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Masters of Mediocrity

Subscribers to one weekly print are rewarded not by its content but by its possession.

Bob Mankoff - Cartoon Editor of The New Yorker
(Photo by Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post via Getty Images.)

Holding the Note: Profiles in Popular Music, by David Remnick, Knopf, 304 pages.

The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery, by Adam Gopnik, Liveright, 256 pages.


Last Christmas, my family stumbled on the “living room scale,” a test devised by Paul Fussell in 1983 to sort Americans by social class. The idea is that you can assess your status simply by studying your household. You gain points for parquet floors, overflowing bookcases, and real Tiffany lamps. You lose points for vinyl floors, a television display, and imitation Tiffany lamps. The quiz is a bit dated (Fussell has a special fixation on the Egypt craze of the early Eighties), but that didn’t stop my family from loudly going about to our friends’ and relatives’ houses and rating their living rooms—only to find, not much to our surprise, that we are all decidedly middle class in taste.

The quiz is at its most subtly damning in its treatment of magazines. The sorts of periodicals people leave out in their living rooms—if they leave any print publications lying around at all—don’t necessarily indicate what they read, but what they want others to think they read. For this reason, grocery store magazines lose points and magazines published in London gain points. No magazines at all will push you down to the lower orders. One curiosity is The New Yorker, which is essentially neutral on the living room scale. The publication is, Fussell writes, the magazine of “status panic,” the sort of thing that people subscribe to when they become anxious about their social station and attempt “to borrow status from the higher element.” That never works, of course, because The New Yorker is designed to keep its readers comfortably mired in mediocrity. This is evidenced by its house style, the faux-naif voice most pronounced in “Talk of the Town,” whose waffling uncertainties and vague evasions were perfected by E.B. White and James Thurber during the Great Depression. This style, Fussell notes, is more than anything else the voice of the middle class, desperate to seem cultured and afraid to appear controversial.

It was with these observations in mind that I approached David Remnick’s Holding the Note: Profiles in Popular Music and Adam Gopnik’s The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery. The first, a collection of The New Yorker editor’s music writing, is an exercise in myth-making for the rock stars who have survived to a bland old age, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan, to name a few. The second is a self-help book intended to reassure those of middling abilities that simply by trying something new, they can become, in their own way, masters of the craft. Neither author seems to be aware of his aim. Remnick presents his collection as a portrait of a generation meditating on the vagaries of fame, a dramatic “grappling, in music and in their own lives, with their diminishing gifts and mortality.” Gopnik shies from admitting to the genre of self-help, instead describing his work with a bizarre word salad. He claims that it is “self-help book that won’t help” but also that it will “help you better see yourself as a self, a constructed self, made out of appetites turned into accomplishments.” Taken together, Remnick and Gopnik typify the criticism that Hilton Kramer directed at The New Yorker more than sixty years ago: “I don’t see how we can avoid concluding that the principal reason for The New Yorker’s method is ignorance: the ignorance of writers first of all, and ultimately the ignorance of readers.”

Gopnik, more than Remnick, is guilty of celebrating ignorance. He’s traded on self-professed naïvete for his entire career to the point of it becoming something of a public joke. (His recent cameo at the beginning of Tár is a laugh at his expense: Gopnik is just the sort of person an impressively credentialed fraud would fool.) In The Real Work, his wondering innocence is the focus. Gopnik learns card tricks, takes drawing lessons, and studies boxing—and proclaims that although he can only practice these arts poorly, gaining actual mastery over them isn’t the point. All that really matters is that he is present to someone else’s mastery. In the end, he writes, recognizing mastery is a sort of cosmic self-affirmation that everyone is basically the same. “We are all LEGO creatures, built of small, bright blocks, with knobs and holes to connect them,” he writes. “If we could see ourselves as we really are, we would recognize that our hats and smiles are simple add-ons to that repeated architecture of red and green bricks, assembled, if not by the hand of God, then by our own hands since childhood.” 

Gopnik best expresses this leveling approach to the world in a chapter where he attempts to overcome his fear of peeing in public bathrooms. His deficiency, he claims, is the result of his being over-civilized, too well-bred for the loo. He admits that it is easy to write off his ailment as a “first-world problem,” but it is also unfair because his suffering is just as legitimate as those people who are faced with more life-threatening issues. “We cannot help but experience what we experience,” he writes. “We live trapped within a self that makes its own dimensions, its own axes, of pleasure and pain. To honor our discomforts at our body’s insistence is to honor our selves. A soul is simply the part that lies within the intersecting axes of pleasure and pain and self-knowledge.” A metaphysician would disagree with this diagnosis, and in any case, what does it have to do with mastery? Gopnik explains: “Just as we are all in search of some kind of mastery in our hard-to-master lives, we are also all being pursued by one monster or another, with the fiendish, deeper defining truth that the monsters imitate the masters in their work.” Mastery, then, is ultimately therapeutic, the ability to recognize our shortcomings (in Gopnik’s case, a failure to perform) and artfully wish them away.

This is a deflating view, but one that is consonant with the magazine’s way of seeing the world. Gopnik reminds me in some ways of the young John Updike, whom Katharine White described in a memo to William Maxwell as exactly the sort of writer The New Yorker attracts because he “distrusts adventure and is, in short, true to type.” And it is complementary to the view that Remnick adopts when profiling his aging rock stars. Unlike Gopnik, who has been putting in his time at the magazine since the mid-1980s, Remnick spent most of his early career as a sportswriter and political journalist. Those beats forced him to become an engaging interviewer—I find his manner of speaking pleasantly soothing—such that his interview-driven profiles are consistently excellent. His long interview with Leonard Cohen, published just weeks before the singer’s death, is some of Remnick’s best work. There’s a reason why it is the first piece in the collection. But when Remnick is left to his own thoughts, he becomes just as vacuous as Gopnik, and it is clear that he expects the same of his readers. He gives the sense that he has an approved list of heroes, and it is his job to impress on you a vague sense of their importance. 

Where Gopnik attempts to make mundane things seem special, Remnick has an ability to make sure that his subjects, who are all actually interesting and often very strange people, are pruned of anything that might challenge his audience. In a retrospective on Bob Dylan, Remnick presents the “unified field theory of Bob Dylan,” which is a dressed up way of saying that, even as the performer slips into senescence, Remnick still thinks he’s riding a career high. In a gloss on Patti Smith’s late career, he cites among a list of accomplishments a performance last year at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine as proof that she remains “vital” and “searching.” (I was there. It was neither.) He makes the absurd claim that Springsteen “continues to evolve as an artist.” In his introduction, he admits that most of these profiles “are the result of my earliest enthusiasms,” which is to say, written as a fan, and for fans. Anything more probing would betray the magazine’s soporific sensibilities.

Of course, it is almost pointless to complain about The New Yorker. It is everywhere, and its style is inescapable. The other day I was walking down the Via del Corso in Rome and counting the number of tote bags that the magazine sends to new subscribers. I imagine that few of these people actually read the magazine. And, in a way, it doesn’t matter because the best way to absorb its viewpoints is not by reading it but simply possessing it. “The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it,” the critic Robert Warshow complained early in its run. “This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately.”


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