Eustace Tilley Drops His Monocle

by Fred Schwarz

My late mother subscribed to The New Yorker continuously from the 1930s into the 2010s, but for the last few decades, it was mostly force of habit. She used to say that the magazine went finally and irretrievably to hell when the most common set-up for cartoons shifted from the desert island to the couple in bed.

To be sure, as is true with any weekly publication, there was plenty of second-rate writing in The New Yorker, but if it sounded like the blowhard on the next barstool, at least the barstool was at the Algonquin Hotel, and the guy was wearing a blazer. Now it’s a superannuated graduate student in a college-town Hooters.

I know that E. B. White is dead, and times change, and The New Yorker actually manages to make a profit, which in today’s magazine business is nothing to be sneezed at. Still, I can’t help feeling that something has been lost. Consider, for example, this sentence in the June 23 issue from Emily Nussbaum, the magazine’s television critic, writing about Fargo:

When Lester screws his bully’s widow, he does so doggy style, while staring at a picture of her and her dead husband, achieving the world’s purest revenge orgasm as she complains, “You’re hurting me.”

That’s at least one detail more than we needed. The editors get a speck of credit for dialing back the opening verb a notch or two from what Ms. Nussbaum probably wanted to write, but other than that, yuck. Can you imagine Dorothy Parker writing this sentence? (Yes, but only in a letter to Janet Flanner.) The days are long gone when editor William Shawn, encountering the term “cow-paddy” in a manuscript, wrote “Oh, dear” in the margin, and upon finding it used again, complained, “Surely once is enough?”

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