A Few Words about the New Yorker

The New Yorker has the same giant bullseye on it that anything that has risen to the level of cultural significance will. It sits at the top of the news chain alongside the New York Times, but its volleys are more focused because it doesn’t publish every day, and instead of shotgunning hundreds of stories a week into the world, it offers four or five high caliber rifle shots. The day a new issue comes out, you’ll hear one or three of the major stories as a headline on NPR or CNN or the networks or even ESPN (the magazine has lately been taking aim at the violence football does to the bodies and minds of those who play.) Also, the numbers: It has the broadest circulation of the few remaining smart people magazines, and because it is the most prestigious magazine in the world and one of the best paying, it can have its pick of writers. It serves, therefore, not just as a mirror to American culture (albeit from a usually-lofty and Eastern vantage point), but also as an influential shaper of American culture. Among its readers are the some of the most powerful among us, and, like it or not, power gets to do the greater share of the shaping. The New Yorker has the ear of some of the shapers.

I stopped subscribing to the New Yorker for three reasons. First, it’s expensive. You get a lot for your money — more issues a year, certainly, than almost any other decent magazine, and those issues unfailingly packed with interesting things — but it’s still enough money to make anyone on a tight budget think twice about writing the check. Second, it’s a big commitment. When those magazines were coming to my house every week, I couldn’t not read them, and the time it took was time I was taking from my own work. Third, I canceled my subscription at a time when I was particularly vulnerable to chasing enthusiasms not my own. I couldn’t read, say, a John McPhee article about pinball machines without spending the next two days at the library looking up increasingly less satisfying books about pinball machines.

Well, I’m hardier now, not much richer, but newly Kindled. I noticed a few afternoons back that I was once again reading the New Yorker while standing at the newsstand at the local Barnes & Noble. I’ve read it cover to cover for months this way. And I can subscribe to an electronically-delivered edition for $2.99 a month. So I did, and I’m not sorry I did.

Almost every issue has some kind of weirdness that validates the purchase even if there is nothing else of interest in the magazine. One recent pleasing weirdness is a profile of horror director Guillermo del Toro by Daniel Zalewski. It’s got the del Toro origin story (young Guillermo teaches himself English because he wants to read American horror fanzines), the del Toro mancave (a creepshow repository of comic books, horror movie monsters, and occult ephemera), and the requisite career talk (bad early TV stuff, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, the Peter Jackson debacle.) But the best part of the article is Zalewski’s sharp ear for revelatory dialogue. Here is one cherry example. Del Toro is talking about how he “inevitably imposed his sensibility on source material”:

“It’s like marrying a widow. You try to be respectful of the memory of the dead husband, but come Saturday night . . . bam.

You can read the rest of Zalewski’s profile of Guillermo del Toro¬†here.

Another worth noting, from the current issue, is Lawrence Wright’s longform (and I mean old school, McPhee-on-rocks length) journalism on Paul Haggis’s choice to quit Scientology, his reasons for quitting, his reasons for being fearful, and the general culture of fear and coercion many exiting Scientologists report upon quitting. (The whole thing is available, for free, here.)

There are many other things worth praising, not least this week’s Mary Gaitskill story. I think a lot of these things wouldn’t exist if there weren’t a deep-pocketed commissioner. How many of those are there, anymore? And of those that still exist, how many of them care enough to use those resources to make really good things, rather than celebrity profiles or pictures of models or discussions of ways to get richer when you’re already pretty rich? My main complaint about the New Yorker is that there aren’t more New Yorkers.