Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Best of the 01.05.09 Issue: The Next Number in the Series is 13

Filed under: Pick of the Issue   Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

I was a decent SAT student (and have even been known to lead a Kaplan test-prep session or two), hence explaining my dorky post title.

After a two-week layoff, a fascinating first issue of 2009 to ponder. Interesting subjects, interestingly pursued. I know that my cohorts have plenty of impressions to impart (as, surely, you do too, reader). This post will magically alter as they weigh in. Stay tuned.

—Martin Schneider

From Benjamin Chambers:

My absolute favorite? The Robert Leighton cartoon on p. 44, in which Santa tells the couple that he made “quite a nuisance of himself” the previous night.

The Menand piece on the Village Voice felt as provincial, in its way, as the three-part Liebling profile of Chicago (here, here, and here) that you Martin posted about recently. Menand’s lengthy celebration of the Voice, with the full-page illustration from Jules Feiffer, seemed written for those who’ve lived in the Village. I really like Menand, so I was surprised to find myself wishing he’d be more concise.

I thought for a while my pick would be “Lives of the Saints,” by Jonathan Harr, about the humanitarian disasters in Chad and Darfur and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.) providing services there. But Harr seemed a little easily impressed, and unsure which details mattered.

In Julian Barnes’s story, “The Limner,” a deaf, itinerant painter gets the best of the bully whose portrait he is painting. Smoothly written, the story was enjoyable, but not stellar. I don’t associate Barnes with historical fiction (despite Arthur & George, his massive book on Arthur Conan Doyle), and it’s not common for The New Yorker either, so the setting of the story was a pleasant surprise.

All in all, I liked Patricia Marx’s “Kosher Takeout” best, in which she describes the work of two Rabbis who travel China ensuring that factories making kosher food meet the necessary standards. She plays it for laughs, which I enjoyed, though unlike the Menand and Harr pieces, which should’ve been shorter, I felt her piece should’ve been longer and more detailed.

From Jonathan Taylor:

Of course it’s been noted elsewhere, but it gave me a real little thrill to read Alex Ross’s restrained, to-the-point reply to Tom Wolfe’s letter objecting to Ross’s characterization of Wolfe’s “Radical Chic.” There is, indeed, as Wolfe himself says, “a difference between hysteria and hysterically funny”; I would ask New York magazine exactly whose reaction makes him look like a “weenie”?

Benjamin called Louis Menand’s Voice piece lengthy, but I mostly feel its gaps, and their odd timing. The subtext is the ongoing demise of the Voice—or, at least it was hard not to take it that way, in a week that saw the canning of jazz and civil rights columnist Nat Hentoff and fashion reporter Lynn Yaeger—but I find it a little creepy that this is never overtly acknowledged by Menand’s article, even as it’s cast almost entirely in the past tense. I know it’s about the seminal example set by the founding generation; but it’s still weird that after some thin allusions to later decades, a sentence in the last paragraph is practically the only clue that the Voice is still published at all. I admit it’s partly my bias, due to when I started reading the by-then very different paper in the 1980s; but if the Voice as a recognizable descendant of Mailer’s paper is disappearing, it remains for someone to consider its whole glorious life. Maybe Menand can expand into a book, just to please me.


The Menand piece kindled my interest in Mailer’s Voice columns. In a memorable line, Menand says, “What Mailer learned at the Voice was the literary value of leading with your personality.” That may be true, but I think it’s more likely that Mailer learned it earlier when, as a result of his battle to get the Deer Park published, he angrily redrafted the Deer Park. Mailer has written brilliantly about this transformative experience in Advertisements For Myself. As a result of Menand’s article, I now have a desire to dig out my old paperback copy of Advertisements For Myself and read the Voice columns. I guess this is reason enough to pick Menand’s “It Took A Village” as this week’s POTI winner!

@ driedchar: I hear you; I confess that Mailer has never interested me much, but I’m always grateful to articles that stimulate my interest in revisiting writers, or exploring writers I don’t know.

I thought the Village Voice article was quite fascinating. I’m not familiar with it, so it enlightened me. As an aside, and not to say that the Village Voice is uninteresting or arcane, but one of the things about the New Yorker which has always impressed me is its ability to take a dull topic and make it very readable.

@ Matt: Well said. Though this article didn’t fall into that category for me, many TNY articles do; it’s a big reason why I love the magazine.

Jonathan - you really put your finger on the problem with Menand’s piece, much better than I did. It failed to grab me because it speaks to insiders — those who’ve grown up with and lived with the Voice for years — without trying hard enough to bring outsiders (those of us in Dubuque, so to speak) up to speed. Sure, he makes the case that it helped create the New Journalism, but there the effort ends. He tends to assume the reader is not only familiar with the paper, but capable of feeling nostalgic about it …

I liked Menand’s story! Though I was a frequent reader of the Voice from 1989 to, I don’t know, the late ’90s (and wrote for them once), and am an occasional reader now, I don’t consider myself an insider or anything. I thought it was one of the best pieces of Menand’s I’ve read in a long time, gracefully written and perfectly pitched. I’d think lots of people with an attachment to or leftist (or leftish) politics, newspapers, the sixties, the Village, New York, bohemianism in general, journalism in general, or eccentricity in general would find something in its period details and cast of characters to relish.

Jonathan, it also occurred to me that this had a book-excerpt feel to it; maybe it is part of a longer treatment, and we’ll get to hear about What Happened Next! Labor debacles, scandals, coups, offshoots, near-death experiences, and internet afterlife included.

For me, it was a near-perfect issue, and that’s not something I say every week. I haven’t stopped thinking about Jonathan Harr’s Chad story since I read it and talked about the life of an aid worker with an old friend whose girlfriend is posted somewhere similar. Benjamin, I agree, Patricia Marx’s story was tops! Her specialties are humor pieces and “On and Off the Avenue” shopping expeditions in the classic style, so for me, this was a perfect extension of both those forms.

I just ran across the Voice’s response to the story. Very worth reading!

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree