The New Yorker as Cultural Ideal

The New Yorker as Cultural Ideal

The New Yorker reigns among us as an arbiter of taste. Since the intellectual monthlies and quarterlies lost authority, and the youth culture faded as a trend-setting force, the New Yorker has emerged as a model of what is “best.” Its style is enshrined in freshman writing classes throughout the country, its fiction is emulated by aspiring writers, its impact is evident on recent books. In its ability to reveal even ugly social facts with an unruffled neatness, the New Yorker has demonstrated that it is possible to face anything with style. With its elegance of observation and voice, it has set a standard of what it means to be “civilized.” How can there be anything pernicious in that?

In politics the New Yorker is liberal but not democratic. It is inclusive, or tries to be, in acknowledging social issues, but it remains exclusive in its response, usually limiting its treatment to dense description of a problem. This practice has produced mixed results. For example, Elizabeth Drew’s Portrait of an Election: The 1980 Presidential Campaign, originally published in the New Yorker, is a massive accumulation of detail that produces a valuable record. But it also reveals the disproportions that can be produced by facts without an authorial intelligence to distinguish the trivial from the significant.

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