Wednesday, May 09, 2007

New York mag is to journalism what The Eagles were to rock

Adam's Apple
Adam Moss is America's most celebrated editor. So why is New York magazine such a bore?
By John Cook

ADULT CONTEMPORARY Much like The Eagles, New York magazine is solid, respectable, and often lameThe most successful album in the history of recorded music is a greatest hits compilation by The Eagles. It has been purchased 29 million times since its release in 1976. This fact has long been a cause of consternation to people who care about rock music. It's not so much that The Eagles were an execrable band (which they were), or that they outsold worthier competitors like Michael Jackson or Led Zeppelin (which they did). It's that The Eagles should have been the best rock band ever, but instead opted to remain a slick and empty confection. All the elements were there—exquisite harmonies, some truly beautiful songs, gifted musicians—but somehow the expensive ingredients all collapsed into a flaccid soufflĂ© of radio-ready pabulum. Notwithstanding their success, The Eagles are now generally remembered as either the worst good band or the best awful band of their era.

Why can't I remember anything I've read in 'New York' over the past two years? Because all too often it's a magazine without elbows—or a spine, or a pulse.Which brings us to New York magazine, the title that swept the National Magazine Awards last Tuesday in five categories, including general excellence and design. Despite all its recent accolades, New York is to journalism what The Eagles were to rock: a technically flawless assemblage of expertly crafted elements that look, on paper (as it were), as though they ought to translate into a superb magazine, and yet somehow still manage to suck.

Superficially, of course, there is much in New York to justify its current ascendancy, which is now so clearly entrenched that former Newsweek chief Mark Whitaker joked at the NMA ceremony that editor Adam Moss had replaced the New Yorker's David Remnick in the top slot of the city's rigidly delineated media hierarchy. Moss, who took charge of the magazine three years ago after a long stint at the New York Times Magazine, has proven himself a brilliant technician. The New York that he redesigned is a precision-machined and conceptually refined Platonic ideal of magazine-ness.

Each issue is beautifully laid out, from the cool, sepia-toned headshots illustrating Intelligencer to the playful schematics and illustrated sidebars in the feature well to the arresting product shots that open the Strategist (yeah, the antique doorknobs are $200, but they still look great) to the Boy Scout Handbook-style instructions on basic culinary tasks in the food section. With the exception of Jim Cramer, the writing is generally crisp and felicitous, and the editorial voice of the magazine—as expressed in coverlines, headlines, captions, etc.—is, while relentlessly white and privileged, clever enough.

So why can't I remember anything I've read in New York over the past two years? Because all too often it's a magazine without elbows—or for that matter, a spine, balls, or a pulse. Good stories are pointy things that lodge in the brain. But to open New York is to sluice the same robotically calibrated sensibility over the same well-worn neural pathways week after week. The collective judgment of the NMA panel notwithstanding, New York is frosty, astringent, soulless, and so risk-averse as to leave the reader desperate for the dressed-up tabloid stories of its glory days. Reading it is like eating a bowl of ice shavings prepared by Jean-George Vongerichten. (Full disclosure: I once met with Moss to discuss potential employment at New York, I've pitched its editors and been rejected, the editor in chief of Radar used to work there, and my wife has written in its pages.)

MOSS GATHERING The editor collects all five of his 2007 National Magazine AwardsWas anyone surprised, for instance, by anything that appeared in April's "Sex and Love" issue? That Katie Roiphe, whose career rests on her ability to spin her own sexual experiences into what she takes to be transgressively counterintuitive polemic, would reveal that going through a divorce actually makes one "jangly" and "productive" and that the kid will turn out just fine? That the "sexually frustrated dad" who submitted a "sex diary" didn't screw his wife while she was menstruating, or that the gay 38-year-old magazine editor's diary included a sexual dream about a coastal estate in Maine that he termed "a real-estate fantasy"? (The term "real-estate porn" had heretofore been deployed as a metaphor to describe New York's voyeuristic and obsessive approach to the beat; now it has become a reality. Also, expect an "Is the coast of Maine the new Hamptons?" story this summer). Did anyone even blink when Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell's head popped up in the background of a photo (on page 51—check for yourself) taken at Ariel Levy and Amy Norquist's wedding that accompanied Levy's piece on the fact that lesbians now marry, and that their marriage ceremonies tend to differ in substantive ways from the marriage ceremonies of heterosexual couples?

The Mossian feature must be about something other than what it appears to be about—it must say something meaningful about The Way We Live Now.You can't always see it, but Gladwell's head is tucked away somewhere, Waldo-like, in each page of New York. Though he writes for the the New Yorker's momentarily deposed David Remnick, Gladwell is a principal practitioner of the style of maddening posturing that has increasingly infected New York's stories. The magazine earned its stripes in the '60s by pioneering a new genre of rollicking, narrative-driven, first-person journalism. But New York, in its current version seems constitutionally incapable of telling a good story. The Mossian feature must be, as per Gladwell, about something other than what it appears to be about—it must say something meaningful about The Way We Live Now, to borrow a preposterously pretentious phrase that Moss bestowed on the front-of-the-book section of the New York Times Magazine during his tenure there. So Adam Sternbergh's account of the development of the High Line in last week's issue is not actually about the development of the High Line—which would have been sufficient. It's actually a treatise about how New York commodifies its own self-generated nostalgia, or some such.

Likewise, David Amsden's profile of Mets third baseman David Wright isn't really about David Wright but about his "mechanized" persona of "pure packaged Americana," as telegraphed in the subheadline of the article: "David Wright is the perfect New York sports star—almost too perfect." And Steve Fishman's 2005 profile of Ilario Pantano, the Marine lieutenant charged with murdering two Iraqis, was as much about how a hunky Horace Mann grad and Goldman Sachs trader wound up doing something so vulgar as serving in Iraq as it was about his case.

Of course, despite the magazine's meta-version to narrative stories, good features frequently slip through the cracks. While New York has access to some of the finest magazine writers in the country, their efforts are undercut by a prim editorial voice that is more concerned with analyzing what it all means than with who did what and why. In its high-minded effort to avoid anything resembling gossip or impudence, the magazine regularly manages to turn even the most juicy tales of power, sex, and violence into uptight, cerebral dispatches that seem more suited to the New Republic than New York. After Ron Perelman's public, bilious split with Ellen Barkin, featured on a March 2006 cover, New York couldn't resist the impulse to elevate the irresistible tabloid tale into a dreary sociological exegesis, politely headlined "Divorce: How the Rich Call it Quits."

Moss's devotion to this overthought, pre-packaged style, says a former colleague, is so complete that writers can seem like obstructions to his grand designs. "Adam would talk about the need to 'writer-proof' stories," the source said. "Define the story in such a way that the writer won't ruin it for us."

That's the attitude of an editor who is so intolerant of risk that he views the very engines of his magazine as potential saboteurs. New York takes no chances, climbs out on no limbs, plants no flags. It is the only magazine, with the possible exception of Christianity Today, in which you will find photographs of clothed (!) virgins illustrating an issue purportedly devoted to sex, to cite just one missed opportunity for mixing it up.

Tina Brown, the trailblazing editor of Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and Talk, certainly has her own well-chronicled faults as a magazine editor, but she famously remarked—correctly—that "an act of bad taste in every magazine is very important on a regular basis," an axiom that also explains the difference between Robert Plant and Don Henley. One thing that Moss's New York cannot be accused of is bad taste. It is never exercised, never angry, rarely funny, and never, ever profane. According to New York lore, founding editor Clay Felker's vision for the magazine amounted to something along the lines of a more lively, energetic, crass—in a word, Jewish—version of the New Yorker, which at the time was a paragon of WASPy propriety. In 1965, when New York was still a Sunday supplement to the New York Herald Tribune, Felker assigned Tom Wolfe a hit piece on New Yorker editor William Shawn that attacked the magazine as "the land of the walking dead" and tossed in several transparent and mocking falsehoods, including an assertion that Shawn was one of the intended victims of Leopold and Loeb, for good measure. That biting, obnoxious ethic is long gone, and Moss's New York is much closer in spirit to Shawn's New Yorker: Timid, bloodless, and respectable.
New York's most egregious sin is that it's aimed at such a narrow sliver of the city. It's become the bible of the ultra-entitled New Yorker, the kind of person who would actually spend $200 on a doorknob described in the magazine as a bargain.New York's most egregious sin is that it's aimed at such a narrow sliver of the city. It's become the bible of the ultra-entitled New Yorker, the kind of person who would actually spend $200 on a doorknob described in the magazine as a bargain. The Plate-U coffee table featured in the Strategist a few weeks ago, described with words "thriftiness can be elegant," can be had for $1,800, or the balance of a month's salary after taxes for a family that earns New York's median household income of $43,393. There's nothing wrong, of course, with pitching a magazine at ludicrously wealthy people desperately trying to fill the holes in their lives with grapefruit-and-vodka-pedicures. But New York is, after all, a city and not a colony of hedge-fund managers. A magazine that purports to capture the life of a teeming and mixed-up metropolis ought to at least occasionally acknowledge the fact that very few people who live there are served by a chart detailing the caloric content of a $250 nine-course tasting menu at Per Se.

Felker's New York was in many ways just as unapologetically elitist as Moss's, but, in addition to throwing in the occasional ghetto story as a sop to liberal guilt, its coverage of New York's social, political, and economic elites was muscular and often daring. "Clay's chronicles of life in the city were not about the remoteness of power and status and prestige but about the immediacy of those things, even the intimacy, and the excitement, the buzz, of power gained and power lost," wrote Michael Wolff in New York on the occasion of the magazine's 35th birthday. "By bringing the large and powerful down to size, you could, of course, begin to see yourself in those roles—and shortly we were all role-playing." Where Felker saw a barfight, Moss sees a playground.

I noticed a curious thing about the "Sex and Love" issue that helps explain much of what ails New York: The central characters—not just the writers, but the people being written about—were all people likely to run into one another at a book party. The sex diaries featured both a publishing assistant and a magazine editor. Katie Roiphe, a New York City writer, wrote about her own life. Ariel Levy, a celebrated New York writer—and occasional Radar contributor—wrote about her wedding. Caroline Leavitt, a New Jersey (close enough) writer, wrote about the break-up of her marriage. These are people who are ostensibly supposed to take journalism's reflective surfaces and turn them outward to the world. But Moss asked his writers to turn them inward.

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