Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Jonathan Taylor writes:

Matthew Yglesias, seemingly not a print subscriber with access to Digital Reader, reminds me of something I've been wanting to take note of here: the pleasures of the New Yorker abstracts. Directed by The Atlantic's Ross Douthat to Rebecca Mead's 2003 article about Jaime Pressly, "The Almost It Girl" (Digital Edition link here) he points to what must be the longest abstract I've seen on the site (and the article itself isn't particularly long):

She compares her role to Reese Witherspoon's in "Election." Describes a synchronized-swimming lesson she took for the role. Recently, she was asked to audition as the replacement for a minor character on "That 70's Show," but she had misgivings. While working hard to become a name, Pressly has had to witness the galling success of actresses who were born names, like Kate Hudson. Pressly comes from humble theatrical origins: her mother ran a dance studio. Her parents separated when she was in her early teens, and she and her mother moved to Orange County. She dropped out of school to model and left home at 15. She now lives in a million-dollar house and recently became engaged to Jay Gehrke, a former professional baseball player. "People will take me more seriously if I'm married..." She has also created a lingerie line called J'aime. In the space of a week, she learned she hadn't gotten "Blade 3," "That 70's Show," or "Mask 2." The launch of J'aime took place at the Palms Casino Resort, in Las Vegas. Describes the runway show. Mentions two frat guys who said they didn't know Pressly's name but remembered her from "Not Another Teen Movie."

An Yglesias commenter observes that the poker-faced cataloging of details had to have been a bit of abstracting humor. Another of my all-time favorite abstracts, of V.S. Naipaul's 1984 essay "The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro," is rather negligent in taking note of the narrative content of the piece, seemingly intent on parodying Naipaul's essentializing vision and brutally simple style:
150 miles inland the President's ancestral village of Yamoussoukro has been transformed. The President would like it to be one of the great cities of Africa & the world. Tells about its ultra-modern splendor. Down one side of the Presidential palace there is an artificial lake into which have been introduced man-eating crocodiles. These are totemic, emblematic creatures & they belong to the President. There were no crocodiles in Yamoussoukro before. No one knows precisely what they mean. The crocodiles are fed with fresh meat every day. People can go & watch. Most visitors are tourists. Writer gives long account of a visit & discusses the crocodile ritual which is mysterious. He interviews a number of people, mainly expatriates, about the Ivory Coast. He learns that life in the interior is truly African. Daytime city life with its Western influence is not the real Africa.

James Wood wrote in this week's issue about Naipaul "the Wounder," so it's interesting that Edward Hoagland said of "Yamoussoukro," "Though these are the same kind of excursions he has made in other countries with mordant mockery in mind, this time he is not exploring 'the great wound of Africa' but instead its astonishing, unknowable and hypnotic 'completeness.'" A dubious proposition itself, but, as Hoagland writes, in this case, Naipaul's piece is "full of honest changes of judgment about particular people, generally on the side of appreciating them better."


I too marvel at the work that’s gone into creating The New Yorker abstracts. Some of them are quite funny in the way they compress the ideas in the original pieces. I was pleased to see the reference (and link) to Edward Hoagland in Taylor’s post. Hoagland is, in my humble opinion, a god - nothing less! I’m currently rereading his “Notes From The Century Before” and savoring every word.

I’ve found some of the abstracts hilariously inapt, especially when it comes to fiction — so much so, that I’ve had the distinct sense that they were not compiled with care, and in some cases, not even by experienced readers. But isn’t it true that up until recently, they were written without any expectation that they’d be easily accessible? That would certainly foster a mischievous approach to composition!

Thanks also for the Hoagland link. I admire him, too.

I suspect that being shielded from view did encourage slipshod abstracts. I also think that their recent inclusion in the Complete New Yorker provided an incentive to have long abstracts for the purposes of search—remember, the CNY does not search on the full text.

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