Book Review: From Bon Mots to Buzz Words ; the New Yorker, 75 This Year, Once Set the Gold Standard for Magazines. Now It's Brass That Counts. about Town by Ben Yagoda Duckworth, Pounds 20, 496pp; Nobrow by John Seabrook Methuen, Pounds 9.99, 221pp; Slab Rat by Ted Heller Abacus, Pounds 10.99, 330pp
Hawtree, Christopher, The Independent (London, England)
With a possible exception of the Church Commissioners, no commercial enterprise is so given to malice and feud as publishing. It thrives upon methods rooted in slander and hoodwink, which frequently broach a mania that, in more respectable trades, would not only be commercial suicide but bring their perpetrators a stint in the jail or asylum.
An editor, however, often finds that his folly has the headhunters in a frenzy. Sometimes, profligate muddle wins through. Heads turn in restaurants, egos are satisfied, and the scramble continues - all more entertaining than most company histories. Hunch has no rules.
The 500 pages of Ben Yagoda's About Town, his history of the New Yorker "and the world it made", chronicle Harold Ross's mere notion of starting a magazine of some sort after the Great War, through its beginnings, the edging towards its glory days and, briefly, their aftermath. A true opinion of all this would mean reading 3500 old magazines, which even Ben Yagoda has not quite done. But his nuts- and-bolts approach makes for a distinctly useful account of a magazine which, at its finest, produced seamlessly welded prose - for which it was criticised by those who feel that American writing should ooze blood onto the margins.
No polemic, but open to all opinions, Yagoda's sedulous chronicle stands on the increasingly long shelf of New Yorker books between the fawning of Brendan Gill's account and the recent bile of Renata Adler. It is a fit supplement to the biography of Ross by Thomas Funkell, who has recently edited his letters (a volume, like Adler's, not available over here).
Ross was rivalled only by the Hollywood mogul David Selznick for lobbing memos on everything. A mark of his success is that his name did not appear in the New Yorker until his obituary, a quarter- century later. In that time, the magazine had got better. It became funnier when shedding the Twenties topical bias; the great period was bounded by Ross giving over an issue to John Hersey's Hiroshima in 1946, and his successor William Shawn's quiet espousal of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Which is not to say that one does not equally relish its cartoons, so many of whose captions have become catchphrases (as in James Thurber's "all right, have it your way - you heard a seal bark").
Why have people over here taken so long to wake up to the genius of the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell? Yagoda quotes him: "Inside a fact is another fact, and inside that is another fact. You've got to get the true facts." Yagoda supplies many facts, and an eye for salient detail brings an essential air of truth. One need hardly mention such familiar figures as John Updike, Edmund Wilson, J D Salinger and Pauline Kael, but one is eager to seek out the stories of Gilbert Rogin, who was published regularly in the Sixties but, when two were rejected, fell victim to a continuing block.
The magazine refused to print the words "balding" and "pimples", and a poem by W D Snodgrass was rejected because it mentioned "dandruff". Kenneth Tynan referred to a pissoir and, after much argument, settled for "a circular curbside construction"; which, if used when seeking directions while matters pressed, would only increase the agony. …