In the introduction to her 1999 book Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, the famed American journalist and essayist Renata Adler opens with: ‘As I write this, The New Yorker is dead.’
Adler’s controversial book was a lament for what she saw as the decline and ‘death’ of the revered weekly American magazine. The time Adler was specifically addressing was the late 1980s, when the magazine’s longstanding editor William Shawn (then in his late seventies) was forced to resign or risk his employees staging a coup. A few years after Shawn’s departure, media company Condé Nast bought the New Yorker, though not before the editorship changed hands several times over.
While Adler’s claims have mostly been disregarded in the decade since the book’s publication, her work remains a fascinating text. Gone is actually one of more than twenty-five books published since the late 1980s that profile life at one of the world’s most iconic magazines, ranging from Mary Norris’ popular 2015 book about life as a ‘comma queen’ to Janet Groth’s 2012 account of working as a receptionist behind the illustrious New Yorker desk.
Adler’s book was the most critical of the magazine, but still epitomises a generic mode of writing that seems to hold a great deal of currency today: the New Yorker book. Like any great literary publication – The Paris Review, London Review of Books, or even more contemporary examples like n+1 – paratexts and novels that reference the magazine itself are often successful (and indeed profitable) side ventures for these kinds of magazines.
But the New Yorker is a unique case in that it has not (until recently, with books like Norris’ Between You and Me, as well as several short story collections) endorsed books profiling life about the magazine. In fact, many of the books published about life inside the magazine (including Gone) met with disapproval both from the editors of the New Yorker and from other revered New York-based publications.
Adler writes that the magazine resisted venturing into book publishing for decades. William Shawn, the editor from 1952 to 1987, reportedly told Adler (whose book is loaded with lots of office gossip, including references to all the ‘immortal’ editors Adler worked with, staff writers she did not get along with, and awkward elevator rides she enjoyed with the likes of JD Salinger and Norman Mailer) that they were not in the business of book publishing.
Perhaps this is what has inspired so many books about life at one of the world’s most exclusive, and often secretive, publications. There are a litany of titles about life ‘inside’ the New Yorker offices: Brendan Gill’s 1970s account entitled Here at the New Yorker; former staff writer Lillian Ross’ memoir on life with Shawn, Here But Not Here; and journalist Ben Yagoda’s book on the cultural and social impacts of the magazine, About Town.
Shawn might have been right to resist making the move into the publishing industry that a number of other publications have attempted (the New York Review of Books has run a very successful publishing house for some decades, re-publishing Adler’s two novels, for example.) Beyond the fact that book publishing might be regarded as an entirely separate industry of differing literary, cultural, and financial labours, what makes the New Yorker so singular and specific is the fact that it is a weekly magazine and that it is defined by its self-reflexivity. That is, while the New Yorker is known for actively supporting authors to carry out their own writing and journalism, they often then capitalise on an author’s success as a way of referencing their own publication. The New Yorker made the writer; the writer then owes the New Yorker. This theme forms part of Adler’s book – she feels guilty for writing critically about a publication that fostered much of her best journalism.
While David Remnick, the current editor, has allowed the magazine to publish a few books on the New Yorker, they are mostly self-referential texts that point back to the magazine’s ‘great age’ of journalism and fiction. Two recent titles from this small stable of books include a 2002 collection of ‘humour writing’ from the magazine’s long history of cartoons and political jokes, and a 2014 collection of short stories specifically from the 1940s. Both titles offer very little new insight specifically into the magazine, being reprints of previously printed material. (Incidentally, next month the ‘best stories’ from the 1950s will be released in a new volume.)
Of course, this is what adds to the pleasure of a New Yorker book, much like reading Renata Adler’s diatribe against life working at the magazine. These books purport to offer knowledge of the New Yorker that has somehow slipped under the radar of the magazine’s scrupulous eye, offering a ‘new’ insight into the publication. The New Yorker is unto itself. Books like Gone and Between You and Me are treasure troves because they offer the initiated – and uninitiated – readers a rare glimpse into the secrets behind one of the world’s most famous magazines.