'The New Yorker' Sells Out

Writer John Seabrook Lives to Tell the Tale

'Nobrow' is not like other books. It starts like a novel, with the narrator on the train to Times Square, where he flashes back to a Chemical Brothers concert and picks up his latest cds. But around page 26, it turns into a manifesto about a cultural shift. The new approach to marketing is everywhere, but you can see it up close at the New Yorker, where author John Seabrook just happens to be a staff writer.

Before you know it, you're on the 17th floor of 20 West 43rd Street with the ghosts of William Shawn, who edited The New Yorkerfor 36 years, and Tina Brown, who has been accused of running it into the ground. But Tina deserves a place in the pantheon, Seabrook suggests, because she "represented the coming of Nobrow to the magazine," in which "the old distinction between the elite culture of the aristocrats and the commercial culture of the masses was torn down, and in its place was erected a hierarchy of hotness."

When Tina asks him what he wants to write for her New Yorker, Seabrook proposes a "process piece" about giant bluefin tuna. But before long, he recalls, "that quiet yearning for good taste was beginning to sound like death to me." He begins writing profiles of David Geffen and George Lucas, stories that not only please Tina, but later become fodder for the book. Along the way, he fashions a concept that will allow him to synthesize all this experience into one self-referential account. The result is Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing—The Marketing of Culture, just out from Knopf.

Nobrow is neither an elegy for the old New Yorkernor an indictment of the new. Instead, Seabrook pays homage both to Shawn's vision of independence (in which staffers choose their own subjects and "say what we believe to be true") and to Tina's quest for profitability ("So one had to do a little promoting. So that was the real world"). The author stops short of declaring Shawn's magazine dead, but he's not lying about how it stayed alive. "Independence was the price we paid for survival," he winks. These days, he reflects after viewing an erotic video, art "is an ad for the artist."

In the end, profitability proves elusive, and Seabrook finds himself playing Ishmael to Tina's Ahab as she disappears into the Bermuda Triangle that is Harvey Weinstein's private plane. He tells a good yarn, with no footnotes to mar the illusion. But don't be fooled: Nobrowis both entertainment and history. A short index follows:

Richard Avedon, hired by Tina "the day after William Shawn died," page 41

Roseanne Barr, asked to consult on the New Yorker's Women's Issue, 32-33

Tina Brown, hired to replace Bob Gottlieb, 25, 37; uses eye-catching glance to good effect on Seabrook, 38-39, 176, 210; replaces auteur system with studio system, 31; never speaks to legendary copy editor Eleanor Gould, 42; asks Michael Eisner to host the Next Conference, 201-204; with Tom Florio, is "whisked" to Harvey Weinstein's private plane, 203; with David Kuhn, asks Steve Wynn to host the next Next Conference, 210; quits (to launch Talk), 211

Graydon Carter, 12; has feng shui performed in new Vanity Fair offices, 211

Bill Clinton, 5-7, 37, is a master marketer because he "is able to represent honesty while being thoroughly dishonest," 209

Kurt Cobain, inspires imitators 42-43, 102-130; "wouldn't have killed himself if he hadn't sold so many records," 101

Condé Nast headquarters at 4 Times Square, 45, 205-213; scaffolding falls during construction of, killing old woman, 211; the perfect embodiment of Nobrow, 211-212

Michael Eisner of Disney, a/k/a "the Pope Julius of Nobrow," 202, 204

Tom Florio, "whisked" to Harvey Weinstein's private plane, 203, 206

David Geffen, subject of flattering profile by Seabrook, 9, 101, 176-196

Getty Museum in the Brentwood hills, a/k/a "the Cheops of Nobrow," 62

Robert Gottlieb, 19-38; gives up editorship of The New Yorker, saying, "I'm the happiest girl in the whole U.S.A.," 25, 37

David Kuhn, 215; with Tina, asks Steve Wynn to host the Next Conference in Las Vegas, 210

Dick Morris, appears at a New Yorker breakfast, 16

Si Newhouse, 15, 18, 20, 206-210; is accused of lying to William Shawn in 1985, 209

The new New Yorker, in which images of nipples and the words fuck and cunt suddenly appear, 28, 32, 33; "the killing floor," 41; melding of church and state, 15-16, 201-204; "patron whoring," 203; buzz rolls in but fails to generate ad sales, 207; rude treatment of staff underlings, 42; turns into Vanity Fair, 212

The old New Yorker, moral authority of, 18; Jonathan Schell "once the conscience" of, 152; spirit kept alive by C.S. Ledbetter III, 39-40; separation of church and state, 15, 31; "too-cultured-to-care" attitude, 19, 40; use of the editorial "we," 16, 25; civil treatment of staff underlings, 42

David Remnick, 211, 215

John Seabrook, gets Vanity Fair contract and is soon disgusted, 35-37; finds Tina's approach to The New Yorker "very attractive" and wants to please her, 176; has New Yorkerpiece (on tuna) killed by Tina, 38; hooked by Tina's eye-catching glance, 38-39, 176, 210; sold on MTV, 65

William Shawn, 18-28, 50, 64; practices auteur system, 31; defines editorial independence, 210; promised by Si Newhouse [in 1985] that The New Yorker will not move and that he can stay as long as he wants, 206, 209; assures readers that the spirit of The New Yorker will never change, 209; fired by Newhouse, 31, 210
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