Friday, December 19, 2008

The Death of Civilization in the Penny Press?



I worry about The New Yorker sometimes. You wouldn't think such a redoubtable old dowager would warrant worry, but I'm a bit of a redoubtable old dowager myself (despite being, as you all know, a stone cold super-hottie), and sometimes I wonder if The New Yorker's status as one of the foremost general-readership periodicals in the world doesn't make it a canary down one of the most frightening mine shafts imaginable.

At newsstands now is the magazine's double-sized 'Winter Fiction Issue' (it has four ... what, exactly? Short stories? Well, no - one of them is by Alice Munro, and as per the terms of the Munro Doctrine, it's both eye-bleedingly dull and 90,000 pages long; just 'stories'? Well, no ... two of the four don't bother to tell any stories; let's just say 'fictionesque writing exercises,' shall we? It has four fictionesque writing exercises instead of one), and it contains an article scary enough to make even the staunchest reader burn his Jonas Brothers CDs.

Of course I'm referring to Dana Goodyear's harrowing essay about keitai shosetsu, the cell-phone novel. In "I (heart) Novels," Goodyear traces the phenomenon, interviews several of the Japanese women who've become celebrities by ... well, again, what word to use? 'Writing' clearly won't do; 'composing' is even further off the mark; let's just say 'texting' ... by texting these titles, and even makes a valiant attempt to haul in Murasaki Shikibu. The end result is a picture of tomorrow's youth that simply couldn't be bleaker:

A government survey conducted last year concluded that eighty-two percent of those between the ages of ten and twenty-nine use cell phones, and it is hard to overstate the utter absorption of the populace in the intimate portable worlds that these phones represent. A generation is growing up using their phones to shop, surf, play video games, and watch live TV, on Web sites specially designed for the mobile phone. "It used to be you would get on the train with junior-high-school girls and it would be noisy as hell with all their chatting," Yumiko Sugiura, a journalist who writes about Japanese youth culture, told me. "Now it's very quiet - just the little tapping of thumbs."



And it's not just the reporting I worry about (although the "cell novel" clearly represents a new low even in a video-gaming world) when it comes to The New Yorker; I also worry that the analogue alternative isn't all that much better. Magazine issues seem weaker now than they did even a decade ago - culture sections have shrunk, book reviews have in many cases been eliminated, The Atlantic's new layout awkwardly apes Maxim, trendy pieces replace meaty pieces (only the TLS and National Geographic appear immune) - and surely some of that is reflected in this 'Winter Fiction Issue.'

It's not just the issue's fictionesque writing exercises, although those are pretty damn bad. There's the aforementioned grueling, gritty marathon by Alice Munro, a boring, plotless, pituitarily enlarged single paragraph by the grotesquely overrated Roberto Bolano (its last sentence sums things up rather neatly: "And we looked and looked, and the facades were clearly the facades of another time, like the sidewalks covered with parked cars that also belonged to another time, a time that was silent yet mobile (Lihn was watching it move), a terrible time that endured for no reason other than sheer inertia"), more of Colson Whitehead's extremely articulate but nevertheless flailing posturing, and most frustrating of all, a noxious concoction called "Another Manhattan" by Donald Antrim, featuring a loathsome quartet of yuppie creatures who do dumb, convoluted things for no reason. Antrim's characters spend a huge chunk of the exercise yammering on cell phones, and Antrim manages the impressive-but-annoying trick of making his account of that yammering as incredibly annoying as the real thing. His main character tries to buy a bouquet of flowers, has his credit card denied, and is so upset about this he has to be hospitalized and tranquilized. Long before "Another Manhattan" is over, you want the same for yourself. Or a double.


But like I said, it's not just the fictionesque exercises - even the cartoons, that last bastion of New Yorker excellence, seem fatefully lame. The humor of New Yorker cartoons, famously, can be elusive - whole comedy routines have been based on the allusive, effete world implied by the captions - but several of the cartoons in this issue are so poorly drawn that their inept execution actually distracts from whatever chance the caption had at getting you to smile. I'm not talking about styles of art here ... I'm talking about an artist clearly trying to draw something and doing a very, very poor job. Two policemen bending over a dead body, but before you can even read the joke, you're thinking, "Geez, what's up with the drawing? The cops look like aliens drawn by kids, and although the artist wants to show them bending forward, you can only barely tell that's what they're doing." Or Santa (I think - the rendering looks like an orangutan) outside a club, bellyaching about not being on 'the list' - but how can you laugh, when the club is called 'club,' the doorman not only has no facial expression but no face whatsoever, the wall of the club has a couple of hastily-scratched lines to suggest, I suppose, bricks, and the 'artist' can't even be bothered to draw other people in line (and can't be bothered to realize that without those other people, there's no joke in the joke)?


It's the one word I never thought I'd associate with The New Yorker: amateur.

Maybe it's just the end-of-the-year blues over at the venerable periodical (although several of these crappy cartoonists get regular work year-round), but you know an issue's in trouble when David Denby's menopausal harrumphings about movies are the best thing in it.

13 comments:

Kevin said...

You're totally right about the cartoons.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, you are wrong about Bolano. It is not enough to read him superficially as you're reading him "stevereads". That's is part of the problem in this fast paced America, we just don't take the time to stop and think, deeply, on what lays behind the inmediate. And thats apropos your well intentioned comment.

John said...

"menopausal!"

Sam said...

Geez, the death of civilization right here in the comments field.

Sam said...

You ARE spot-on about the cartoons. The second policeman looks like he has stomach cramps. And the bubble-letters of "CLUB" are all askew. And the bouncer is wearing loafers and a sweater.

Honestly, what lays behind such ineptitude!

steve said...

Although I'd maintain I don't read ANYTHING superficially, I submit that a tiny little carpet-swatch of scenery like the one the New Yorker published by Bolano can't be read in any other way - it's ALL surface.

Although that bit about superficial, fast-paced America is almost certainly the reason for the crappy cartoons - they're not seen as art in and of themselves anymore, only as the fastest possible delivery-device for the punchline ...

steve said...

Perhaps a nice long posting on GREAT New Yorker cartoons is in order ...

Kevin said...

Oooo - hear, hear!

But don't post anything about cartoons before you address my comments on JLA/Avengers.

steve said...

Done!

LOLNOOB said...

It's a bit shocking that you could read the Antrim story so poorly and completely miss what is going on when it's clearly spelled out.

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