Why Does The New Yorker Publish So Many Pieces About The New Yorker?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 12 2012 3:55 PM

Why Does The New Yorker Publish So Many Pieces About The New Yorker?

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The latest issue of The New Yorker, "In Good Health."

Bob Staake/The New Yorker

This week’s issue of The New Yorker features excerpts from writer Mavis Gallant’s diary covering the spring of 1952, when she was “giving English lessons and anxiously waiting for payment for her New Yorker stories.” In last week’s issue, longtime New Yorker contributor John McPhee wrote about his relationships with former New Yorker editors William Shawn and Robert Gottlieb, and their differing approaches to editing the magazine. We here at Brow Beat are fans and devoted readers of The New Yorker, and we got to wondering: Does any other magazine write about itself as much as The New Yorker does?

It seems unlikely. It also seems almost inevitable: Given its long history and its considerable influence on a particular subset of American readers, The New Yorker and its best-known contributors are precisely the sorts of subjects that should be covered in a magazine like The New Yorker. And so, for instance, Pauline Kael, who became perhaps the country’s most influential film critic thanks to her perch at the magazine, has subsequently been written about multiple times therein—notably in David Denby’s 2003 essay “My Life as a Paulette,” and in Slate contributor Nathan Heller’s “What She Said.”

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In a similar vein, the magazine recently ran Louis Menand’s take on the work of Dwight Macdonald, whose “attacks on middlebrowism inoculated The New Yorker against accusations of being middlebrow.” When a biography of the The New Yorker’s founding editor, Harold Ross, appeared in 1995, Charles McGrath wrote a piece for the magazine called “The Ross Years.” That same issue had a piece by Roger Angell on the cartoonist William Steig, whose contributions to the magazine began in 1930 and continued for over 60 years. A few months later, Angell reflected in The New Yorker on the impact of John Hersey’s famous essay, “Hiroshima,” which was first published in The New Yorker.

Angell, who has himself written for the magazine for more than half a century, has in the last couple decades made something of a specialty of such pieces. In 1997, he wrote about longtime New Yorker reporter Emily Hahn, whom he called “this magazine’s roving heroine.” A few months later he considered the history of New Yorker cartoons. In 1998, he wrote one of a group of essays about New Yorker writer Brendan Gill. (Gill, who had recently died, published a well-regarded book one year previously called Here at The New Yorker.) In 2002, he wrote about former New Yorker writer St. Clair McKelway’s coverage of World War II.

Angell has also written for the magazine about what’s it like to edit for the magazine. In his 1994 piece “Storyville,” he described how he selects fiction for The New Yorker.

“How do you get a story published in The New Yorker?” somebody asks. “Send it in, and if we like it, we’ll publish it,” I reply, and my interlocutor shoots me a knowing look and says, “No, seriously—”

When it comes to nonfiction, at least, one kind of story New Yorker editors seem to like is stories about The New Yorker. Including stories about New Yorker editors: In addition to the McPhee essay in last week’s issue and the McGrath piece mentioned above, the magazine has also published tributes to its recently departed editors and Nancy Franklin’s lengthy consideration of what Katharine White wanted The New Yorker to become. (White was an editor at the magazine from 1925 to 1960, working alongside her husband E.B. White, leaving just a few years after Roger Angell, her son from a previous marriage, came to work there.)

You can label this self-reflection or self-regard, but either way such pieces certainly help preserve the institutional memory of the magazine. Indeed, one argument that runs through many of these pieces is just what sort of magazine the New Yorker is. McPhee—who, in addition to writing for The New Yorker since 1963, wrote, last year, an essay about writing for The New Yorker—touches on this in his piece from last week’s issue. In it, he recounts a conversation he had with New Yorker editor William Shawn while they were working on McPhee’s first long piece for the magazine, a profile of then-Princeton undergraduate Bill Bradley. Shawn had been editing The New Yorker for over a decade by then. “One point he was careful to make several times,” McPhee reports, “was that he was not interested in buying pieces that ‘sound like The New Yorker.’ ”

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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