Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The New Yorker's 86th Anniversary: A Look Back

Dear Readers,

This week is the 86th Anniversary of The New Yorker magazine, where I served my editorial apprenticeship in the early 1970s under William Shawn's editorship. In my twenties, I learned so much about the craft of editing, writing, and reading -- lessons I still call upon today after 16 books. It was a great blessing to witness such editors as Rachel MacKenzie and Robert Bingham "meeting in the margins" with writing luminaries. My favorite writers were novelist William Trevor, film critic, Pauline Kael, travel maven, Emily Hahn, and the most prescient Jonathan Schell.

 The first time I wrote about my years at the magazine, I did so in fiction in my second novel Becoming the Enemy (Graywolf Press, 1988.) Set at an imaginary publishing house among New York's literati, I created characters, some of them drawn from life and others thoroughly fictional. There are stories within stories, character studies of the complicated patron-protege bond, and a portrait of Manhattan in the days before the Web -- when writing and reading was an avocation. And The New Yorker was the world's finest literary magazine.

I've revisited this literary apprenticeship in non-fiction, with a fond, but humorous eye in my new memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind, in the chapter "I Love to Tell the Story." Recently, a very clever and successful journalist, Tim Appello, asked me to imagine what Pauline Kael might think of the current crop of Oscar contenders for Best Picture and Best Director. Here is a link to that article in The Hollywood Reporter. 

Stay tuned for more reminiscences from my New Yorker days to celebrate their anniversary this week!

How Pauline Kael Might Vote: No on 'Social Network,' Maybe on 'Black Swan'

Natalie Portman as the Swan Queen
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Pauline Kael's Last Tango typist, author Brenda Peterson, thinks Kael might like Oscar nom Black Swan, but not The Social Network -- and The King's Speech would hit too close to home.
"In the mad monastery of The New Yorker," writes Peterson, "I worked in the typing pool, Walden’s Pond, and stayed late one night because Miss Kael was finishing up an important review. Fervently, she leaned over me as I typed her red-lined prose. She painfully dug her elbows into my shoulders and read aloud, changing words even as I typed her review: phrases like 'thrusting, jabbing eroticism,' and 'the audience was in a state of shock.' "
"So was I. There was palpable electricity running through her. She seemed in an altered state. Her review of this movie, Last Tango in Paris, was muscular and mesmerizing, as passionate as it was prophetic. And even though I didn’t particularly like the movie, Miss Kael’s review explained to me why it was revolutionary."
"I can only guess what Miss Kael might make of the current crop of Oscar nominees. Her editor is right, she might laugh at the excesses of Black Swan; but she might also be engaged by the almost hypnotic sibling rivalry between the women. In its way, it’s a ferocious echo of the sensual, female competition of her Personal Best [she helped writer/director Robert Towne out]."
"Miss Kael struck me as a Luddite so I don’t know if she’d champion Social Network for Best Picture. I do believe she would keenly point out, yet again, the woeful lack of women up for Best Director. And since The New Yorker in the Seventies was so much itself like an aristocratic, Anglophilic asylum where idiosyncrasies were not only allowed but encouraged, The King’s Speech (which I adored) might be too familiar for her to acknowledge as the soaring, somehow humble film it is."
"But what do I know? The still-greatest film critic ever is gone. I miss Pauline Kael’s witty, searingly intelligent reviews. But if I ever worked with her again, I’d bring shoulder pads."
Peterson's 16th book, the new memoir I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, is one of The Christian Science Monitor's Top 10 Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010, and contains more New Yorker reminiscences.

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