Page 3.14

The Editor With His Feet Firmly On The Ground

Has anybody been following the Letters page of The New Yorker recently?

Quick recap: TNY writes something about Capote, which film includes a character named William Shawn, who was in fact the editor of TNY for a great many years, and who enjoys a tremendous reputation for excellence among the literary lights of New York.

(The actor is the same guy who played both the head of NBC on “Seinfeld,” and the son of the head of the folk-music record company in “A Mighty Wind.” So if you need someone to play a media executive, you know who to call.)

The sons of William Shawn, one of whom is the writer and actor Wallace Shawn (oh yeah– that guy. He was Diane Keaton’s ex-husband in “Annie Hall,” and the voice of the dinosaur in “Toy Story,” and wrote the new translation of “Threepenny Opera” currently on Broadway, as well as “My Dinner With Andre,” an autobiographical film in which he talks about what a failure he is– I guess success comes late to some people, which is good news in my case), and the other of whom I’m sure is an equally excellent individual, write to The New Yorker to set the record straight about certain factual inaccuracies about their father as depicted in the film.

One of these is the matter of William Shawn having accompanied Capote on a flight to Kansas. Apparently, William Shawn never flew on an airplane.
Now, leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether it is reasonable to expect Hollywood films–even those made by New Yorkers, and whose characters are based on actual humans–to adhere to verisimilitude in ways that are trivial to the telling of the story (an issue I have raised in a submission to mcsweeneys.net), is the absolutely un-fucking-beliveable fact that until as recently as 1987 it was possible to be the editor of the New Yorker without ever having flown in an airplane.

Look, I’m not like some big technology-is-everything person, and I’m old enough to have actually read the New Yorker in 1987 (it was superbly edited but totally impenetrable, as I recall, making no effort whatsoever to attract any readers beyond those who had absolute faith that everything you were going to tell them was essential information they would want to have– and extremely, just, I’m sorry, snobby– I’m sorry, but no letters page? You think you’re perfect? I have a fairly antiquated notion of the writer-reader relationship, which is to say that I don’t particularly want to see mail from people who’ve read my shit in my personal email inbox, but this was ridiculous). So I understand that it was possible to travel by other means. But the idea that someone could be the editor– could become the editor– of a major national general-interest magazine without having ever traveled to a place that can only be traveled to by airplane, strikes me as archaic. It’s a little bit quaint.

The fact that this is just absolutely impossible to conceive of now is a sign of progress. There is just too much to know about the world–all of which, ultimately, should inform, however indirectly, virtually every decision one makes as an editor of a magazine–to be able to tell people about it without ever having set foot on an airplane.

Indeed, the inacecssibility & airplane issues are related. What they are together saying, by implication, is: Everything worth knowing is in New York, or reachable from New York by foot, car, train, ship, or bicycle, and I’ll tell you about those things, so those things are in this magazine, so you don’t need any additional, more-quickly-consumed presentation of information about whether this is worth reading (such as pull-quote or photo) so you can make decisions about what else you might want to do with your time, such as see a movie, or play with your kids, or go get some sushi, or *gasp* read something else, so I’m just going to present long columns of text and thereby require you to read like 1000 words before you can figure out whether you want to continue.

On the other hand, he did edit “In Cold Blood”, so what the hell do I know.

Comments

  1. #1 dogscratcher
    April 20, 2006

    How can you describe Wallace Shawn and not mention “The Princess Bride.” Its… inconceivable!

  2. #2 paultullis
    April 20, 2006

    You mean in-con-THEEV-able! Point well taken

  3. #3 Sempronius
    April 21, 2006

    …the absolutely un-fucking-beliveable fact that until as recently as 1987 it was possible to be the editor of the New Yorker without ever having flown in an airplane.

    Given the considerable contribution to global warming caused by air travel, as well as its role in spreading global epidemics, etc. I think you shall, in time, consider it un-fucking-believeable that you held this opinion in 2006.

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