Yana Djin

  The Un-American American

Moscow News
August,  2001

I have been wanting to write about America in a positive light for some time. The reason is quite selfish: My accusatory finger was threatening to become so stiff as to turn unbendable, and I decided it was in dire need of rest. So I started to seek out an American phenomenon that would be both contemporary and instantly recognizable to the non-American eye.

Disneyland, though all-American, did not seem inspiring with its deification of a stuffed rodent. Neither did Hollywood, with its incessant productions of bubble-gum movies that ended happily but somehow managed to leave one desolate and sad. McDonalds did not do the trick either: Flipping burgers for minimum wage and no health insurance was not, I thought, too cheerful. After an extended deliberation, I was ready to give up on the idea when I noticed an issue of a magazine lying on my dresser. I knew that I had finally found

what I'd been looking for.

The magazine in question is more of an American institution than your average weekly. It is the literary equivalent of Hollywood, and having one's work printed there is similar to starring in a blockbuster: It virtually opens doors to major publishing houses. Unlike real Hollywood, however, this publication is not driven by profit-making. On the contrary, it has been losing money for years and yet neither its owners nor its readers expect it to fold. The magazine I am referring to is the New Yorker, which for decades has been regarded as the most important magazine in the world.

The New Yorker was founded in 1925, and since then, it has changed editors merely five times. This is another un-American quality of this publication. But for the blatant materialism which this country manifests on a daily basis, Americans could have been the nation that wrote the Book of Changes. The New Yorker, however, has been steadfast in pursuing constancy. By the early nineties, it reached the status of the British Monarchy: It still evoked enough respect to be tolerated but was deemed to be out of touch and irrelevant.

That was when the owners decided to de-fossilize the magazine with the help of the British-born yet very up-to-date editor, Tina Brown. She was to impart some spice to the weekly. Brown accomplished the task by using the crude marketing tactics: more photos of movie stars, more topical articles and less intellectual drivel. She was criticized severely by many staffers for selling out the principles upon which the New Yorker was based, yet she certainly attracted the much-needed attention to the ailing magazine. Although under her rule the New Yorker became something of a cross between Hustler and Paris Review, I feel she made the right choice by (for example) hiring Paul Theroux to write a feature on a dominatrix rather than pepper-spraying every issue with the same Updike-like prose, reminiscent of over-boiled cauliflower. A dominatrix, though less brainy a target, is at times more appealing than a middle-aged, pudgy professor dreaming of an extra-marital affair over herb tea and Plato.

With Brown, the New Yorker became controversial once again. The criticism directed at Brown was that she was not intellectual enough to lead the "world's most important publication." One such critic, the renowned New Yorker staffer Renata Adler, wrote a book in which she announced the death of the magazine. That was rather mean-spirited of her, but then again, according to Adler;'s account, mean-spiritedness is almost as old among the staffers of the New Yorker as the magazine itself. Adler herself is happy to point out her colleagues' ignorance. Oddly enough, for someone with the reputation of an "intellectual gadfly," she makes a serious faux pas in her book: After stating that burning cash is a dramatic gesture, she encourages the reader to recall Dostoyevsky's "Brothers Karamazov." Any fact-checker from the New Yorker, provided he/she is not a total idiot, could have pinpointed the right title within seconds...

The New Yorker is more alive than ever after the departure of Tina Brown in 1998. Its current editor, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Remnick, has been received well both by the readers and by his staff. In fact, Remnick has the reputation of being an exceptionally educated man and one who has managed to acquire almost no enemies. Frankly, the second quality impresses me more, because in this country knowing the number of continents qualifies one to be called an erudite. Sarcasm aside, however, under Remnick's guidance the features in the New Yorker have not only upheld the magazine's standards but those of the times as well: With the borders between nations becoming more transparent than ever, the New Yorker adapted to a broader vision. Instead of concentrating solely on this country, Remnick's New Yorker focuses on the world at large. Its anniversary issue had a feature on Chekhov in Yalta and an in-depth piece on Cuba. One reason the magazine took this turn has to do with Remnick's personal history: The four years which he spent in Moscow as the Washington Post correspondent must have left him with a wider worldview.

One can only wish that he apply the same editorial know-how to the fiction and poetry departments. Aside from the occasional I.B.Singer, Marquez, Walcott or Brodsky, the New Yorker's editors stick to the so-called "WASP" Mafia. It would be quite refreshing to take down the "Iron Curtain" and let in some new names. Look beyond the borders of this country, perhaps. Russia alone, for example, could supply poets and prose-writers who can shake it out of its descriptive slumber. If the New Yorker is to retain its reputation , it has to take not only the factual but the fictional world seriously. I sincerely hope it does, if only because, unlike anything else in this country, it clearly values quality over quantity and adheres to the unpopular practice of staying true to one's principles and values.


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