'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 Yorker for 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 Yorker nor 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: Nobrow is 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

  • George Trow, 34, 38, 99; calls Tina "a great girl in the wrong dress," 41, 211

    Editors Circle

    Some job moves look more like returns than departures. Case in point: Marjorie Williams has quit her Vanity Fair gig to write for Talk and The Washington Post. The migration makes sense in hindsight: When Tina Brown signed her for VF in 1991, Williams was a staff writer at the Post.

    Williams was courted to write a weekly op-ed column by Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt. "She's smart, she understands politics, and she can write where the personal and the political intersect," he says. Hiatt has also just hired Charles Lane as a full-time editorial writer. Prior to his stint as editor of The New Republic, Lane was a foreign correspondent for Newsweek; Hiatt is putting him on the foreign policy beat.

    Finally, GQ articles editor Ilena Silverman has jumped to the Times Magazine, where she joins Gerry Marzorati and Michael Pollan. Way back when, all three were editors at Harper's.

    ccotts@villagevoice.com

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