Tag Archives: Literary Journals

How to Read The New Yorker

6 May

new-yorker_cover

Step 1: Look at the cover

Isn’t it pretty?

A quaint watercolor painting of moneyed urbanites enjoying cappuccinos at a sidewalk cafe. You can almost smell the fresh-baked croissants.

See, The New Yorker doesn’t just slap a photo of some obscure, insanely villainous world leader on the front cover, and call it a day. The New Yorker commissions artists to create original content for its distinctly milquetoast covers, week after week. They’ve been doing it for a century.

I assume, but have not confirmed, that these artists are paid actual legal tender for their services — up to and including one hundred U.S. dollars!

Step 2: Skim for cartoons

The best part of The New Yorker, as everyone knows, is the cartoons. They’re pretty great!

Here, for instance, is a cartoon from The New Yorker’s most recent issue:

New Yorker cartoon

“I don’t know. It’s like it’s too quiet after we sacrifice a politician.”

Timely!

But not all New Yorker cartoons are as expertly rendered (or vaguely racist). Some of them, if we’re to be honest, are about as sophisticated as cave drawings. How and why these cartoonists are selected for publication — when roughly nine-tenths of New York City’s population (all figures estimated) is comprised of wildly talented cartoonists — is just one of The New Yorker’s many beautiful mysteries.

Step 3: Look at the Table of Contents

First page, motherfucker!

Unlike basically every other magazine on the planet, The New Yorker doesn’t make you sift through six hundred pages of perfume and jewelry ads, just to figure out what the fuck is inside that week’s issue. The New Yorker’s Table of Contents is on the very first goddamn page, every goddamn time.

That’s The New Yorker’s promise to you.

Step 4: Browse “The Talk of the Town”

These are short, breezy, weirdly focused, slice-of-life vignettes about various NYC characters: bored heiresses, taxi drivers, cocaine dealers, art gallery owners, and other low-level criminals. Read a few that appeal to you, until you’re sufficiently bored. Proceed to Step 5.

Step 5: Read “Shouts & Murmurs”

A “humorous” one- or two-page pastiche that is not nearly as funny or as witty as what you will find (for free) over at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency or Barrelhouse’s Stupid Idea Junk Drawer. Sometimes it’s written by Steve Martin, or Woody Allen, or another faded comic visionary who stopped trying forty years ago.

Step 6: Read “Briefly Noted”

You’ll have to skip towards the end of the magazine, to a section called “The Critics,” for this. Here you’ll find a list of four newly-released books appealing to some incredibly narrowly-defined niche interest … followed by a few sentences of passive-aggressive, backhanded praise, inspiring you to earmark them in your Goodreads “Want to Read” e-shelf. (Spoiler: You will not actually read them.)

Step 7: Read some fucking poems

Daily life provides precious few opportunities to enjoy some truly off-the-wall poetry — so here’s your chance to fill that cultural void. Usually there are two poems — one by Anne Carson; and another by some random, world-famous poet whom you’ve never heard of.

You’re not really supposed to “enjoy” the poem; in fact, the poem may even frustrate and enrage you. Feel that burning sensation behind your eyeballs, where your ocular nerves meet your forebrain? That means the poem is working!

Step 8: Ignore the fiction

If you are a writer of fiction, such as myself, you may be tempted to consume The New Yorker’s short fiction — prime facie — as a kind of obligation. This is a mistake. Fiction is just one of several things The New Yorker does sorta-well. It’s no better — and is often worse — than the rest of its longform fare.

If you’re looking to be “turned on” to a fresh, emerging young voice in American letters — think again! The New Yorker uses a revolving stable of inexplicably famous authors — guys like Martin Amis, Don Delillo, T.C. Boyle; and gals like Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates — to populate the middle section of the magazine. (If, on the other hand, the story is written by one of your favorite authors — someone who actually bothers to tell you a coherent, suspenseful story, like Rachel Kushner, Amelia Gray, or Stephen King — then go ahead and dive right in. It’s Stephen King, y’all!)

Point is, you don’t have to read the short story to be a “good” New Yorker reader. (Indeed, the truly enlightened New Yorker reader only messes with the fiction if there is a compelling reason to do so — such as, some guy you went to business school with somehow managed to con Deborah Treisman into publishing his story, and you really need that hate juice to fuel your own sad and pointless and flailingly unsuccessful artistic enterprise.)

Step 9: Pick ONE long article to read

Myself, I’m partial to New Yorker profiles. They’re the tits! I have read thousands of New Yorker profiles, and not one of them has been bad. The best New Yorker profile ever written is probably Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” from 1943 … but they all sort of follow that same New Journalism model, taking as their subject a person you admire, and gradually making you feel sad that person exists.

But maybe you’re more interested in foreign affairs, in the petty machinations of brutal warmongers from “across the pond.” In that case, the “Letter From [insert sand-swept hellhole here]” series might be your bag!

Or, you may be a sports-watching kind of guy (or gal), in which case, proceed directly to “Annals of Sport,” and learn about the rise and fall of Canada’s all-time great curling champion (or whatever).

It’s your movie, man!

But — and I cannot stress this enough — you only get ONE. So choose wisely. Because, as we shall see in Step 10

Step 10: Throw out the magazine

“But,” you are no doubt saying, “this magazine has been so lovingly, ably produced, I think I should like to read ALL of it, from cover to cover.”

Well, I invite you to go ahead and try it, you dangerous psycho. But I guarantee that a very specific sequence of events will follow:

While you’re dicking around with the rest of The New Yorker’s LONG ASS features, the next issue of The New Yorker will drop through your mail slot. You’ll set that issue aside, fully intending to read it in due time … and before you know it, another issue will pour into your house — SPLAT! — and the issues will just keep accumulating — on your nightstand, on your coffee table; in weird places like inside your coat pockets and behind your cat’s litter box — and become a real fire hazard.

You will feel like a failure, a charlatan, and a hoarder. Trust me on this.

The proper way to read The New Yorker is to accept that you will not be able to read the whole thing before the next one arrives — and that’s okay! Don’t beat yourself up about it! Strong as it may be, RESIST the temptation — which, in my experience, stems from some misplaced sense of literary do-goodism — to read The New Yorker in its entirety. It can be done, sure — but if you’re a normal, barely-functioning white guy (such as myself), you will find that there are bills that need to be paid, and food that must be prepared and consumed, and small, domesticated animals that need to be dressed up in costumes and photographed and posted to your Instagram, for all the world to marvel at.

All kidding aside, the point of The New Yorker is to act as a supplement, or surrogate, for whatever half-finished book you’ve been studiously avoiding — like that thousand-page biography of Andrew Jackson you were roped into buying — or any number of obtuse, doddering John Updike novels that some coked-up editor saw fit to publish, back in the Seventies.

To recap: Cover, cartoons, Table of Contents, short features, no fiction (unless you really wanna), poems, ONE LONG ARTICLE, wastebasket.

This is your formula for successfully consuming the world’s finest literary periodical. (You’re welcome.)

Or you could just be a Harper’s guy … but that’s a whole different can of worms.

Related: Top Hats and Monocles