers as Hannah Arendt and James Baldwin, The New Yorker habitually dealt with serious matters like the Eichmann trial and the rise of the Black Muslims. By the time the Vietnam War was underway, the magazine had acquired an earnest, politicized stance which made it susceptible to the New Left preaching of Charles Reich’s The Greening of America (serialized in the magazine in 1969). This political engagement continued into the 1980s as The New Yorker emerged as one of the most prominent journalistic opponents of the Reagan administration.

Just as Partisan Review attacked The New Yorker from the left in the 1930s and 1940s, in the 1980s and 1990s it was now being attacked from the right by magazines like National Review. In 1985, National Review editor Richard Brookhiser described The New Yorker as a “boring, annoying, impenetrable waste of time” which specialized in banal, left-liberal journalism. (Like all critics of The New Yorker, Brookhiser was amply rewarded for his lčse-majesté: he started writing for the magazine in the late 1980s.)

It was natural that National Review was be unhappy with The New Yorker’s anti-Reagan editorial policy; what was really interesting in the 1980s was the fact that The New Yorker’s leftist editorial line was also under attack by America’s most prominent liberal magazine, the New Republic. Starting in the late 1970s, under the guidance of publisher Martin Peretz and editor Michael Kinsley, the New Republic sought to “re-invent” liberalism, an ideology they believed had become complacent and dogmatic. In the pages of their magazine, Peretz and Kinsley sought to create a leaner, meaner liberalism. This “neo-liberalism” was notable for its willingness to deride the type of unexamined, 1960s pieties often found in The New Yorker. Thus Kinsley in 1984 mocked The New Yorker for “its smug insularity, its tiny dada conceits passing as wit, its whimsy presented as serious politics, and its deadpan narratives masquerading as serious journalism.” This was an early shot in a barrage of anti-New Yorker articles, parodies, and random mud-slinging that continues in the New Republic to this day.

The New Republic’s vendetta against The New Yorker was based on both ideology and aesthetics. On the ideological front, the New Republic was trying to move the Democratic party closer to the centre; this meant abandoning the type of feel-good leftism advocated by The New Yorker. Thus, in the pages of Harper’s Kinsley wrote a devastating put-down of The New Yorker for printing Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, a book advocating the nuclear freeze. Combining aesthetics with politics, Kinsley also sneered at Schell’s “pretentious” prose and “pompous generalities that come attached to New Yorker-style cautionary notes.” In the pages of the New Republic, Kinsley had pioneered a style of hip, smart-ass political journalism which was a literary counterpart to the magazine’s neo-liberalism, and which stood in deliberate ideological and stylistic opposition to The New Yorker’s leftist solemnities.

This mixture of political and aesthetic criticism can be seen too in Louis Menand’s 1990 complaint that The New Yorker had become a parody of itself by “running things like E.J. Kahn’s enormous multi-part series on corn, soybeans, potatoes, rice; publishing reviews of unnoticed books months or years after they had come out; letting topical reports from Washington and reviews of Hollywood movies of no special moment run to tens of thousands of words; serializing the memoirs of the childhoods of New Yorker writers.” In addition to being boring, Menand also accused The New Yorker of using strident and partisan “political rhetoric”. However, Menand held out hope, because The New Yorker had a history of “canny repositionings.” He argued that The New Yorker could reinvigorate itself by abandoning its remaining gentility and appealing to “young professionals” who are media-savvy and take “promiscuous delight in the commercialism of upscale pleasures.” Menand’s diagnosis proved prophetic: by the early 1990s, particularly after Tina Brown became editor in 1992, The New Yorker began remaking itself by imitating the trendy cynicism of its neo-liberal critics.

In pursuit of this goal, The New Yorker has actively sought out New Republic writers, including, it goes without saying, former critics like Menand and Kinsley. Interestingly, by aping the New Republic’s snide political journalism while maintaining an air of Manhattan sophistication, Tina Brown’s New Yorker has become the perfect periodical for the Clinton era—a judgement which has even been set to verse: “Bill Clinton is/the Tina Brown/of politics/the magazine is/in the red but/it’s the talk of/the town the biggest/collage of celebrities/and meritocrats this/side of the Inferno,” wrote the poet David Lehman in Michael Kinsley’s on-line journal Slate.

Just as they were willing to follow the Partisan Review to the left in the 1940s, The New Yorker, in seeking to hold on to the zeitgeist, has followed Bill Clinton to the mushy centre in the 1990s. Like the New Democrats in Washington, the Calvin Klein liberals of The New Yorker are defined by what they don’t believe. Disenchanted with the heritage of the left, too hip to become conservatives, both The New Yorker and the Clinton administration are guided by the imperatives of public relations rather than ideology. Constantly and cynically repositioning themselves between the left and right, neo-liberals seem to have only one fixed principle: the necessity of maintaining cultural and political power.

While this type of opportunism may make for unappealing politics, it does produce good writing. Using her journalist’s nose for knowing where the action is, Tina Brown has managed to put out a magazine that is worth reading week after week. Given all the flack she’s received, praising Brown’s editorial skills might seem heretical, but its hard to imagine that anyone is genuinely nostalgic for the sleepy days of William Shawn, with its six part articles on the history of soybeans. Considering her debt to the New Republic, though, praising Brown might also be akin to complementing a shoplifter for her taste in clothes.

Like the Borg in Star Trek, The New Yorker doesn’t defeat its enemies—it absorbs and assimilates them. In this respect, the magazine offers striking proof of a common complaint made by radicals: Part of the insidious power of capitalism derives from the ability of the mainstream media to co-opt, gentrify, and tame “alternative” and “dissenting” voices. This insidious co-opting takes place even in the seemingly innocuous world of cartooning. In style and iconography, classic New Yorker cartoonists like Charles Adams and Peter Arno were direct descendants of radical cartoonists like Art Young and Robert Minor, whose work appeared in the Masses and the Liberator earlier in the century. But whereas Young and Minor savagely mocked their subjects, Arno and Adams were whimsical and only mildly satirical; the porcine, top-hatted, cigar-wielding capitalists on the Masses somehow became the befuddled cocktail party guests of The New Yorker.

More recently, in the pages of Raw magazine (1980-1991), Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly brilliantly fused the graphic sophistication of European cartooning with the satiric bite of New York’s punk culture. The happy product of this unlikely union was a publication that featured some of the best and most emotionally potent comics ever, most famously Spiegelman’s Maus. Since Raw would occasionally parody New Yorker-style cartoons, it was inevitable that Brown would hire Spiegelman and Mouly as editorial consultants and use many Raw artists. But in The New Yorker the work produced by these artists functions merely as decoration, and the stark graphics that defined Raw are nowhere to be seen.

Given The New Yorker’s powers of both assimilation and co-option, it’s no wonder New Republic editors rarely pass up the opportunity to make snarky comments about The New Yorker. After repeatedly needling Brown for her magazine’s seemingly endless coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, one tired New Republic reader wrote in, saying that while “the first five or ten jabs at The New Yorker and O.J. hit the mark” it was now time to move on to another topic. But what this reader failed to realize is that, in addition to their legitimate complaints about The New Yorker, the editors at the New Republic might have had a hidden agenda. Maybe they were trying to get a job offer.