From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Endings (11)—Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series "Endings."
[a] Eustace Tilly
This is a different kind of ending—the end of an era. From the late 1970s until March 1987, I read The New Yorker assiduously, and explored back issues in various libraries whenever I could (going as far back as the first issue, published in February 1925).  I admired the writers, and several of them climbed high onto my "current literary heroes" list. John McPhee was foremost among them, but Ved Mehta, a peculiarly intellectual writer originally from India but educated from the age of sixteen in the United States and Britain, captured my imagination. In another series of Round and Square posts, I will explore Mehta's work on its own, but today's entry remembers an earlier era of The New Yorker and its consummate editor, William Shawn.

The people I knew (and there were many, once I began to take notice) grew up admiring Mr. [Harold] Ross's New Yorker—its stellar array of writing talent edited superbly by an editor who understood the purpose of the magazine. Garrison Keillor, in a memorable essay, states it beautifully. The glittering watches and scarves formed the craggy walls around a flowing glacier of exquisite prose.[1] For sixty-two years, The New Yorker had two stellar editors—Ross and Shawn.

By the mid-1980s, many media watchers (and some subscribers) found it stuffy. It had been losing readership for some time, and there was impatience with its long, often many-part articles about such things as growing up in a school for the blind in Calcutta (Ved Mehta), the art of managing the baseball field as a team's catcher (Roger Angell), or North American geology (John McPhee). Mehta and McPhee, in particular, were known as authors who routinely published entire, book-length manuscripts in the magazine over the course of four or five issues, with titles (now you'll know where this blog gets its inspiration) such as "Basin and Range (3)."  Many professionals scoffed, and wondered how a magazine that expected patience from its readers and excellence from its writers could ever survive.

I loved it. I didn't want anything to change, except for the flow of fascinating articles, beautifully written and edited, week-after-week, month-after-month, and year-after-year. That was enough change for me.

And then everything changed. The New Yorker was sold to Samuel I. Newhouse in 1985, and William Shawn was forced out as editor in early 1987. The account that follows is partisan. Many people would disagree with Ved Mehta's characterization of the the process (although there is less disagreement over "Mr. Shawn," who remains a venerable character in New Yorker lore). Many readers and critics are still divided about the changes, yet most would agree that it remains a very good magazine.

My only complaint? These's just so relevant...

I made my own decision at the time. I ended my subscription and refused to read it...for twenty years. My wife (a subscriber) convinced me to give it a try again. That, in itself, took five years. When I finally picked it up again in 2007, I was generally pleased. It is a good magazine, but I miss Mr. Shawn's (and Mr. Ross's) New Yorker

Oh, and don't for a minute think that I don't understand the quaintly quixotic (and even naive) words of Mehta and Shawn in the text below. I get it.

I still miss my "old" New Yorker, though—wildly, beautifully, and unapologetically irrelevant. It was the most luscious thing I have ever read, week-after-week, in my life—outside of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Wang Yangming. Channeling Keillor (above), it is more worthy for us in the eyes of God and for the (American) people to write three beautiful pages about Alaskan brown bears (or schools for the blind in Arkansas) than 300 pages, flat and flabby, about things that we think are relevant ("timely") here and now.

I miss my "old" New Yorker (fl. 1925-1987).

Ved Mehta
Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker
[c] Mr. Shawn's New Yorker (RL)
The savvy business people we met around town gave Florio high marks, saying it had been his and S.I. Newhouse's misfortune to inherit the magazine when it was less successful in attracting advertisers than it had been in the past. One of these business people, who was a publisher of a mass-circulation magazine, gave me a long account of what happened: "New York no longer has those exclusive shops which made The New Yorker's success possible—you know, the great stores that used to cater to the carriage trade and your readers, and which used to be independent boutiques. All those specialty merchants were local and conveyed a sense of intimacy to New Yorker readers and shoppers. Those merchants wanted to reach these readers, who were very different from consumers across the country that national advertisers were trying to reach. There was a kind of symbiotic relationship between The New Yorker and upscale shops, but all those shops have now become part of national chains...In this new environment, The New Yorker is an endangered species and requires bold intervention to save it. You are lucky that you have men like S.I. Newhouse and Florio on your team."

Maybe so. But it was hard to imagine how the magazine could be kept afloat by changing its distinctive advertising character so that it felt and looked like other magazines and by artificially pumping up its circulation with steroids, as it were. Mr. Shawn, for his part, had believed all along that if The New Yorker ever fell on hard times, it would be better for it to reduce its circulation and its number of pages and to stay true to itself, even if that meant eventually going out of business, rather than to dilute the editorial content and give in to gimmicks and fads...Florio and his associates complained about certain entrenched practices of the editorial department. For instance, Florio said that Mr. Shawn had not alerted the business office to the fact that the magazine was publishing a two-part article on Wisconsin in upcoming issues, and so had deprived the business office of a chance to drum up advertisements and sell extra copies in that state. (Just as a matter of course, many magazines and newspapers would not publish a piece about a particular place unless they could sell space to advertisers with an interest there.) Actually, Mr. Shawn had never alerted the business office to any material he was planning to publish, for he maintained that involving any business people in editorial decisions was dangerous. Moreover, he had always resisted the prevailing trend among publishers to win readers with subjects popular at the moment rather than with interesting subjects and good writing.[2]

***  ***
On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 13, 1987, around two o'clock, Mr. Shawn came down to the eighteenth floor, at our invitation. He again stood three steps from the bottom of the staircase, about the watercooler, just as he had done when he made the announcement of the sale, in March, 1985. This time, he had Milton Greenstein at his side. As on the earlier occasion, a hundred or so of us gathered around Mr. Shawn on the landing in the hall. Many of us had been kept awake all night by the shocking news we had heard the day before: that Mr. Shawn had suddenly been fired, and that Robert A. Gottlieb, who was the editor-in-chief and the president of Alfred A. Knopf, a subsidiary of Random House, had been appointed by Newhouse to be the new editor, and to take charge on March 1st, a little less than six weeks away. The fact is that from the very day Newhouse became the owner there had been newspaper stories about his choosing one of two outsiders to replace Mr. Shawn...[2]

The Washington Post of May 7, 1985, for instance, had run this quotation from Newhouse: "Mr. Shawn is a very young 77. I've had several meetings with him. I found him very vital intellectually and physically. I hope he continues to edit the magazine for a long, long time. Obviously Mr. Shawn will continue to be editor as long as he wants to continue to be editor. He is so much The New Yorker. To say he is there at my sufferance would be presumptuous. He's going to be there because he's Mr. Shawn. Just as I wouldn't change the name of the magazine, I wouldn't change Mr. Shawn."

Now, nineteen months later, Mr. Shawn had been abruptly dismissed...

Outsiders might have seen nothing extraordinary in the firing by a fifty-nine-year-old tycoon of one of his employees who was nearly eighty. They might have thought that the employee's retirement was long overdue. But we were devastated. There had been no diminution of intelligence or energy in Mr. Shawn's work...It seemed that in one stroke Newhouse had destroyed The New Yorker; into which Mr. Shawn had poured his heart and soul for fifty-four years of service. I found myself remembering a poem W.B. Yeats, "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing":

Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honour bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbour’s eyes?
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.[3]
***  ***
On Friday, February 13th, Mr. Shawn left The New Yorker as inconspicuously as he had arrived, in 1933. On the previous day, he said farewell to us in this letter, delivered individually to our offices and also posted on the bulletin board:

My feelings at this perplexed moment are too strong for farewells. I will miss you terribly, but I can be grateful to have had our companionship for part of my journey through the years. Whatever our individual roles at The New Yorker, whether on the eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth floor, we have built something quite wonderful together. Love has been the controlling emotion, and love is the essential word. We have done our work with honesty and love. The New Yorker, as a reader once said, has been the gentlest of magazines. Perhaps it has also been the greatest, but that matters far less. What matters most is that you and I, working together, taking strength from the inspiration that our first editor, Harold Ross, gave us, have tried constantly to find and say what is true. I must speak of love once more. I love all of you, and will love you as long as I live.                                     
                                    William Shawn
Although it would be some time before we realized it, the process of erasing our memory of Mr. Shawn began almost at the moment that [Robert] Gottlieb took over...[4]

***  ***
Gottlieb had earlier announced to the press that in his first issue of The New Yorker he was going to publish a piece entitled "The Catastrophe," by Doris Lessing, which Mr. Shawn had rejected—an announcement that served to make it clear right away that he, Gottlieb, was not beholden to Mr. Shawn's New Yorker and was his own man, for Lessing was one of Gottlieb's Knopf authors...A couple of days after receiving the news about my [canceled] series, I happened to be speaking to Mr. Shawn on the telephone, and told him about it. If anything, he sounded more shocked than I felt—possibly because I was prone to a kind of Hindu fatalism, whereas he was, in his quiet way, used to leaning against the prevailing wind.

"I am going to call Gottlieb," Mr. Shawn said.

I tried to dissuade him. I didn't want to put him in an awkward position on my account, nor did I myself want to antagonize Gottlieb, for he could very well take offense at my appealing to Mr. Shawn and make things even more difficult for me.

Within hours of my conversation with Mr. Shawn, Gottlieb walked into my office. "Mr. Shawn just called me and scolded me for substituting a poor piece for a brilliant one," he said, with a short laught, and added, "But I am the editor now, and I think Lessing is a very important writer."

His use of the word "important" reinforced my feeling that all of us writers and artists were now living in a different world—a world where the notoriety of the writer would, for the first time, be a factor in what was published, and even take precedence over the quality of the writing. [5]
***  ***
As long as people know how to read, they can always turn to any of the issues of the magazine that came out under Mr. Shawn's editorship—these issues have attained the status of archives—and they will sense the care with which he saw to it that every word was properly written and every line correctly drawn. Even the precise color of The New Yorker logo every week was looked at and pondered over. Nothing was done for any reason other than that of striving for excellence. As Mr Shawn had said, "falling short of perfection is a process that just never stops." [6]

[1] Garrison Keillor, Happy to Be Here: Stories and Comic Pieces (New York: Atheneum, 1982), x-xi.
[2] Ved Mehta, Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing (New York: Overlook Press, 1998), 372-373. Legalities: All quotations (2-6) amount to less than one-percent of total text.
[3] Mehta, Remembering, 375-379. 
[4] Mehta, Remembering,387.
[5] Mehta, Remembering,389-90.
[6] Mehta, Remembering, 413.

Keillor, Garrison. Happy to Be Here: Stories and Comic Pieces. New York: Atheneum, 1982.
Mehta, Ved. Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing. New York: Overlook Press, 1998.

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