The New Yorker
They arrive in whacking great bundles.
Each time, I think I should have remembered this from the last time I subscribed. A weekly magazine, coming from the other side of the world in a time of crippled supply lines and bigger priorities. Of course they won’t arrive in an orderly procession on a Tuesday, or a Friday, or whatever.
I only read magazines over breakfast, and no, there is no good reason for this. But it means they lie about the kitchen in various stages of digestion, from unmarked, to folded-over, to coffee-stained and crumpled. If one is left in a puddle of spilled-over milk from a bowl of cereal, it will adhere to the table and leave an inverse palimpsest of its print on the timber. Future generations will learn to decipher back-to-front David Remnick like a Rosetta Stone in lactose.
But let’s slow down the process. First, that arrival.
They turn up wrapped in plastic, and the wrapping contains nothing besides the magazine and a single cover sheet: there are no pesky card inserts offering wine I can do without, or collectible porcelain. They smell good.
The physical properties of The New Yorker are something of an informational Tardis: the paper is thin and they’re stapled, not perfect-bound. They weigh very little and can appear, at first glance, insubstantial. But how appearances deceive. There is so much in a single New Yorker that I have never, over years of trying, managed to finish one within its allotted week, with the result that I am frequently sharing months-old articles with friends, or posting them on social media. Ah. Another missive from the world’s slowest reader.
Entire books are devoted to New Yorker covers, and explaining them in mere words only diminishes them. Topical, colourful, artful and frequently scathing, they herald the independence, the verve, of what lies within. Never in the history of the magazine has the cover been demeaned with a paid wrap, nor indeed any other form of endorsement. To do so would rank in infamy with a corporate rebranding of the MCG. There are no cover lines, no bar codes. There is a date, a price ($8.99 for as long as I can remember) and that majestic masthead. Nothing else.
The early pages are prodigiously dense with minutiae. Publishing details, compact ads, and—a trick we learned to deploy in Great Ocean—tiny space-filling doodles of no great importance. Every page is built to a three-column grid.The masthead and titles are set in the august and unmistakable Irvin typeface, with its thematic echoes of the Chrysler Building on Lexington. The articles are set in something called Adobe Caslon, which to my untrained eye looks like Times New Roman (somewhere, Nick Gadd shudders…). But apparently Irvin is no good on smartphones, so the publishers, ever-conscious of the brand value of their typeface, made their own art-deco sans serif font called Neutraface.
The scale of the articles builds as the pages progress—from The Mail, a deeply traditional letters to the editor page on which I imagine Concerned of Blackburn would consider it a lifetime’s achievement to appear; to Goings On About Town, which serves as a pert reminder to the rest of us that there is a metric (or more likely imperial) shitload of stuff going on in NYC at any given time. Even now, bless them: the city is an indomitable force of nature.
Around this stage of a given issue, you start to notice an anomaly; amid the socially-conscious advertisements (books for children, food banks) there are full-page advertisements for big health. In the June 29 issue (I know, I know…), page seven is given over to some kind of immunotherapy drug from the sinister-sounding Bristol Myers Squibb™. The entire reverse side of the ad is a page-long carpet-bombing of legal boilerplate. The coveted real estate of the inside back cover is held by a vague promise of medical breakthroughs from something called Abbvie. No, I have no idea.
Goings On gives way to a series of one-page pieces under the subhead The Talk of the Town. These are not as local as they sound, and frequently survey the length and breadth of the benighted American republic. They are sharp and pithy, yet often empathetic. I like the people ones: the plucky researcher, the man who holds a sign in Central Park. The columns are spaced by those distinctive cartoons in inkwash and sketch, which are studiously universal and never driven by locality or the issues of the day. In this, they replicate the sensibilities of a Far Side frame, but without the hilarious logical inversions. They aim only to elicit a wry smile.
But these are mere warm-up acts. The magazine opens up, exhales grandly, and you are among the long reads. I’m awed by these writers: often I’ll be deep in an article when I’ll flip back to the by-line. Who wrote this thing, with its Swiss-watch precision and its beauty? How? The words “Staff Writer, New Yorker”, are widely accepted as a replacement for an entire resume. And what a cast they are: everyone has their favourites, but mine would be Lawrence Wright, with his impossible blend of humanism and crisp remoteness; the venerable John McPhee; Susan Orlean and William Finnigan, because they wrote surfing along the way; Teju Cole; Janet Malcolm; Dorothy Wickenden; and James Wood. I could go on: I keep finding new ones.
There is a sense, as a writer, that when you are being edited by the best, you need only get your work past that one person and—if you do—you will be safe from the whole world. I imagine that’s how it would feel to write for the New Yorker, only in multiples. An army of sub-editors running their exquisitely attentive fingers over your prose like they’re de-fusing Luftwaffe ordnance that turned up in a puddle in Kent. Did you mean to use the gerund here as a nod to Pynchon? The care shines through: the sense of being in the hands of experts.
I suspect there’s a very fine line to pomposity in raving about the New Yorker. I would never, for instance, write the same things of The Paris Review, though I admire it greatly. It’s just too demonstratively lit to be banging on about it. But we are living through the long extinction of expertise. Anyone who cares deeply and thinks long ought to be celebrated.
Jock Serong is the author of five novels, the latest of which is The Burning Island, released in September 2020. He is also a features writer, and the founding editor of Great Ocean Quarterly.