Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William Shawn

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In John McPhee’s excellent new book on writing, Draft No. 4, which I mentioned here the other day, he shares an anecdote about his famous profile of the basketball player Bill Bradley. McPhee was going over a draft with William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, “talking three-two zones, blind passes, reverse pivots, and the setting of picks,” when he realized that he had overlooked something important:

For some reason—nerves, what else?—I had forgotten to find a title before submitting the piece. Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative—that they can buy a piece, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New YorkerVogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title. Editors’ habit of replacing an author’s title with one of their own is like a photo of a tourist’s head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong. But the title missing on the Bill Bradley piece was my oversight. I put no title on the manuscript. Shawn did. He hunted around in the text and found six words spoken by the subject, and when I saw the first New Yorker proof the piece was called “A Sense of Where You Are.”

The dynamic that McPhee describes at other publications still exists today—I’ve occasionally bristled at the titles that have appeared over the articles that I’ve written, which is a small part of the reason that I’ve moved most of my nonfiction onto this blog. (The freelance market also isn’t what it used to be, but that’s a subject for another post.) But a more insidious factor has invaded even the august halls of The New Yorker, and it has nothing to do with the preferences of any particular editor. Opening the most recent issue, for instance, I see that there’s an article by Jia Tolentino titled “Safer Spaces.” On the magazine’s website, it becomes “Is There a Smarter Way to Think About Sexual Assault on Campus?”, with a line at the bottom noting that it appears in the print edition under its alternate title. Joshua Rothman’s “Jambusters” becomes “Why Paper Jams Persist.” A huge piece by David Grann, “The White Darkness,” which seems destined to get optioned for the movies, earns slightly more privileged treatment, and it merely turns into “The White Darkness: A Journey Across Antarctica.” But that’s the exception. When I go back to the previous issue, I find that the same pattern holds true. Michael Chabon’s “The Recipe for Life” is spared, but David Owen’s “The Happiness Button” is retitled “Customer Satisfaction at the Push of a Button,” Rachel Aviv’s “The Death Debate” becomes “What Does It Mean to Die?”, and Ian Frazier’s “Airborne” becomes “The Trippy, High-Speed World of Drone Racing.” Which suggests to me that if McPhee’s piece appeared online today, it would be titled something like “Basketball Player Bill Bradley’s Sense of Where He Is.” And that’s if he were lucky.

The reasoning here isn’t a mystery. Headlines are written these days to maximize clicks and shares, and The New Yorker isn’t immune, even if it sometimes raises an eyebrow. Back in 2014, Maria Konnikova wrote an article for the magazine’s website titled “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You,” in which she explained one aspect of the formula for online headlines: “The presence of a memory-inducing trigger is also important. We share what we’re thinking about—and we think about the things we can remember.” Viral headlines can’t be allusive, make a clever play on words, or depend on an evocative reference—they have to spell everything out. (To build on McPhee’s analogy, it’s less like a tourist’s face on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong than an oversized foam head of Mao himself.) A year later, The New Yorker ran an article by Andrew Marantz on the virality expert Emerson Spartz, and it amazed and maybe infuriated me. I’ve written about this profile elsewhere, but looking it over again now, my eye was caught by these lines:

Much of the company’s success online can be attributed to a proprietary algorithm that it has developed for “headline testing”—a practice that has become standard in the virality industry…Spartz’s algorithm measures which headline is attracting clicks most quickly, and after a few hours, when a statistically significant threshold is reached, the “winning” headline automatically supplants all others. “I’m really, really good at writing headlines,” he told me.

And it’s worth noting that while Marantz’s piece appeared in print as “The Virologist,” in an online search, it pops up as “King of Clickbait.” Even as the magazine gently mocked Spartz, it took his example to heart.

None of this is exactly scandalous, but when you think of a title as “an integral part of a piece of writing,” as McPhee does, it’s undeniably sad. There isn’t any one title for an article anymore, and most readers will probably only see its online incarnation. And this isn’t because of an editor’s tastes, but the result of an impersonal set of assumptions imposed on the entire industry. Emerson Spartz got his revenge on The New Yorker—he effectively ended up writing its headlines. And while I can’t blame any media company for doing whatever it can to stay viable, it’s also a real loss. McPhee is right when he says that selecting a title is an important part of the process, and in a perfect world, it would be left up to the writer. (It can even lead to valuable insights in itself. When I was working on my article on the fiction of L. Ron Hubbard, I was casting about randomly for a title when I came up with “Xenu’s Paradox.” I didn’t know what it meant, but it led me to start thinking about the paradoxical aspects of Hubbard’s career, and the result was a line of argument that ended up being integral not just to the article, but to the ensuing book. And I was amazed when it survived intact on Longreads.) When you look at the grindingly literal, unpoetic headlines that currently populate the homepage of The New Yorker, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for an era in which an editor might nudge a title in the opposite direction. In 1966, when McPhee delivered a long piece on oranges in Florida, William Shawn read it over, focused on a quotation from the poet Andrew Marvell, and called it “Golden Lamps in a Green Night.” McPhee protested, and the article was finally published under the title that he had originally wanted. It was called “Oranges.”

Written by nevalalee

February 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

Talking the Talk

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A few days ago, while reading Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, I came across the following passage about William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker:

Nowadays Shawn is nearly as famous for his oddities as for his editorial prowess. The catalog of his phobias and behavioral tics, the intrigue (especially his decades-long office romance with Lillian Ross, which was meant to be a deep, deep secret and become, with the passage of time, merely the obvious but unmentionable status quo), the passive-aggressive manipulation of colleagues and contributors, the velvet tenacity of his grip on power…it’s all almost enough to make us forget the astonishing success with which he steered the magazine.

Earlier this week, Lillian Ross passed away at the age of ninety-nine. Her personal life, like Shawn’s, often received more attention than her professional accomplishments, and her obituaries predictably devoted a lot of space to their affair, which might have chagrined but not surprised her. In an era when celebrity journalists like Norman Mailer and Gay Talese were on the ascendant, she cautioned reporters against placing themselves at the center of the story—although she also wrote a late memoir of her life with Shawn, Here But Not Here, that caused a firestorm of controversy within its tiny world when it was released two decades ago. In his New York Times review, Charles McGrath called it “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions,” and it struck many readers as an odd departure for a reporter who had been complimented for her ability to fade into the background. And while its title sounded like a motto for objective reporting, it actually came from something that Shawn—whom Updike later praised for his “disinterested standards”—liked to say about his home life: “I am there, but I am not there.”

But Ross, Shawn, and their magazine entered the inner lives of their readers in ways that transcended the efforts of reporters who asked more insistently for our attention. In her book Reporting, Ross offered her personal rules for conducting journalism:

Reporting is difficult, partly because the writer does not have the leeway to play around with the lives of people, as he does in fiction. There are many other restrictions, too…Your attention at all times should be on your subject, not on you. Do not call attention to yourself. As a reporter, serve your subject, do not yourself. Do not, in effect say, “Look at me. See what a great reporter I am!” Do not, if you want to reveal that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, write, “I am showing that the Emperor is already naked.”

A few more admonitions: do not promote yourself; do not advertise yourself; do not sell yourself. If you have a tendency to do these things, you should go into some line of work that may benefit from your talents as a promoter, a salesman, or an actor. Too many extraneous considerations have been imposed on reporting in recent years, and it is time now to ask writers who would be reporters to report.

Decades later, in speaking of her reputation as a fly on the wall, Ross struck a rather different note: “What craziness! A reporter doing a story can’t pretend to be invisible, let alone a fly; he or she is seen and heard and responded to by the people he or she is writing about. A reporter is always chemically involved in a story.”

Ross might sound like she’s contradicting herself, but I don’t think that she is. It helps to focus on the words “chemically involved,” which makes reporting sound like an industrial process—which, in the hands of Shawn’s writers, including Ross and Updike, is what it became. A recent tribute describes Ross as “an early architect” of the Talk of the Town section, which puts her at the center of a certain way of viewing the world. The Talk of the Town has always been characterized less by any particular subject than by its voice, which Begley capably evokes in an account of one of Updike’s early pieces, in which he visited a lawn care business in Southampton:

The resulting journalistic trifle is mildly amusing and fairly typical of The Talk of the Town, save for the exurban expedition…The reporter (“we,” by hallowed New Yorker convention) gathers a comically copious amount of information about the product, allows its makers to display a comical commercial enthusiasm, and adds to the comedy by appearing (almost) to share that enthusiasm.

In this case, the product was a lawn treatment that dyed the grass green, but The Talk of the Town remains the magazine’s place to accommodate more famous subjects who have something to promote. Its stance toward such material allows its interviewees to plug film or book projects while keeping them at a bemused distance, and a lot of it hinges on that remarkable “we.” (It’s the counterpart of the “you” that appears so often in its movie reviews.) Updike gently mocked it years later: “Who, after all, could that indefatigably fascinated, perpetually peripatetic ‘we’ be but a collection of dazzled farm-boys?” But it’s still our ideal of a certain kind of nonfiction—privileged, lightly ironic, with dashes of surprising insight that don’t prevent you from turning the page.

Ross was one of the inventors of that voice, which was the chemical trick that she used to dissolve herself into a story. It allowed trivial pieces to be rapidly produced, while also allowing for deeper engagement when the opportunity presented itself. (To push the analogy from Updike’s article to the breaking point, it was “the desired combination of a dye that would immediately color the lawn and a fertilizer that would eventually rejuvenate it.”) And much of the success of The New Yorker lay in the values that its readers projected onto that “we.” As Begley describes the characters in Updike’s story “Incest”:

The young couple…are college educated, living in a small, pleasant New York apartment furnished with bamboo chairs, a modernist sofa, a makeshift bed, bookshelves filled with books. They’re familiar with Proust and Freud and the pediatric pronouncements of Dr. Benjamin Spock…Jane sips vermouth after dinner, listening to Bach on the record player while she reads The New Republic—if the story hadn’t been intended for publication in The New Yorker, surely she would have been reading that magazine instead.

Norman Mailer, a New Journalist who actually published a collection titled Advertisements for Myself, was dismissive of the magazine’s hold on its readers: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.” He’s speaking of The Talk of the Town, as refined by Ross and Shawn, and it’s still true today. Updike made fun of that “we” because he could—but for many readers, then and now, the grass on that side was definitely greener.

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