intimations of things unseen, unsaid

The first two book-length chronicles of the tale of the New Yorker were full of an affection I find it not hard to share: James Thurber’s The Years with Ross (1959) and Brendan Gill’s Here at the New Yorker (1975, new edition with updated introduction 1987). Both promise and deliver much fond anecdote, with a tart side-dish in each of score-settling (Gill detested Thurber, for example, and we find out why). Both also confront and worry lovingly at two very different enigmas: founder-editor Harold Ross, and his successor, William Shawn, who together took the magazine from 1925-1987 (Ross died in 1951, Shawn in 1992). The first was that legendary contradiction, a philistine Aspen-bred yokel who refashioned American literary humour and re-set the terms for urbane journalism and quotidian excellence of style. The second, meanwhile, was a deeply shy and private man who (if anything) inspired even greater loyalty than his predecessor. 

None of which very directly relates to the UK music press, perhaps. Beginning with the great Ellen Willis, the New Yorker has employed many excellent music-writers down the years – and also Nick Hornby – but this piece won’t be about any of them [edit: by "music-writers" i guess i actually mean something like "rock-literate music-writers" here]. It’s about something Andrew O’Hagan hints at in his recent piece in the LRB on the journalist Lillian Ross, who died in 2017 aged 99. Born Rosovky (and no relation of Harold), she was a New Yorker staff writer from the 1940s onwards, writing acid profiles of Hemingway and such during its imperial phase (when I need to keep things clear, I’ll call them HRoss and LRoss). As the world learned after Shawn's death, he and LRoss were extremely close: in fact they’d been lovers for 40 years. O’Hagan salts gossipy notes on the magazine’s decline with his admiration for Lillian’s no-nonsense bluntness. Her strengths as a writer, he maintains, were her hatreds, her rudeness, her spite, her ruthlessness: “She thought like a reporter. It wasn’t her job to be loyal and it wasn’t her thing to be nice.” 

The complicated knot of an argument he’s dodging is as much about his own recent reporting than Lillian Ross’s [footnote 1] – but largely this is a readable and an entertaining and a shallow celebration of a scene. After all, sometimes a self-defence made out loud is its own most cogent rebuttal. What I care about – that he skimps – is the fraught but intimate relationship between imperial-phase New Yorker and the New Journalism, which latter was of course a key inspiration for UK music-writing in the 70s. 

Start the story where Wolfe wants to, and you have ‘Tiny Mummies!’, his own two-part mid-60s declaration of war on Shawn, as published in 1965 in New York magazine. In 1925, Harold Ross had founded a magazine, hip and witty and groundbreaking, in form and style and tone, to capture a cultural moment: from jazz to prohibition to depression. By the 40s it was regrouped towards a more grown-up seriousness, to explain and explore the horrific wider modern world. And then Ross was dead and Shawn took over, and the magazine – now internationally regarded and lofty indeed — began to self-embalm. Thus Wolfe, anyway: if the 60s were as flippant and as desperate as the 20s, except the marks of modernity were now more pop than avant-garde modernism, this once-great title was now just too mummified to make sense of its era. Enter Wolfe and his unbuttoned chums… 

Even as ‘Tiny Mummies!’ ran, Shawn was working with Truman Capote on a four-part New Yorker piece that became a book, and a phenomenon, the following year, 1966: about a grisly series of murders in Kansas in 1959, In Cold Blood would pioneer the so-called “non-fiction novel” [2]. Publishing his New Journalism anthology in 1973, Wolfe helped himself to an extensive extract of Capote’s book, so perfect an example of the new form, apparently, that he didn’t need to acknowledge anything contradictory about its provenance. Because the new form was always already being midwifed by his bugbear – by precisely by those New Yorker writers and reporters and editors habits that ‘Tiny Mummies!’ was attacking.  

Sometime in the mid-50s, the critic Edmund Wilson sent Thurber some notes about working for the magazine. In it he mentions “that girl Lillian Ross, with the built-in tape-recorder, who did those articles on Hemingway and the Stephen Crane movie”, a line everyone afterwards loves to quote [3] – perhaps because everyone half-recognises the arrival of the tape-recorder in a writer’s armoury as the objective correlative of a cultural shift in reporting, even if no one can quite pin down what the shift is, or how or why exactly the ‘New Journalism’ misses the mark [4]. On one hand a greater precision, this obtrusive and quasi-objective document you could deploy kindly or otherwise; on the other (and paradoxically), an after-the-fact access to the swamps and deeps of the interviewee’s babbling unconscious. In a pre-tape conversation, as confrontational as it could be, an interviewee with dialectical chops in order still had a degree of control over the final form it might take: if an inadvisable comment was jumped on in real time they still might still have real-time cut-and-thrust comeback. Post-tape, if a physical device sits spooling between the combatants to remind the victim to be on their guard, the machine-determined chat will always be subject to cut-and-paste pop-shrink and lit-crit dissection — where slips unnoticed in the moment may turn out to be “revealing”. 

Of course what Wilson had spotted about LRoss was her superbly exact and wounding non-machine memory, unsheathed even when chatting in relaxed and informal circumstance. This was how she’d skewered Hemingway, for example — who gamely ever after carried on as if they were still pals, all fair in love and mocking profiling. Not loyal, not nice, just pitilessly accurate. 

The mummies piece also depended for its force on the not-quite spoken – but in a rather different way. Because of course it was agitating via National Inquirer prose cruelty, trolling for a response in order to insinuate against any defensiveness – except that the insinuations then muffled the reasons for any defensiveness. As a somewhat prissy conservative himself, and , since never the ace reporter he considered himself, Wolfe had entirely the wrong kind of antennae: yes, he’d spotted that Shawn and LRoss spent much quiet time together, but as ever he jumped towards tendentious mind-reading. Fixated on high-cultural virtue-signalling, he revelled in the fuddy-duddy good-prose snobbery of the liberals revolted by his style. 

Meanwhile Shawn, this intensely private man, was fighting every way he knew how to keep his love life off the public page – and succeeding, because Wolfe wasn’t LRossish enough as a reporter, and had missed the scandal at the heart of it all. 

And of course sexual fashions and customs were changing. The young were letting everything hang out when it came to sex, aggressively, incessantly. Never onside with the counterculture – which was a lot too anti-racist for him – Wolfe had nevertheless nosed out a vulnerability here, amplifying it if never really identifying it. The panic arising from within the intimate innermost labyrinths seemed deranged enough to make his argument for him. A palpable hit! Listen to the the screams you imagined you just heard! Truly the New Yorker no longer understands the times…  

Let’s go back to the foundation of the New Yorker sensibility, to work out why it had at one time mattered so much. From the outset it had offset very different energies against one another: on one side, an unending seemingly careless encouragement to try things out; on the other, that redoubtable and indeed remarkable battery of painstaking fact-checking, editing, restructuring, rewriting – of, in a word, care. There was an anxious divide between the intellectual and the anti-intellectual elements – and this was the source of its temperament and its breakthrough, and what powered its editorial machineries. As founder-editor HRoss had gathered a team about him to wrangle the best out of the uneasy collision, so that jaded newspapermen like Thurber mixed well born Ivy Leaguers like Gill or the Whites, E.B. and Katharine. In the speakeasies of 20s New York, flappers from Vassar or Bryn Mawr and cartoonists and columnists from Yale or Cornell were on flippantly friendly terms with jazzmen and gangsters, madames and cops. Alcohol was forbidden; alcohol was omnipresent. And as the grimness of the 30s and 40s bleakly mounted – the rising spectre of fascism and its many aftermaths, world war and and cold war, deathcamps and atom bombs – this was a combination somehow able to clamber back up and out to confront and describe it all. 

I was going to add “challenge it all” – but I’m not sure it did that all that often. Wolfe wasn’t the first to suggest that this mechanism had begun running a little too complacently for its own good after the war (that was probably Robert Warshow, arguing in 1947 that the New Yorker never dreamed that the world’s inelegance could become so dangerous”). It’s extremely hard to routinise a fruitful collision. By the time race once again gained transformative leverage in US politics, the magazine was also all a bit Harvard-Yale white – the vulgarly shoe-leather counterweight was now a bit too tidily folded into the process (unlike the Yalies, they tended not to take good physical care of themselves: HRoss had worn himself out at just 59) [5]. And venerate the shoe-leather crew as he did, it’s not clear they would have been any more reliable as a guide to the changing times than Wolfe himself proved to be. 

The excitement at the New Yorker temperament-collision in its high age proved that it met a need and solved a problem, a genuine breakthrough that produced the techniques firmly to set it in place. But as fashions change the same problem takes new forms. O’Hagan’s portrait in the LRB begins with a tart list of the listless, LRoss counting down how terrible everyone else is: “Gloria Steinem – phoney; Janet Malcolm – pretentious; Renata Adler – crackpot; Susan Sontag – nobody; Nora Ephron – liar; Kenneth Tynan – creep; Truman Capote – leech; George Plimpton – slick; Tom Wolfe – talentless; Philip Roth – jerk”… It’s good spiteful fun, you love to see it! And I’m not honestly sure how many of these judgments I’d even push back on (given that I can never actually remember who George Plimpton is). But it’s rearguard work, and an embittered half-acknowledgment of the New Yorker’s decline. If the Ross-Shawn-Ross model was no longer the future, what was? If the comical abreaction against ‘Tiny Mummies!’ was a clearing of the way for things to come, the hefty shift in sensibility down towards the likes of the Village Voice in the US – and (as I’m semi-trollishly insisting) to the UK music press [6] – it’s a shift that’s as almost entirely off O’Hagan’s radar [7].


Footnote 1: O’Hagan’s issue-long LRB essay on the burning of Grenfell Tower and its aftermath outraged many for its cavalier (and sometimes inaccurate) treatment of the victims and their families. So of course his celebration of Lillian Ross as a reporter unprepared to be kind to her subjects in search of the real story is a self-exculpation — as if her best qualities transfer him by dint of their friendship, slight as it seems even in his telling, the two trading gossip and hanging out for a while until she dropped him. 

2: The brief sketch of Truman Capote in Gill’s At the New Yorker very clearly calls bullshit on the idea that he’d invented the “non-fiction novel” – by pointing out that other New Yorker writers had long worked in this mode. It’s a likeable portrait of his passage from fey teenage on-staff gadfly to portly all-purpose TV pundit, via the strength of his writing – but it’s also gently caustic on the flabbiness of his deep ambition.  

3: I suspect that Wilson’s follow-on phrase – “that girl… about whom I had a certain curiosity” is what’s given this quotation legs. Given his known goatishness, there’s certainly something faintly unprofessional and thigh-rubbing about it. Thurber places it in a chapter called ‘Sex is Just an Incident’: Wilson is writing that he never got to meet LRoss, and Thurber links this to his theory that HRoss made a point of never introducing anyone to anyone else, among the staff and contributors, so as to “de-emotionalise the place”. Gill’s book is generally much friskier sexually, and every tale collected in it coloured by this. O’Hagan merely uses it to make the point that LRoss never used a tape-recorder, or (apparently) notebooks. 

4: The magnetic recording machine was invented back in 1898, by one Valdemar Poulsen. Tape machines were still bulky and expensive in the mid-1940s, but reasonably portable and affordable wire recorders were circulating, only to be driven off the market by the late 50s when tape recorders came down in price and size. Many journalists of course still used and preferred the shorthand notebook, and a technique that generally involves some real-time editing (you don’t note down ums and ers and repetitions). This on-the-hoof rewrite was more acceptable 50 years ago than it is now: when legal disputes arose about misquotation, a reporter’s notebooks were routinely entered as evidence in court. By the early 70s, untrained fanzine scribblers almost never had shorthand, but small cassette tape machines were ubiquitous. 

5: Shawn had changed his name from Chon when he entered publishing: “I made the mistake of thinking I might become a writer, and I wanted to be mistaken for an American and not a Chinese,” as Gill quotes him (p.151). To be fair, this is as much a comment on the prejudice of the world of American letters as a whole in the 30s – but Gill is also careful to set down plain HRoss’s own personal attitude, which of course affected the magazine he ran, “primitive bigotries” that were a “source of constant embarrassment to Shawn and some of us younger members of the staff” (p.172). The New Yorker’s founder-editor was absolutely uncomfortable in the company of black people, and often spoke foolishly, unkindly and dismissively of them when not in their company: it was a fight for the more cosmopolitan staffers to rectify this, then and after. It’s of course another datapoint against the ‘Tiny Mummies!’ version of the New Yorker tale, but Shawn had published James Baldwin’s ‘Letter from a Region in my Mind’ in 1962, the essay that became the extremely important book The Fire Next Time

6: This Patreon essay is I suppose about three things: first, the triangulation of in-print entertainment and intellectual curiosity; second, that this kind of triangulation is important and useful precisely because it’s difficult; third, that its best realisation in any one period will lose salience after a while, and its successor may well spring up in a very different place, with very different tone and very different processing technique. The key to the music papers was less the big-name writer-stars we remember now, and much more the backroom editors, or some of them anyway, absolutely the most talented of their generation, across all types of publication (let’s put Angus Mackinnon in the limelight for a change). For all their flaws and naivety, the reach of the UK music papers proved they too met a need and solved a problem, about meeting of clashing worlds, a genuine breakthrough (that also would devolve into bad habits). Entertainment and intellect are both highly susceptible to fads and fashions, very often pulling in very different directions, and it takes a particular kind of mind to navigate the resultant choppy surges. 

7: Is Wolfe’s Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers the model, conscious or unconscious, for O’Hagan’s Grenfell piece? Variations in tone and style notwithstanding, they’re very evidently of a type, in which the hardpressed officials (the ‘Flak Catchers’ so-called) are portrayed as being under huge pressure to contain and divert the angry energies of the complainants (in this instance the families of those burnt to death in the tower). In both cases, over-generous sympathy is certainly channeled towards the bureaucrats, portrayed as reacting honestly in a highly charged situation (though O’Hagan manages to avoid anything so grotesquely telling as Wolfe’s neo-colonialist ‘Mau-Mau’ as a term for the bereaved). I’m arguing above that Wolfe missed his best reporter’s scoop in ‘Tiny Mummies!’ because it didn’t suit his narrative: in his lazy bestiary, Shawn was just not the kind of person who fucks. O’Hagan too ends up missing the deep point of the LRoss story, about the uses of the clash of high literary style and low journalistic ethos — as it for example manifests here and now in the LRB – because, if he knows that good reporting does often end up hurting someone, he prefers just to cuddle up to the ghost of Lillian, to redirect her plaudits his way, and not worry that those that are end up hurt are those that have little time (in any sense at all) for the milieu that continues to embrace him, and that everything he believes about telling this story well in fact further muffles this fact. 

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