The other day, while reading the latest issue of The New Yorker, it struck me that i have been reading the NYer for over fifty years. Fifty years! It is a cliche to say that the NYer is not as good as it once was, and I suppose they were saying that from about the third issue. But fifty years does give one a little perspective; and it is so.
At one time, the people who ran the NYer were frankly insane. Aside from the castles of Ludwig, the Mad King of Bavaria, the NYer of Ross and Shawn was the greatest edifice ever erected by nutters. It was an magazine of insane excellence. It made a good deal of money for its proprietor, but that was not its purpose. Its purpose was to be its crazy self, by a long chalk the best magazine in existence, maybe of all time. As such, it literally changed the world. For just a few of many many examples, it published John Hersey's Hiroshima, which gave Americans their first look at what nuclear weapons do to the people they are used on; Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, that launched the environmental movement; and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which helped change the nature of journalism itself. Beside which it published the best fiction that any magazine has ever published and essentially invented the modern captioned cartoon.
Now it's become a higher People, a celebrity magazine, with a rind, like Camembert, of the good old stuff--a short story, a couple of poems, cartoons, and a piece of reportage that means something. But the core of the magazine is puff, asking us to admire the latest world-beater. I often find myself skipping half the book, not being much interested in those kinds of people. There are a couple of reasons for this shriveling. First, it's because the conglomerate that owns it thinks the most important thing in the world is maximizing return on investment rather than producing a magazine of insane excellence. This is a reasonable business decision, because (the second thing) the world is no longer interested in a magazine of insane excellence. Magazine articles can't change the world like they used to anymore. The audience for that kind of journalism is dying, just as the audience for, say, verse dramas or Latin epics died, and this is why no one writes them anymore. The old NYer flourished in an era when opinion was formed almost entirely by print media, an era that is nearly extinct.
Well, things change. I don't miss Latin epics and the current generation probably doesn't think it needs a magazine like the old NYer. We are told that people are getting smarter, and perhaps they are. Certainly there are more educated people around, and navigating the world is more complex than it was when I first started reading the magazine. In which case I do wonder why it seems to me that everything is dumber than it once was. This could be an artifact of aging. I seem to recall my college professors sighing at the barbarity of their students.
Perhaps, in a way I don't quite grasp, the Internet and social media have taken over the steering role once occupied by print media. Maybe, instead of a writer researching a subject exhaustively, and being challenged about the article's accuracy by people insanely devoted to excellence in reportage, and publishing such pieces for educated people to mull over, and as a result generating political action, we can do it all automatically by liking something on Facebook or writing Wiki articles. I certainly hope so. Still, it's always sad to see the death of a world.