WHO’S NEXT at New York Review of Books?

IN HINDSIGHT–

A man at a writing desk, by Rembrandt

In hindsight, the appointment of Ian Buruma as Editor of the New York Review of Books was a disaster. Buruma was daring enough to court controversy, but not strong enough to fight for the integrity and independence of his publication.

Ian Buruma (2015)

(Ian Buruma.)

A fighter would’ve done a better job of explaining why he ran the Jian Ghomeshi essay. Why recovery and redemption are important. Why editorial autonomy is necessary– especially in a climate of rush-to-judgement lynch mobs and unthinking hysteria.

A fighter would’ve gone to advertisers– one by one if need be– to make his case. Instead, Ian Buruma became one more casualty of today’s Literary McCarthyism.

WHAT KIND OF EDITOR?

What kind of editor is needed as Ian Buruma’s replacement?

Someone who could replicate the daring intellectual excitement represented by the New York Review of Books when it arrived on the media scene in February, 1963.

1963-02-01-600x0-c-default

NEEDED: A large personality.

A contentious, voluble writer akin to Norman Mailer. A person willing to be aggressive in taking on and dispersing any unthinking mob– willing to use the momentum of intellect and power of voice to restore sanity to today’s literary world.

mailer at mic

WHO?

WHO WILL New York Review of Books choose instead?

One of two safe alternatives.

1.) Almost certainly, a woman. Knee-jerk reaction to appease the angry mob. In this time of MeToo mania, it would be too risky for their risk-averse publishers to choose otherwise. Have to remember those advertisers!

(The result: A completely neutered intellectual journal.)

2.)  IF they were to choose a male editor, it would be someone properly screened and defanged, without a shred of volatility. Fully establishment and left-leaning, on the order of smiling Keith Gessen. Ready to appease everybody. Affable, innocuous, and bland.

gessen smiling

Someone who’s had a relationship with New York Review of Books. Whose own publication, n+1 magazine was in many ways made by them.

Or someone of that kind.

(Painting: “Scholar at His Desk” by Rembrandt.)
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

Media Morality Play

MORE THOUGHTS ON JIAN GHOMESHI AND IAN BURUMA

theater

LOOK into media controversies like the one involving Junot Diaz– or last week’s scandal featuring Jian Ghomeshi and Ian Buruma– and you begin to see patterns. You notice the theater smoke and stage scenery, and realize what you’re watching is a form of elaborately produced play. Cast ready; scripts on hand; producer or director lurking somewhere backstage pulling the strings.

The truth? The core truth of these matters is buried beneath layers of hysteria and noise.

As in many theatrical plays, today’s media productions involve stock characters.

A.)  Villain.

B.)  Innocent victim(s).

C.)  Hapless buffoon.

Who plays the hero?

In media morality plays, the hero is ourselves. We the Audience, observing the venality of others while congratulating ourselves for our sense of pristine justice, our virtue.

Justice is the key component of the plot. By the end of the play the villain is walked off stage in handcuffs, reputation shredded, name blackened, career over.

As We the Audience applaud.

OSCAR WILDE

Oscar_Wilde_sitting_portrait

ONE of the more famous early show trials involved Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. In 1895 Wilde, a homosexual, was put on trial for Gross Indecency. The case provoked a storm of press publicity– public outrage over private behavior.

I’ll discuss the Oscar Wilde trials and their parallels to the Jian Ghomeshi matter in a separate post.

ERROL FLYNN

ANOTHER early example of the personal scandal style of media show was the 1943 Errol Flynn rape trial. The famed Hollywood actor and well-known sexual wolf was charged with statutory rape for having relations with two under-aged women. One of them, 17 year-old Peggy Satterlee, worked as a nightclub dancer. For the trial, the producers of the morality play dressed up Miss Satterlee to look as young and as innocent as possible.

satterlee2

The staging didn’t quite come off. Flynn, a man of good looks and outstanding charisma, was miscast in the role of Bad Guy– a part usually played in his movies by Basil Rathbone.

VILLAINS

robin-hood(Rathbone and Flynn.)

TO PROPERLY stage a media morality play, you must discover the proper villain.

Since we’re fallen creatures, there’s no shortage of corruption and evil to be found. Venality and worse are everywhere. In all of us. When we assure ourselves of our own virtuousness we’re lying. The Villain stands not in contrast to our actual selves, but to the image we hold of ourselves.

RICHARD NIXON

richard-nixon_1973-09-20

From the beginning of his political career, Richard Nixon seemed cast for a villainous part. Scheming, dark-browed and jowly, oozing the air of dishonesty. A Richard III essence.

richard III
(Laurence Olivier as Richard III.)

Nixon was eventually brought low by Woodward and Bernstein, with much drama and mysteriously-scripted characters like Deep Throat.

A DIRECTOR?

jesse brown

Jesse Brown, director of the Jian Ghomeshi drama, is hyper-ambitious. His career, beginning with a series of media hoaxes, has been marked by absence of restraint. Combine this with self-righteousness and you create a dynamic force.

In this period of MeToo, potential and actual villains are everywhere, and it’s easy to become self-righteous.

IF Jesse Brown had been searching for a possible villain, CBC co-worker and rising media star Jian Ghomeshi, in looks and lifestyle, well fit the part.

Ghomeshi

Jian Ghomeshi had a taste for rough sex, and frequented bondage clubs. Not a nice guy. Ghomeshi also turned out to be notably inept, unwittingly himself providing the evidence which allowed Brown’s budding expose to find print.

CLUES as to how Jian Ghomeshi was taken down are provided by a nerdy-but-earnest filmmaker named Diana Davison. Here’s one of the videos she made about Jesse Brown and holes in the plot.

Yes, victims and witnesses were enlisted– one of them, Kathryn Borel, a good friend of Jesse Brown’s. The accusers rehearsed their lines– too well, it turned out. When matters went to trial in 2016, the testimonies of three of the witnesses fell apart. (Here‘s a different look at the trial from an unlikely source.)

Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted on the charges. Another charge, the one involving Kathryn Borel, was dropped. Ghomeshi made a token apology. Jesse Brown celebrated this as victory.

Despite the missteps, it was. Jian Ghomeshi’s reputation was in permanent tatters, and more importantly, Jesse Brown’s reputation was greatly enhanced.

WHO WOULD’VE GUESSED that two years later a bigger target would be brought down by the same production– Ian Buruma, Editor at New York Review of Books.

an buruma
Villainous? Not really. But Buruma did fit the role of bumbling supporting character. Ian Buruma and his publication still carried the mores and mindset of a long-past genteel literary scene. Slow and refined. Patriarchal. Believing in old-fashioned liberal values of alternate viewpoints. Completely unprepared for a fast-moving new world of podcasts and twitter attacks. Of morality play productions with ongoing flurries of outrage and outrageousness, melodrama and dramatics.
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MORE Can’t-Miss stuff to come. Stay tuned!

-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

 

Literary Lynch Mob Locates Another Villain

noose

WORD today is that Ian Buruma is out as editor of New York Review of Books after fallout from his allowing accused sexual batterer Jian Ghomeshi to write a mea culpa complaint for the publication. Some past accusers like Jesse Brown counter-complained  that Ghomeshi’s essay was filled with “inaccuracies, omissions, evasions, and mischaracterizations.” Other literary persons and activists were outraged simply that Ghomeshi’s name appeared in anything.

Ghomeshi, yes, gave his viewpoint. Distorted? Probably. Surely fair game for attack and debate.

BUT– that wasn’t enough for these hysterical times. For the mob, Ghomeshi and anyone who enables him– though he was already judged by the legal system– needs to be obliterated.

New York Review of Books was founded under questionable circumstances during a newspaper strike with Random House money. Yet, over the decades it’s had quite the glamorous history. Has been contentious, and to this commentator’s knowledge has never before caved under pressure– at least not so immediately.

SOME OBSERVATIONS:

-WRITERS themselves seem to be leading the literary lynch mob, which conjures up images of approved apparatchik scribblers during the halcyon days of the Soviet Union.

-WHETHER Ian Buruma resigned or was fired, someone at NYR of B caved into mob pressure all too quickly. Another blow to the integrity and independence of literary magazines.

-THIS is another in the ongoing castration of classically macho establishment literary publications. (See Paris Review.)

WHO’S NEXT?
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

n+1 Revisited

DaynaTortorici

(Photo of rich girl Dayna Tortorici, Editor of n+1 magazine.)

We’ve already covered one of New York City’s chief literary mags, the pretentiously named n+1 magazine. See our Op-Ed.

In recent days, editor Chad Harbach has been the subject of a lawsuit which claims he plagiarized another author’s novel for material for his own. See this story.

Chad_harbach_2011

(Photo of the questionable Chad Harbach.)

ARE n+1 editors icons of truthfulness? There’s the fact that Chad Harbach is listed at wikipedia– and until recently at their site– as one of six founding editors. Neat– except that anyone who read their first few issues knows there were actually four founding editors– Gessen, Greif, Kunkel, and Roth. One can speculate that the change was made to include a woman– Alison Lorentzen– as a founder. Harbach then thrown in also. Very Orwellian. One can speculate that, with Harbach now the subject of controversy, he’s apt to become any moment in the n+1 histories a nonperson. As the old joke in the Soviet Union went, the future is certain but the past is always changing.
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What does n+1 have to do with the “wise men” we profiled here in a recent post?

At its beginning, the n+1 editors’ professed model was William Phillips’ Partisan Review. One of their early mentors was Robert B. Silvers, who worked for Paris Review and founded New York Review of Books.

These facts and others raise more questions about the magazine, about its mission and its funding– questions we won’t address now.

 

The Wise Men

American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

Who steered the direction of American literature after World War II?

Editors like George Plimpton, Robie Macauley, Reed Whittemore, Robert Silvers, and William Phillips. Men on a mission who, as much as they professed no artistic ideology, very much pushed an artistic ideology. They’d been formed by various factors, whether by privilege, or the war, or by disillusion with Communism. By 1950 all were Wilsonians out to save the world by making it “Safe for Democracy”– their own special internationalist version of democracy.

Literature was their tool– they fully believed in the importance of the art. Paris Review (like Encounter magazine in the UK) was founded as a cultural ambassador for Anglo-American liberal ideals– presenting an intellectual alternative to the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and Communism. Liberal Cold Warriors, these editors disdained– or had rejected– the populism of the American past. John Steinbeck and his kind were out. Henry James as the ideal cosmopolitan author was in.

wisemen3
For our cultural aristocrats, literature, to be safe, must never engage too strongly in ideas. As an editor at New York Review of Books told me in a note in the late 1990’s, characters must never serve as mouthpieces for ideas. George Plimpton told me essentially the same thing on the one occasion I met him, at a literary debate held at CBGB’s in 2001. To these people, burdened– as they saw it– with the task of preserving literature, a broad view of the world was considered dangerous. An Ayn Rand or Frank Norris wrote beyond their well-regulated lines.

Focus moved instead to the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeois self. American literature became gnostic: insular and solipsistic. Cleansed, nuanced, refined; denuded of its loud voice but also much of its energy. For prose: John Updike. For poetry: John Ashbery.  Aesthetics was not the only weapon. No longer could a writer appear off the street like Thomas Wolfe or Jack London and be taken seriously. Writing programs and markers of breeding ensured all who entered the Halls of Approval were thoroughly screened.

Did these men and their journals have influence? Tremendous influence. They understood the concept of leverage; that a publication with a readership of 10,000 could determine who did or did not receive a large book contract– chiefly because that small readership was powerful and elite.

The change in aesthetic direction made the wise men– as well as their sources of money– very happy. Literature came under the control not of the unpredictable American people, but of themselves. The Elect.
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American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

The thing to know about these men and their journals is that the faces they showed the world were misleading. George Plimpton was a smiling bon-vivant but also much more than that. The notion that he didn’t know the source of Paris Review‘s original funding is an absurdity.

Likewise, New York Review of Books, founded by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, postured for a long while as a radical Leftist publication– yet it was started with Random House money during a New York newspaper strike as a way for the giant book companies to advertise their new releases. It’s always been an extension of New York-based Big Corporate Publishing. Sophisticated PR for them, one might say.

In the New York literary world, nothing is ever as it seems.