She, Tina

How Tina Brown revived the years with Ross

Did Tina Brown revolutionize slick magazines? About as much as Newt Gingrich revolutionized Congress--not profoundly, but vividly enough to get horrified onlookers thinking Antichrist. American politics would have grown more irresponsible, and journalism more buzz-happy, if neither had been born. All the same, it's inevitable that a culture this tizzied by its own merry-go-round would seize on carny barkers who make the mess seem lucid. They give us someone to blame once we throw up.

The nut is this: successful magazines have always stayed that way by flattering their audience. (You're young and therefore hip, shouts Details; you're hip and therefore young, wheezes Rolling Stone.) For a decade-plus, first at Vanity Fair and then over Mr. Shawn's rotating coffin, Brown helped a stratified, posttraditional society's winners and wannabes avert a potential identity crisis--I've got mine, but what's in it for me? Call her specialty elitism for swingers if you will, but Eustace Tilley's mag used to hawk depth for the shallow, and all Brown did was recognize that the terms of flattery had changed. William Shawn's New Yorker could have run nary a word about O.J. and readers would have basked in the implied praise. Tina's New Yorker ran thousands, mostly smarter than the competition's, and strove to make its readers feel suave about devouring a case whose every detail Dubuque knew by heart too.

Since magazine editors are supposed to be shrewd, don't think Shawn's tact wasn't as guileful in pushing Tilleyphiles' buttons then as Brown's lusts are now. If the old New Yorker was your temple, you're a sucker for advertising. That churchlike aura was a work of art more impressive than any story the magazine ever printed--even Nabokov's "Lance." Like most mystiques, it disguised one kind of interest as another. Harold Ross's brainchild set out to give the '20s boom's bright young things a patina of stylish cheek: more or less what Brown's revamp does today. The mag's fabled deep-dish act was a post-1945 afterthought, pushed to the fore because seriousness was in--as a lifestyle trapping, the way cleverness had been. Forget content; think stroking. While they actually don't need many pointers on how to be twits, making upscale WASPs feel like eggheads--without asking them to think, which would be going too far--will earn you their gratitude for life. As early as the sobersided '50s, in a culture grown distressingly motley, for which read Jewish, The New Yorker's primary value to many readers was providing reassurance that goyim still ruled the roost.

Considering the nongoy and/or unmoneyed origins of many of its shaping hands over the years, the magazine's long-running evocation of a chic Anglo-Saxon country club whose values, tastes, and above all intelligence it invented from scratch was an assimilationist hat trick on a par with Louis B. Mayer concocting Andy Hardy. Yet braininess has seldom been in favor with latter-day WASPs--if we're talking intellectual chow-downs, their job hereabouts was done once William James keeled over. What The New Yorker peddled instead was the genteel substitute: blue-chip, exquisitely rendered middlebrow pap. Not that Evelyn Waugh would have been more suitable, but still--what could be more middlebrow than John Hersey's Hiroshima, for decades the magazine's signature piece? (Answer: The Fire Next Time, which compared to the complex acumen of James Baldwin's best nonfiction is Mother Goose in a bad mood. All the same, Baldwin knew his audience--and given the way the world worked then, that Sammy Davis Jr. side of him came in handy.) Any mag that published Edmund Wilson regularly at the very least showed excellent taste in irrelevance. By the end of Shawn's tenure, however, its literarylion was ultragoy John Updike, and seldom has such twinkle-toed prose danced so industriously around such complacency; his mind's a maypole, and the glad sentences unwind.

Brown's hiring belatedly conceded that profundity was back out of fashion--and so what? Fashionable profundity is inherently absurd. Me, I think slick magazines should be glib; if they can manage it without insulting me, I'm appreciative, but for long views I'll head to the library. Preferring Tina's lively gabble to the old New Yorker's sonorities doesn't mean I buy her magazine's shtick about being on top of things any more than I did the old one's shtick about getting to the bottom of them. Even if one vaunts making people talk while the other touted making them think, the point is to be among the elect who do one or the other, which means the same old vanity is being massaged.

Besides, nobody's ever called Brown dumb. (By all sorts of standards, she may be dumb--but she makes sure nobody ever calls her that.) It's silly to suggest that she just transferred Vanity Fair's successful formula to her new gig unrevised. She knew that the frothier priorities and edgier topics she wanted to get cracking on (no contradiction there: in the '90s, edginess is froth) would be tolerable to longtime readers, and supply frisson for new ones, only if presented in a recognizably New Yorker­ish style. One of her canniest moves was to rework instead of junk the magazine's sedate iconography whenever possible, asserting tradition by scoring off it; maybe her debut issue's famous cover showed a punk slouched in a Central Park hackney cab, but it was drawn by Edward Sorel--who'd done plenty of covers for the old regime. When Brown introduced photographs, look who she hired as figurehead-in-residence: dis her, and you dis Avedon, whose less-than-current legend was only impressive to precisely the old farts the new editrix hoped to cow if not wow.

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