Gods under scrutiny

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They shape the way we think about the world. They decide who may have our ear and who may not. The editors at The New Yorker are as Gods. We may not know them, we may only know their work.

Along comes Ms. Milkman, a student in the Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering at Princeton. Milkman had the bright idea of examining 442 stories printed in The New Yorker from Oct. 5, 1992, to Sept. 17, 2001. The NYT, closing ranks, is not impressed: “The study was long on statistics and short on epiphanies.”

Not so fast.

According to Ms. Milkman, the number of male authors rose to 70 percent under Mr. Buford, compared with 57 percent under Mr. McGrath. … The study also found that the first-person voice rose mightily under Mr. Buford, which may reflect the growth of memoir in the 90’s more than anything else. … Mr. Buford was relatively more interested in sex, a topic in 47 percent of the stories he published as opposed to 35 percent under Mr. McGrath. Mr. McGrath’s authors tended to deal with … children, more frequently than Mr. Buford’s writers: 36 percent under Mr. McGrath, 26 percent under Mr. Buford. (History, homosexuality and politics all tied for the attentions of Mr. Buford at a lowly 4 percent.)

I knew Mr. Buford at Cambridge. We spent many Sunday afternoons playing touch football on the backs of King’s College. (Transplanted to Oxbridge, some North Americans take to silk scarves and faux accents. The rest of us played football.)

Milkman’s portrait sounds like the man I know. He is, in the old fashioned phrase, a “man’s man.” He is a writer of the old school, a person prepared to put himself in harm’s way for the sake of the story. No, I don’t mean touch football. Buford is the author of Among The Thugs, a first-person, thoroughly anthropological study of the English soccer hooligan. He posed as a hooligan, traveled as a hooligan, rioted as a hooligan and only just survived to tell the tale. Talk about harm’s way.

But Ms. Milkman’s portrait does not become him. There is a complexity, an imagination, a fineness, and a recklessly conceptual quality she does not capture. Her numbers “dumb him down.” In this blog, we have once or twice wondered whether the numerical study of culture and commerce might not help us capture the new complexity of the world. But Milkman tells us less, not more. A single interview with Buford (and McGrath) would have done better than the database.

I think the real story here is two fold. First, that Milkman dared to presume to study this elite, and, second, that she found a way in that did not depend on their participation (though it sounds as if she got it).

Among the Editors. Very well done, Ms. Milkman, but, next time, pose as a writer.

Buford, Bill. 1991. Among the Thugs. London: Secker and Warburg.

Carr, David. 2004. New Yorker Fiction, by the Numbers. New York Times. June 1, 2004. Available here.

One thought on “Gods under scrutiny

  1. Dennis

    Just wanted to say that Buford’s Among the Thugs is an excellent book. I’ve read the book more than once and I highly recommend it.

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