Back in 1925, when the founders of the New Yorker magazine published their first issue, I don’t think one of their ambitions was to try to make many of its future readers feel stupid, uneducated and/or naive. Even so, that’s what has happened. Over time I have spoken to — or read about — many New Yorker fans. A common statement has been “I don’t understand most of the articles, but I love the cartoons.”
I’ve subscribed to the New Yorker by fits and starts over the years. I’ve visited New York City only a few times, and I’m the last person who’ll ever boast, “Yeah, great town and great magazine. Tell me what you’d like to know.” On any sophistication rating scale, I’d score closer to the “hayseed” ranking than the “cultured” or “cosmopolitan” label.
Even so, I’ve enjoyed and respected the magazine for serving as an outlet for many excellent writers, cartoonists and (I guess) poets. I’ve tried to comprehend the New Yorker’s poetry, and I usually fail.
I recently re-subscribed to the magazine for a few months. Although the newsstand price of each issue is $8.99, subscription rates go for $2 or thereabouts, which is a pleasure for thrifty simpletons like me.
I’m noticing some distinct changes in the New Yorker since the last time I signed up. In the past, readers could expect a mixture of short, bright articles plus a few pieces that filled maybe four or five pages. Today, it seems, the editors have told some of the contributing writers, “Don’t worry about length. The more words, the better.” Or something like that.
A recent profile of presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren occupied 12 full such pages, give or take two photos and three cartoons. Details such as the color of her cardigan and the name of her golden retriever (Bailey) were included. Will these details help voters to decide yes or no on Warren’s qualifications 16 months from now? Who knows? Does it matter? Apparently yes, to the New Yorker.
Less forgivable, in my opinion, was the magazine’s recently devoting nine (Count ‘em! Nine!) full color pages to photos of young basketball players with promising futures. The photos were artsy-crafty — some did not even show the players’ faces. I doubt if Sports Illustrated would have taken up nine pages for such a layout. So why should the New Yorker?
A similar puzzle for sporadic New Yorker subscribers: What has happened in recent years to the magazine’s cartoons? I don’t own many prized possessions, but two of them are collections of New Yorker cartoons. One book is devoted to the work of George Price, whose specialty was spoofing the eccentricities of city folks. The other book weighs about 15 pounds and contains 68,647 cartoons spanning the years between 1925 and 2004.
If these cartoons have any two qualities in common, it is that they are (1) skillfully drawn, and (2) they are funny. What’s more, the viewer didn’t have to possess a Ph.D. to see the humor. Even so, from the start, New Yorker cartoons have assumed most readers to be sophisticated, au courant, in the know, etc. Or at least halfway willing to get plugged in.
I’m not sure I meet those expectations more than 30 percent of the time. As an example, a recent cartoon showed a young man in a T-shirt. On his face was a troubled, puzzled look. On his shoulder stood a miniature devil, fully equipped with horns and a pitchfork. The caption has the devil saying, “We had to make some cutbacks.”
If you can divine the humor in that cartoon, please let me know. It zipped clean past my noggin. In an even more puzzling (to me) cartoon, three surgeons — with masks and caps, in full regalia, — appear to be working on a small open box. The caption says, “For Christ’s sake, Hambleton, stop calling this ‘adulting.’” What is “adulting”? Have I missed something going on in modern medicine, or what?
If so, I’ll gladly plead guilty. When you read the New Yorker, puzzlement is the price you may have to pay.