She, Tina

How Tina Brown revived the years with Ross

Of course, the caliber of the writing didn't stay the same, right? Right. If you ask me, it improved. Brown's impatience with beloved bylines mostly got rid of deadwood. If nothing else, I'll always be grateful for her aperçu that a guy as into tundra as John McPhee would appreciate Siberia. But besides being a less punctiliously unctuous crew than the old mainstays, the writers she brought in or pushed forward include some of the best the magazine's ever had. Adam Gopnik is crackerjack on almost any subject, while legal beagle Jeffrey Toobin has done yeoman work in a niche that, until O.J. and Whitewater, no slick this side of Jury Duty Monthly ever needed to fill. Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose surreal life as white America's leading black intellectual will make the right biographer rich one day, is fascinating at his splendid best (his Colin Powell profile was Michael Corleone meeting Hyman Roth) and muddled worst (his defense of Hillary was Dorothy meeting Glinda the Good Witch).

Then again, in a place that started featuring strong female voices decades before modern feminism--Janet Flanner, Lillian Ross, Jane Kramer, Pauline Kael, and the list goes on--the absence of women from Tina's stable is striking. Like a lot of sisters who've done it for themselves, sisterly she's not. On that front, her reign doesn't have much to parade but the unfortunate Daphne Merkin, rechristened "Spanky" by my pal Dolores in honor of the nervous ode to crimsoned butts that preceded Merkin's emergence as the dippiest movie reviewer since Arthur Schlesinger went back to his day job. But as Shawn alum Ellen Willis has observed, all those women on his roster didn't exactly make the magazine a hotbed of advocacy. Brown's New Yorker, by contrast, happily bangs the drum for woman power even if the version of it Tina digs, as with all topics she covers, is star power. And even Spanky looks like a relatively minor setback to feminism next to the great mistake of Robert Gottlieb's tenure--springing that yapping nitwit Elizabeth Wurtzel on a blameless world.

Early on, Brown made mistakes--her first Talk of the Town editor filed a stop-the-presses report on the Christmas-tree lighting at Rockefeller Center--and some of her inspirations fizzled. Consider, for instance, the Mystery of the Disappearing Wolcott. I've had writer's block myself, and since it's no fun I hope that wasn't Jim's problem--but shit, the guy's New Yorker output gave him time to translate Finnegans Wake into Korean. Other inspirations didn't fizzle fast enough--poor David Denby, nobody but Tina is ever likely to mistake him for a thinker again. And poor Simon Schama, the Ved Mehta of Brown's day; nobody's ever likely to mistake him for a star again.

A larger problem Brown never solved was the difference in impact between a monthly like Vanity Fair and a weekly, a homelier package that almost has to be a little dull around the edges to keep readers fond of it. The old New Yorker pursued constancy to a fault, but Tina's version threw itself at readers with an air of hyperactive starting over every week, like a mad puppy reinventing the wheel. Since she defined excellence as making a splash rather than hewing to a standard, you noticed when the flimsy contents didn't live up to their hot billing. Rather than figure out how to cope with this, she grew addicted to special issues--and paid more in reader irritation for each fix.

Despite her mania for being in the right place at the right time, and making it the right place by being there, Brown's New Yorker also lacks the old one's authority. But the culprit is a scattershot culture she reflects but didn't create, and anyway, is that sort of authority anything sensible folk should miss? It sustained itself only by leaving a lot of modern life out, and pretending it did so only because those parts were beneath notice. No one makes this complaint about Town & Country because Town & Country doesn't pretend it's upholding civilized values--just swank accoutrements. When Brown did the equivalent of Andrew Jackson opening the White House to the rabble by bringing in (hell, bringing up) Roseanne, the few Shawn-era stalwarts still mulling the merits of quislinghood indignantly scampered for the exits, proving that under the skin the old New Yorker's ethic had been about swank accoutrements all along. Once "good taste" serves pure snootiness this openly, it's too transparently a refuge to remain any kind of altar. You know damn well Ian Frazier felt no obligation to turn on Roseanne even once before deciding she insulted everything he stood for--which was what, exactly?

Besides keeping its readers smug, the old New Yorker's cultural clout was a narcotic to its writers. In at least one case--Kael's--clout was intellectually corrupting. After all those years of bashing the critical establishment, who knew she only wanted to join--no, run--the club? I enjoy the way Anthony Lane's strenuous insouciance makes this very Tina-identified writer a throwback to Ross's heyday. But I'm also glad he's in no position to lay down the law to the troupe of film-crit flying monkeys Kael oversaw ("Destroy Clint Eastwood! Bring me his head, my pretties!") in her Wicked Witch of the West days. While to my knowledge her retirement was unconnected to Brown's arrival, I'd also advise anyone offended by Tina's sins of building up favorites and manufacturing excitement to think twice before citing Kael's work as reproof.

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