Did the New Yorker Make Nicholson Baker Elitist?

Last year, the New York Review of Books had the bright idea of commissioning Nicholson Baker to write an exuberant essay about Wikipedia. Beginning with the simple sentence, “Wikipedia is just an incredible thing,” Baker’s piece went on to chart his participation and subsequent obsession with the well-known website. Baker expressed his genuine horror at cavalierly deleted articles and depicted the many communal surprises he found along the way. It was a journey of self-discovery that permitted many who had used Wikipedia to rediscover the collective pixie dust selflessly sprinkled in the pursuit of knowledge. The essay was widely cited and linked. Here was the man who had once tapped his life savings to preserve newspapers now mining unexpected nuggets from a rich digital deposit. And Baker, under the moniker “Wageless,” continued with his Wikipedia contributions for some months after the article had been published.

Fast forward to today, with The New Yorker — a publication that not a single writer can afford to say no to — commissioning Nicholson Baker to write about the Kindle. But where The New York Review of Books managed to subvert expectations, the New Yorker has applied a marketing team’s craven predictability, with Baker corrupting his voice in the process. Baker’s essay is laden with cheap shots and clumsy generalizations. He’s not interested in seeing the bigger picture, even as he attempts some slapdash journalism when talking with Russ Wilcox on the phone. I’ll defer to Teleread’s Robert Nagle for Baker’s gross technological oversights. The more troubling betrayal here — one I hope that is merely temporary — is that the man who once unapologetically expressed his passion about John Updike, Wikipedia, and the use of “lumber” is nowhere to be found in this piece. He has been replaced by a brazen elitist who — in this essay at least — is closer to Lee Siegel in temperament than the man who once wrote gently and eloquently about card catalogs, or the writer who has devoted his career asking us to find the magic within the quotidian. The man who has subtly beseeched us to commiserate with the lonely and misunderstood people toiling in offices and talking on phone sex lines has momentarily transformed into a cavalier ruffian who scoffs at regular people for having the temerity to express their enthusiasm on Amazon and who likewise suggests that all blogs are “earnest and dispensable.” (That last comment echos a regrettable stance that can also be found within an inexplicably meanspirited passage from Baker’s forthcoming novel, The Anthologist: “You have to hand it to those podcasters. They keep on going week after week, even though nobody’s listening to them. And then eventually they puff up and die.”)

For a writer who has been so careful with his sentences, it’s astonishing to see Baker capitulate like this.

I’d be willing to accept Baker’s assaults on Jeff Bezos and the authors who appeared in the Kindle promotional video if Baker wasn’t so fixated on kicking down the average Joe like this. If Baker is going to go after Michael Lewis, Toni Morrison, and Neil Gaiman, then you’d think that he’d cop to the fact that he’s betrayed his own endearing populism for the New Yorker‘s lucrative word rate and prestige. (It should be observed that this is Baker’s first appearance in the New Yorker in nine years.)

The essay’s apologists will probably point to Baker’s defense of the iPod Touch (via Eucalyptus, ScrollMotion, and Stanza) later in the essay as a pro-technology concession. But aside from Baker’s inherently subjective position (indeed, one that doesn’t seem to consider other viewpoints), there’s Baker’s more troubling elision of class. How many unemployed types can afford either a Kindle 2 or an iPod Touch (costing $70 less than the Kindle 2) right now? Oh yeah. Baker hasn’t bothered with that. I guess one of the deals you make when you now sign on to write for the New Yorker is to act as if any thinking or feeling individual making under $30,000 a year doesn’t exist. Or that anybody who puts long hours into a blog or a podcast, or who uses a Kindle to read, can’t possibly be of societal value.

That’s a far cry from the man who once celebrated the “strangers who disagreed about all kinds of things but who were drawn to a shared, not-for-profit purpose” and who marveled at the capacity for people to build grand things with merely a keyboard and a desire to help. I hope that the old Baker comes back. But this new guy who can’t be bothered to laugh at a wasp passage because it appears on a screen? He sounds like a guy at a house party who can’t laugh at the Seth Rogen movie because it’s not playing in a movie theater.

[UPDATE: I will let this article stand unmodified and uncorrected as a reflection of how I felt at the time. But after some thought, I believe that I jumped to several needless conclusions, some of which have been cleared up by Nicholson Baker himself in the comments. (This update, incidentally, is not motivated by Baker’s appearance. I should point out that I was all set to respond to several comments before he arrived. But propinquity being what it is, the timing has worked out accordingly.) The upshot is this: I suspect that the rather grumpy tone of this article came about because I wrote it just after coming off a particularly terrible six-hour bus ride spearheaded by an unpleasant authoritarian driver who was screaming at random passengers and who did not know how to drive. My girlfriend and I, both in the early leg of this rather hellish journey, had acquired the article through email and read it on a cell phone. Perhaps these reading conditions prove Nick Baker’s point that the medium and the circumstances in which one reads can indeed factor into how one perceives the article, I detected several sentences as troublesome, interpreting them in an emotional way. I presented my findings in rather persuasive terms to my girlfriend, who was somehow persuaded. (I have a regrettable tendency to be able to persuade people of things even when I am wrong.) And the writing of this post occurred not long after we finally decamped from the raving lunatic driving the bus. I still believe that Baker should have used his writing talent for more enthusiastic purposes, but it was wrong of me to suggest some Svengali-like collusion between Baker and Remnick.]

Bad Neighbors

Walter and Patty Melted were the young products of Franzen Hill — the first dreadful characters to spit out of the misanthropic novelist’s mind since the old heart of The Twenty-Seventh City had fallen on hard times two decades earlier. The Melteds hadn’t done anything to that bitter elitist hillock in Manhattan, except have the misfortune to run into it and kill themselves for ten years while the ultramontane deities renovated them. Early on, some very determined blogger torched the shit monster and did everything except beat this sad lifeless soil to a pulp so that he could drink Pabst Blue Ribbon with Howard Junker and cook up a few hot dogs with some of the boys at the raucous rooftop party that Jonathan, that sour whiny motherfucker with earplugs permanently stuck inside his hirsute ears, would never attend. “Hey, you guys, you know what?” Jonathan asked on behalf of the Melteds, “you are low-class people who will never understand my literary genius.” He saw Oprah — or was it Oona? — on a bigass tv set and wanted to destroy this pox upon pop culture that his dainty toes would never touch. The Melteds hung down their heads, wondering why they had to be attached to this utterly incurious novelist and outright wanker. Behind the Melteds you could see the glazed Galassi making book-encumbered demands of book-encumbered novelists who forgot just what lively writing was all about; ahead of him, an afternoon of George Michael on radio, Freedom, an important title for an important man who had sideswiped Gaddis, taking his title and then dissing his last two books while the great Bill G was safely packed away into his maggot feeding plot, and then “Goodnight Fuck,” then Zinfandel, not that low-class populist Pabst Blue Ribbon. The Melteds knew that Gawker reporters would be there. Jonathan knew that he was a gasbag that just couldn’t stop expanding over the itchy and queasy expanse of Franzen Hill.

In the earliest years, when you could still remember getting your fingers greasy without feeling self-conscious or ashamed of the remainder of those middling Missouri roots, the collective task at Franzen Hill was to relearn certain joys about life that everybody else seemed to experience, but that eluded the sourpuss gestalt, like how to find some moment to smile at over the course of a 72-hour period, and how to actually enjoy some sight without standing on the edge of Central Park with a stick up your ass, and how to understand that there was actually a universe that extended beyond the island of Manhattan, and how to not write needlessly long sentences with laundry list clauses and pretend that you had something significant to say. Did they print this silly shit because it shot from the soulless steam stacks atop Franzen Hill? Did they even check the manifest anymore? Who needed to? The piece — whether story or excerpt from forthcoming novel — would give phony comfort to New Yorker readers. Franzen Hill was a brand name. One as dependable as Nike, Pepsi-Cola, and Microsoft.

For all existential queries and verisimilitudinous volts, Patty Melted was a resource, a dried up construct whom Jonathan the novelist could desperately look to for the answers. A carrier of sociocultural pollen, if only the author had anything sociocultural to really draw from. She would have to remain a spent capsule, a sarcophagal bee that never talked back and stung the author, and only the author, when provoked.

Make no mistake: this was a disease, a cancer that would cause the unthinking literary acolytes to praise Franzen Hill’s physical dimensions without considering the pustules and sputum enervating the whole. Those flabby Bolanoites holed up in garrets still actually believed that they could bust shit up from the inside when they were part of the unthinking market forces. The rush of Franzen Hill would spread with the thwacks of magazines hitting doorsteps and newsstands, and continue with the reverberating dings from email clients. Endless forwarding, some printing off of the story for the subway, the sense that Franzen Hill was only the finest. Never mind what shit the story was. It appeared in The New Yorker!

The Melteds still knew that Everest towered over Franzen Hill.

“It’s a wonder,” Walter Melted remarked to Patty afterward, “that this sad and contemptuous man is even still writing.”

Patty shook her head. “I don’t think he’s figured out how to love anything.”

Apparently, David Remnick Also Thinks Women Aren’t Funny

remnick.jpgBenjamin Cohen has a gender breakdown of contributors to the New Yorker‘s “Shouts & Murmurs” section. The results are extremely troubling. It seems that only 17 of the 133 authors who have appeared in “Shouts & Murmurs” since 1992 have been women. Patricia Marx is the female author who has appeared most, at seven times, but her work is occluded by Steve Martin’s 29 appearances.

So does Remnick subscribe to the Christopher Hitchens hard line? (It’s interesting to note that Hitchens’s essay also appeared in a Conde Nast magazine.) Why haven’t women been assigned to this section? And while I’m on the subject, why does Steve Martin get an interview slot at the New Yorker Festival, but not Marx? Okay, so some chick named Susan Morrison is interviewing him, because this is the 21st century and some faces have to be saved. But I’m truly astonished that the magazine which frequently published Dorothy Parker, an inarguably funny woman, seems to have reverted to some backwards 19th century idea about gender on this subject.


I was going to blog about this Marco Roth, n+1, Benjamin Kunkel thing (which happened after this Marco Roth thing) and type some things about censorship, different kinds of people, and concrete reality vs. the world of abstractions but stared at the computer screen for a long time with a concerned facial expression then bought and ate a salad then came back and typed this post called “THE MOOSE AND THE GERBIL.”


The moose is forthcoming in The New Yorker but feels conflicted because its short story was edited a lot, to the point that the moose believes it is a “completely different story.” Sometimes at night the moose goes outside into the woods and headbutts trees while interminably thinking, “What is the function of art?” The moose’s life partner tells the moose it’s okay because “look at the art, not the artist,” but the moose stopped taking its life partner’s advice seriously over half a year ago during an epiphany where he distinctly thought the following sentence, including punctuation, “This moose is not someone I would be with if I were not as lonely and irritable as I am; actually I would talk shit about almost everything this moose says and thinks if I were less lonely and more attractive and less irritable than I am.” The moose lives in a studio apartment in mid-town Manhattan and is a senior editor at Riverhead.


The gerbil is an aspiring writer who has just discovered the online writing community called Zoetrope. It has completed three short stories but is unsure which to post for feedback. All three of the stories are very autobiographical and the gerbil has read many disaparaging remarks about autobiographical stories. The gerbil has brown hair and often feels alienated from its peers, despite that it has almost always received only praise for its “kind-hearted nature,” “intelligent-looking, beautiful blue eyes,” and “quirky sense of humor.” Its only friend, who it talks with almost every day through email and gmail chat, lives 4000 miles away, in Norway. The gerbil itself lives in a four-person apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which it found on Craigslist.

New Yorker 2.0?

This morning, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the New Yorker is going digital. In a podcast, editor David Remnick reveals that the New Yorker plans on “dramatically upgrading” its Web presence by the end of the year, planning to add more video, more audio and more “reader interaction.” I’m not certain if such an approach suits the New Yorker particularly well, but it’s certainly interesting to see the New Yorker follow Harper’s in trying to court more online readers to the magazine. It’s an intriguing gamble and, should print advertising continue to dwindle, perhaps a telltale sign that we may very well be on the verge of seeing a substantial chunk of newspapers and magazines moving almost exclusively to the Web within the next ten years. After all, if a guy like Remnick is acknowledging the print vs. digital chasm and taking major steps to correct it, then there must be something serious tainting the Manhattan air.

Yo, New Yorker: David Denby Has Gots to Go

The time has come for David Denby to step down as New Yorker film critic. It is utterly clear to me and fully established by this foolish review that any thoughtfulness he once possessed as a critic has dissipated with the vast nest egg he blew so childishly on the stock market. And besides, Anthony Lane is funny (and perspicacious to boot).

I have not yet seen the film V for Vendetta. So I’m only going to comment on Denby’s criticism. Of course, like Ron, I’m a huge Alan Moore fan and I harbor a few hopes that this adaptation won’t be another The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I am very much familiar with Moore’s feelings on the film (channeled as they were by that white male-lovin’ Gray Lady staffer Dave Itzkoff).

But it is a critic’s job to comment upon the aesthetic and narrative qualities of a film, not devote tedious paragraphs to ancillary history that clearly voices his prejudices (and deflates his argument). It is a critic’s job to understand that a film which features terrorist acts does not, by necessity, “celebrat[e] terrorism and destruction,” but conveys a world in which a character might be fond of terrorism and destruction as a form of revolution. Whether or not a film is shelved is also a moot point, when we consider, after all, that Casablanca was “just another studio picture.” Indeed, the film is the thing. And Denby’s attempt to despoil his opinion before even seeing the film, all because V for Vendetta is “a media monster,” is particularly egregious for a national magazine that prides itself as being high-minded and sophisticated.

This is not a question of restraining a critic who utterly despises something, a la Julavits. I only ask that any cultural chronicler cite specific reasons for her feelings. For example, I disagree with Maud’s take on DFW’s Consider the Lobster, but she does reveal one interesting facet of DFW that I had not really considered: his dependence on sloppy qualifiers. And this is infinitely valuable for anyone trying to pinpoint exactly why DFW’s latest volumes of fiction, in particular, have lacked Infinite Jest‘s whirlwind exuberance.

In fact, the astonishing thing here is that Denby is so purblind by what he expects that it is difficult to understand why he was even assigned to cover the film in the first place. A responsible critic would recuse himself. An open-minded critic would experience the piece of art he couldn’t quite parse, mull over it for a few days, and then try to figure out where it stands in a justified manner. Instead, Denby adopts a reactionary aesthetic stance (“The last time I looked, London seemed more like a prosperous pleasure garden than like the capital of a jackbooted, dehumanized future.”), all because he can’t wrap his head around an exotic locale clearly beyond his imaginative paradigm. By that assessment, we should say no to Antonioni’s white-painted streets in Blow-Up, Death playing chess with Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal, Wong Kar-Wai’s beguiling greens in 2046, or the preternaturally capacious apartments in Woody Allen’s films. After all, the last time I looked, I didn’t say any of this! Therefore, these films must be invalidated! (Of course, I might be playing chess with the Grim Reaper next week, but only because a friend has agreed to dress up.)

Ask yourself, erudite filmgoers and devoted cineastes: is this a myopic critical approach that deserves credence?

There are two chief criticisms that Denby offers here: The first is that V for Vendetta, film and/or comic, was influenced by disparate sources. Well, what piece of art isn’t? For instance: Gene Wolfe ripped off Jack Vance, who ripped off Ernest Bramah, who…yeah, you get the picture. The point is not in how these artists were influenced by other narrative elements. It resides in how these elements are reconfigured to generate a fundamentally new voice in a contemporary work of art.

Second, Denby objects to the film’s use of Abu Ghraib-style imagery without really giving us a clear reason, other than that this represents “comic-book paranoia,” which isn’t “playful or innocent as it used to.” Beyond the rather surprising inference here that films exist solely to tow the entertainment line resides the more troubling realization that Denby is not only full of shit, but that he doesn’t know the subject he’s writing about. Clearly, Denby isn’t acquainted with Frank Miller or Dave Sim. His is a remarkably ignorant view of comics, failing to understand that comics are not unilaterally “playful or innocent.” Had Denby even bothered to glance casually at the DC Comics website, for example, he would have seen Infinite Crisis, a current effort to reconfigure the DC universe to a far less “playful or innocent” stance (read: Golden Age; like most genre naysayers, Denby, culturally equivalent to a Holocaust denier on this front, seems to act as if comics are permanently trapped in 1957).

The New Yorker has no business publishing such jejune nonsense. And if David Remnick truly believes that the New Yorker “should not smell of must,” then it seems to me that Remnick should either upgrade Denby’s critical faculties by demanding that he do a better and more thorough job or look for a Pauline Kael type who might replace him and provide a counterpart to Lane’s “funnyman” antics.

[UPDATE: Ron Hogan, via John Hodgman, uncovers an embarrassing error from Denby that evaded the New Yorker‘s army of fact checkers.]

Lewis, Lewis, Lewis & Lewis

The British literary scholar, Christian ap0logist, and children’s-book author C.S. Lewis is one of sixteen figures — Churchill is one, Gibbon is another, and there are fourteen more that I will leave you to find within the bulk of this silly essay — whose reputation in Britain is so different from their reputation in America that we might as well be talking about twenty-eight (or is that fifty-six?) different men. When one factors in red states and blue states, coastal towns and inland cities, naked people and clothed people, women and men, liberals and conservatives, the number of potential different men we are talking about quickly spills over into the hundreds. In this way, Lewis and Churchill may represent a literary mitosis that is sui generis. Both men were writers. Both men were British. Both men had the letter C in their names. In America, Churchill was a god for those who loved the letter C, in part because the Americans are taken with referring to authors by last names. In England, the C’s importance is emphasized with the Christian name. And Lewis (or C.S. as he preferred to be called on his book spines) was, of course, an ardent Christian.

The British, of course, are no strangers to authors with fancy initials. There is E.M. Forester and, more daringly, W. Somerset Maugham. Whereas in America, there is T.S. Eliot, who might easily be mistaken for an Englishman and the considerably more eccentric figure of H.P. Lovecraft, who is the hero of the horror fan. In fact, the general trend against initials has begun to pervade the British Isles, save the iconoclastic writer A.L. Kennedy, who, unlike Paul Simon, would never want you to call her Al.

It is generally believed that, like most married adults, Lewis had sexual relations with his wife. The Americans certainly believe this, but the British couldn’t reconcile the image of a children’s writer engaging in copulation. We can blame William Nicholson for all this, since he has pushed through endless adaptations of the same play for multiple formats. Our fact checker here at the New Yorker had to watch them all.

None of this would matter so much if there wasn’t a tie-in with a movie that seems to think it’s as big as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

The six hundred and forty-two Lewises — too many to list here, really — we are left with could very well be a fictitious army inside our head. We were encouraged to set the number at 1,042, but David Remnick thought we were going too far. So we’ll just start slinging rhetoric. Is Narnia a name that sounds like a type of English marmalade? Unquestionably. As one reads through the copious press releases, skipping breakfast, lunch and dinner, one begins to hunger for the bowls of Turkish delight that are offered to the children. The simple truth is that Lewis was likely a man (or perhaps six hundred and forty-two men) who was too intricate to keep track of. Now, if you’ll excuse us, our evening repast awaits.

The New Yorker: Is Criticism Being Deliberately Abbreviated?

A good critic would tell you why a film is boring. A good critic would keep the plot summary as brief as possible and cite specific examples for why he felt the way he did. A good critic would, even if the filmmaker failed, try to suggest what the filmmaker was attempting and pinpoint common motifs that have either evolved or have been abandoned.

David Denby is sometimes a good critic, but his review of Elizabethtown is boring, without supporting example and laced with putdowns far beneath Anthony Lane’s lofty heights. To describe a film as “boring” is not enough. To describe “meaningless images” without indicating why they are meaningless is not enough. To insinuate at a lack of screen chemistry between the two leads is acceptable, but to leave the criticism ambiguous and without scope is not enough.

In other words, this review suggests that, at least in this case, David Denby is not a good critic. Perhaps he is better intended for lengthier reviews.

Then again, I’m wondering if this is all an effort by the New Yorker to gravitate towards snarky blurbs in lieu of actual criticism. The “Briefly Noted” section, for example, involves anonymous staffers writing quick blurbs, but it’s curious to me that one rarely sees any raves, let alone qualifying examples, within this section.

Take the latest quartet: Melania G. Mazzucco’s Vita is “intermittently commanding” and the book is praised for “pungent fictional details.” Not “penetrating” but “pungent,” as if to suggest that the book’s chief advantage is that you can whiff a somewhat distressing yet redolent aroma instead of submerging yourself into the text.

Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica fares slightly better, but the critic dismisses this too, suggesting, “An analogous allure pervades this book.” So Gaitskill’s not clear-cut enough for the hoary-heared man in the closet, but if there’s any hope of stepping into the verdure, then you might just be tempted to be transfixed by the green.

The blurb for James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare is less a review, but more of a fussy neologist quibbling over of tone for the accepted thesis (how public events influenced Shakespare’s plays) rather than the supportive argument.

And J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar, we have scenes that often feel “contrived and mawkish.” But since there’ s not enough space here for the unnamed critic to provide examples, and since s/he cannot be bothered to identify him/herself, these two modifiers essentially translate into nothing. They are, in fact, no more penetrating from an adjective-laden “literature” blurb in Maxim dumbed down for public consumption, with the magazine’s presumed sophistication there in the tone and the language.

I’ve always thought that sophistication involved having a solid argument with supportive examples. And while the New Yorker may be “sophisticated” in language, its criticism of late has shown, time and time again, that there is very little that these critics are permitted to think about. Such an editorial approach does a disservice to the talented people who write the reviews and the magazine in question.

New Yorker Hits a New Low

Earlier this week, Maud Newton voiced her concerns about the direction that the New Yorker was heading, specifically focusing on the August 22, 2005 issue, which features a sole sponsor — Target.

While Maud has already pointed to the waning editorial content (perhaps best recently represented by Ken Auletta’s uncritical puff piece on morning talk shows, “The Dawn Patrol,” which appeared in the August 8/15, 2005 issue.), I’d instead like to dwell upon the insidiuous design.

I’ve been a subscriber to the New Yorker for years, but I have never seen advertising that has gone out of its way to blare out editorial content like this. Below are three samples from the latest issue. Note the way that the red in the advertising is of a brighter hue than the red in the headlines. Note also the way that Target has appropriated the New Yorker’s classic art deco look for its advertisement, only to invade this design motif with its odious red targets.

I think, between this and the Auletta piece, this is a clear signal that a magazine which once prided itself on sophistication, lengthy articles addressing multiple sides of an issue and clean design is now more concerned with whoring itself out to publicists and advertisers.

David Remnick oughta be ashamed of himself.

[RELATED: Advertising columnist Lewis Lazare weighs in and he isn’t happy. He calls this issue “[a] 90-page publication where it is almost impossible to discern any line of demarcation between Target’s advertising and the New Yorker editorial product.”]

Sometimes, Bright Blue is Just Bright Blue

Anthony Lane on internal practice: “I tend to send my copy in on deadline, which by New Yorker standards is tacky. It has to go through three or four proofs. The fact-checkers proof; the grammarians proof. And it is amazing. Someone does go to see the film, to make sure I’m not lying. If I’m reviewing a Tim Burton film and I say that Ewan McGregor’s wearing a bright blue shirt, they’ll say to me, ‘It’s more like bright turquoise’. But you should get it right, especially if you’re going to have some fun with it. Otherwise it’s cheating. The New Yorker is the only place in the world where you can pull a piece to change a comma to a semi-colon. It’s a haven for the pedant. I love it.””