The middle ground between the two Penny Press extremes I mentioned last time is of course The New Yorker, perhaps the greatest example of such a middle ground magazine in the history of magazines. I read along the whole spectrum - from the beer-guzzling boss-hating chick-scoring mags like Outside and Men's Journal, where a fist-pumping mostly-brainless hetero homogeneity is assumed on the part of every reader, to the The London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books, where that reader is presumed not only to read books and care about them but also to like reading about them at length. I even follow the spectrum out onto its thin branches in periodicals like the TLS and The Journal of Roman Studies, where it's presumed the reader not only cares about the subjects at hand but knows them very well and does not need his French - or Latin - translated.
But I come back to The New Yorker for balance between the two extremes. When it's done well, there's scarcely any magazine that can more feel like intellectual home base (justifiable regional bias had me giving that accolade to The Atlantic for a century, until it left Boston and became a bit dumber).
It's not always done well, and even when it is, not all of it is. This present era at The New Yorker, for instance, is a bad one for its famous cartoons: two-thirds of the current stable of regulars draw so poorly that their captions could be written by Oscar Wilde and still not save them.
And maybe the jury is still out on whether or not this is a good era for the magazine's movie criticism, even though both its regular movie reviewers, David Denby and Anthony Lane, are well-known writers with book deals and loyal followers. Lane is witty, but I suspect him of caring about that fact more than anything else connected with his job - I can't count the number of times I've seen him swerve into oncoming traffic for the sake of a punch line, and for all his obvious intelligence, I far more often remember his reviews for some sharp apercu rather than for some sound assessment.
And then there's Denby! I'll admit up front that writing a monster of narcissism like Denbys bestselling The Great Books (in which all of the Western canon, it turns out, is just there to help Denby come to terms with mid-life anomie while blandly re-affirming his life-long suspicion that he's the smartest person in the history of the human race) is a sin from which it's unlikely I'll ever grant full redemption. If Denby wants blank-slate forgiveness for creating that big chunk of lazy hypocrisy, he'll take a sabbatical and write a book called Ungreat Books in which he enthuses honestly about the twenty or thirty non-canonical books he's actually read and loved in his life. Until that day comes, I'm bound to be a bit poorly disposed toward his work.
But even so, there are highs and lows! And his recent review of the new 50-million dollar 3-D action movie "The Green Hornet" starring Seth Rogen constitutes THE Denby-low so far in 2011: it's virtually an itemized list of the things that bug me about this writer, and that list can surely be epitomized in this passage:
Rogen says that he has been obsessed with comic books and superheroes for years. Well, I'm sorry to put it this way, but "The Green Hornet" is what you get when someone who dropped out of high school to do standup comedy, then spent a decade in movies and television, conceives a Hollywood "passion project."
That's what you get? So it's a rule, like an axiom out of Euclid? Competence = grad school? Quite apart from the fact that a glance at the cv's of most of Hollywood's greatest talents in the last 100 years makes that a silly thing for a professional movie critic to hint, there's also the arrogance of such a pronouncement - it's the worst stereotype of the squinty-faced, greasy-haired, Skittles-popping, brainlessly elitist movie-critic, noisily shifting in his seat during his free screening, impatient to begin too-loudly rehearsing his pans on his cell phone in the lobby - not to a friend, since he has none (having alienated the last of them in senior year high school), but to his own answering machine, for later meta-analysis. That's what you get? So Rogen's failure (not discernible to me - the movie fails, yes, but Rogen's by far the best thing in it) was pre-ordained? If you knew his friggin academic record going in, nothing you could see in the next 90 minutes would rise above it? And what about all the schmucks who stayed in school? We've never seen a dumb or predictable movie from any of them? Bet we have.
This kind of thoughtless elitism is the exact counterpart of Lane's manic blitheness - both prefer mannerism to substance, so both tend to leave their actual subject-movies largely undiscussed. It often makes me wish Matt Taibbi reviewed movies, or that Locke Peterseim wrote for The New Yorker.
Fortunately, the current roster of New Yorker mainstays seldom if ever disappoint. Medical writer Atul Gawande turns in a great, perceptive piece in this issue on the good - and the great deal of bad - that comes from hospitals spending lots of money and time on the care of just a handful of the most critical patients. Gawande concentrates on how much medical science can learn from those few very expensive patients, and how much of what it learns can then be applied to patients in general. To which I might sheepishly stress a point Gawande makes only in passing: some of those long-term extremely costly patients are very grateful for all the extra care and bother. They'd rather have their names changed for legal reasons in a New Yorker piece about medical expense than be dead, thanks very much.
Of course, even the magazine's big guns can occasionally misfire even in the middle of a good essay. Louis Menand, for instance, in this issue turns in a typically solid and enjoyable piece on the substance and legacy of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (like some of the best book-critics - and some of the worst! - he uses some new book about Friedan as his pommel-horse: the point of the whole exercise is what he has to say about Friedan's book - the middle-man is just there as a skimpy justification for his own more fascinating observations). But at the end of the piece, as I was happily reading along, I stumbled upon this little bit of sacrilege:
Still, you don't need to read a book to talk about it (and it is considered an accepted decorum, in talking about it, not to be obliged to admit that you never read it).
Yeesh. I'm hoping that's just a dose of middle-ground irony that went down the wrong pipe.