Thursday, September 3, 2015

oh, Mr. Kinsley

I was reading the Sept. 7 issue of The New Yorker while at the gym today, and it struck me as the most New Yorkery issue for a long while, embodying what makes that magazine both unique and sometimes exasperating.

There's the plus ├ža change editorial quoting Tom Watson in 1910 sounding like Donald Trump. There's the unfunny humor column. There's the long essays on potentially interesting topic (a Palestinian writer who's moved to the US in despair; policing in NYC; the economy of Atlantic City) that go on twice as long as any possible interest I could have in them; but above all is Dan Chiasson's review of a new book of Emerson's poetry.

Let us examine this remarkable document. It begins by discussing in detail the death of Emerson's 5-year-old son, telling for instance of 9-year-old Louisa May Alcott coming over to ask about him, to be told by Emerson, "Child, he is dead." (The boy's name was Waldo, and the article does not record, though it should, that young Louisa's words were "Where's Waldo?")

Then it quotes at perhaps 150 words length from an essay of Emerson's on grief, and then analyzes that for at least as long - remember, this is supposed to be a review of the poetry, and it's gone on for nearly a page without mentioning any - before finally seguing by saying that the essay "has a knife's-edge, emergency intensity that is nowhere to be found in Emerson's poems ..."

Thus not only a huge introduction divorced from the ostensible topics, and the twist which makes the ostensible topic of the article sound a lot less interesting than the one which only operated as a distraction.

The characteristics of New Yorkery were cataloged by Michael Kinsley in a 1984 article on the magazine: the crashing insignificance of the detail, the meandering. Kinsley describes a meeting with William Shawn, its long-time editor.
What, as an editor, did I think of it? Well, I said as tentatively as possible, I thought that some of the articles tended perhaps to go on a bit long ... One function of an editor, I recklessly opined, is to ask while reading a manuscript: "What's the point?"
"Oh, Mr. Kinsley," said Mr. Shawn piteously. He looked deeply wounded, as if I'd taken this thing called "the point" and run him through with it. Okay, so he didn't. I exaggerate. A bit.
Mr. Shawn is long gone, but if I knew how to reach Mr. Kinsley - he seems to be writing for a different publication every time I check on him, and has no website of his own - I'd like to inform him that I see that the Shawn spirit he describes lives on.

No comments:

Post a Comment