The New Yorker, more on the anthropology of complex societies

A recent issue of The New Yorker contains an article by Scott Turow on capital punishment.

The piece is interesting, judicious and generally well written, but it’s hard to ignore its “howlers.” In one place, Turow describes a crime in which the murderous Brisbon “placed a shotgun against the face of a store clerk and blew him away.” In another, he refers to the “furious heat of grief and rage that these crimes inspire.” In a third, he grows cavalier: “Victims’ families talk a lot about “closure,” an end to the legal process that will allow them to come to final terms with their grief.”

Isn’t “blew him away” colloquial language? Isn’t “furious heat of grief and rage” purple prose? And doesn’t ‘talk a lot” have the effect of turning grief into carping? Isn’t this the kind of the thing that awakens the editor within? And not just the one within. That sound you hear is Harold Ross and William Shawn spinning in their graves.

Well, you say, Turow is a novelist. (For those who have never visited an airport bookstore, Turow is the author of legal pot boilers, including Reversible Errors and Personal Injuries, strangely apt titles here.) Perhaps The New Yorker was giving him his lead. But this is, lest we forget, The New Yorker. As editors, Ross and Shawn gave it a patrician voice and a watchful eye. Every word was scrutinized. Every nuance, implication and allusion was second guessed. Ross and Shawn exercised an extra-ordinary editorial vigilance. Surely, here, in Turow’s case, the red pen would have struck sure and true.

But, and it pains me to admit this, you’re probably right. This is almost certainly what The New Yorker did. David Remnick, the present editor, no doubt said something like, “Who reads Scott Turow for our prose style? Let the novelist sound like a novelist.” And this, as I finally find my way to my point, is the point. The great patrician publication is becoming a house of many mansions. In the place of a single sensibility, it now serves as a venue for several voices. In Lionel Trilling’s famous phrase, it is moving from sincerity to authenticity, from the voice of authority to the voice of the individual.

The last journal entry treated the theme of diversity, and here it is again. But what a place to find it! Yes, surely, the Tina Brown era must have brought this moment nearer. And yes, a recent and intemperate piece on Michael Jackson must have told us something was up. But this is not a celebrity piece, nor is it an excursion into popular culture. It is one of their signature “let us bore you witless while we grind smooth and fine” treatments, The New Yorker’s very stock in trade. That “other voices” should have found a place even in this the high fortress of the patrician voice tells us that things are changing, that plenitude is coming, very fast indeed.

(With thanks to Jim Gough for the dinner conversation in which this treatment occurred to me.)

3 thoughts on “The New Yorker, more on the anthropology of complex societies

  1. Gilbert Reid

    I haven’t yet read the article but I think “closure” which ST puts in quotation marks is itself contemporary cant and reflects the therapeutic approach to ethics – one side of contemporary egoism – it’s a sickness you’ve got and we can cure it – which represents a devaluation of life, particularly of the lives of others, and a devaluation of experience, of the “lived life”, of love, of desire, of the moment, of presence, and a loss of the “aura” that used to inhere perhaps in the individual.We are all facsimiles now. But, no, we all mourn always and there’s no stopping it as we all love always and there’s no stopping that either. The dead person meant nothing if you can “close” the door on all the emotions he or she evoked: and that means your life was meaningless too. Just an idle thought, not particularly pertinent. GR

  2. maria

    Like the previous poster, I am more disturbed by the “devaluation of experience” implied in this piece than I am by its purple prose. The notion of “closure” in this culture, while generative of the possibilities of reinventing one’s life (and is the psychological capital for starting over), wipes out history and doesn’t allow for understanding the nature of suffering. It is hard to start e debate on this in a comment, but what I am after here is akin to what Iris Murdoch, in her philosophical work, “Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals” presents as the imperative for facing the void. In other words, there is no coming to terms with grief….

    On a less abstract note: I can’t help having this suspicion that both Ross and Shawn, having been men of their times and the editors of a standard bearer — would they be in charge today — would publish this piece (which I haven’t read myself yet), exactly as it was published in this issue. But then, as I said, I haven’t read it yet….

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