Thursday, September 08, 2005

This week's New Yorker

Every year when my subscription renewal to The New Yorker comes up, I engage in a short debate with myself as to whether to send them a check or just be done with the damned bourgeois, self-satisfied, always verging on being too tired for its own good, monocultural thing. After all, every library I get within 200 feet of subscribes to it, the articles now frequently seem to tread well-worn ground and are far less intellectually ranging than they were during the Gottlieb years (I will never forget Sacks's riveting discussion of Tourette's syndrome, which led me and my coworkers to act out some of the passages, or the remarkable account of Richard Evans Schultes' strange botanical genius that made me rue I hadn't taken a course with him, though I don't even think I ever once heard his name mentioned once during my college years), the poems are often dreadful (no more poems about pets/flowers/suburban kitchens/pets and flowers in suburban kitchens/dead parents as apparitions in suburban kitchens, etc. please) imageand rarely by a person of color or an out homosexual (without either of whom New York would be, well, a giant Schenectady), the stories often read like truncated novel chapters (though I did think Bolaño's "Gomez Palacios" was amazing, and Alice Munro and Haruki Murakami are never less than brilliant), Malcolm Gladwell and Alex Ross and David Denby and John Updike make me want to scream and Seymour Hersh and Susan Orlean don't publish enough in there, and they once held poems of mine for weeks (months) and the poetry editor even claimed to my agent that she was taking them with her on vacation, and I believed that one, but of course I never heard anything back, I didn't even get one of those small, rectangular, polite rejection slips that Tina Brown's legions used to send out (though I always liked the respectfully curt and cruel ones from George Plimpton's The Paris Review the best), and the billionaire-rich Newhouses don't need my money anyhow....and then I think, maybe there'll be a disorienting little piece by Hilton Als (like the brilliant one he wrote about André Leon Talley that deserved a magazine award or at least to be wheatpasted or framed in places where people who thought that conformity had totally taken over could glance up at it and be reassured), or they'll publish a Kevin Young or Carl Phillips poem, or a story by some person I've never heard of that makes me say "I've got to read more by this person," or I'll learn about the arcane history of some system or region or type of cultural proces, and then I'll tell myself that it's not that costly, especially if I get lucky and receive one of those professional discounts (for the lone piece I wrote in Out ten years ago and had to beg and cajole to get paid for)....

This week is a trove. In addition to a Talk of the Town section devoted completely to the Hurricane Katrina and President Katrina tragedies and a Q&A on the topic with Nicholas Lemann, Brahmin Frances Fitzgerald pins an interesting article on Brown University's president, Ruth Simmons, and her establishment of a committee to study that university's founders' roles in the slave trade. Jeffrey Toobin explores Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy's passion for foreign/international law (a fact that sends the Christianist right wingers into paroxysms of derangement). David Grann looks at the career of the ageless Ricky Henderson, whom I think may still be hitting jaw-dropping lead-off home runs around a field just a few miles from where I'm typing this. There's an Ann Beattie story I haven't read, but I plan to; she is one writer my graduate fiction students tend to loathe, though maybe it's just the particular stories by her I've tended to assign; and three poems by someone named Martha Serpas, but I have not looked at the contributor's page to see who she is, nor devoted more than a cursory glance to any of them (and none leapt out at me). There are also pieces by Malcolm Gladwell (!), as well as by David Denby (!!), and John Updike (!!!). Denby's resume of Susan Sontag's film criticism and practice is critical without being nasty (though he gets in some barbs), but I confess that now that Susan Sontag has died, I am interested in reading anything about her life and art; and Updike, who often makes me wretch, pens a snappish but praiseworthy review of a new novel, "The March," by one of my favorite writers, E.L. Doctorow, which makes me want to read Doctorow's new novel even more. No Ross blabbing on about classical music and tossing in his usual barbs against Schoenberg, for a change, and no Joan Acocella, whom I'll never forgive for her trashing of Bill T. Jones, based on faulty aestheticist premises (though get her to discuss Kant and Pater and Wilde together and I'll give you a dollar). At least I think it was Acocella.

Quote of the day/month/year/millennium from the "liberal" media: "They are so poor, and they are so black..." -- Wolf Blitzer, CNN's The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, Thursday, September 1, 2005


  1. I will have to get my hands on The New Yorker. Ruth Simmons has interested me since she was at Smith. I heard about the thing and Brown, but did not realize she was behind it.

    As for Sontag I will read anything about her, and damn it I can't find that Susan Sontag Icon bio anywhere.

    Hilton Als is my new fave by the way, and I am glad you referenced him. Kevin Young was at Emory yesterday, I meant to ask you about him.

    Finally, I read this story by Doctorow and fell in love. It was in the last book he published, the short story collection. I too have found Updike lets see... well he ain't at the top of my list. I will eventually get around to reading the Rabbit series, but I will undoubtedly have to force myself. However,I will read the review and see what he's giving. Love your blog, it's awesome.

    -Charles S.

  2. Charles, did you search for the Sontag bio on I think I saw it on there a while back.

    Did you get to hear Kevin and meet him? I believe he's now at Emory with Natasha Trethewey. Yusef Komunyakaa was also to be teaching there, but tragedy intervened, so he's still at Princeton, I believe.

    Updike's Rabbit books are the acme of his career. I actually think Rabbit, Run and Rabbit at Rest are among the major novels in 20th century American literature, but throughout his work there's been a racist current which was most apparent, I felt, in his novel on Brazil. The sexism of his work also can be repellent. He has dealt with class with some subtlety, in part because of his personal background. As writers go, though, he is extraordinarily fluid and prolific, one of the most amazing you'll ever find at being able to work in most genres--he also is pretty good poet, and discerning critic--and his fluency as a fiction writer has few peers. Some of his stories are so superbly written they take your breath away. I know of many writers who have asked more than once how he does it. And he's done it since he was in college!

    Thanks for reading the blog and above all for your comments!