We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The following letter from William Shawn to Tina Brown was intercepted by Christine Van Lenten as it was transmitted through the ether via the Internet.

Dear Miss Brown,

I hope you will accept a letter written in the form of tiny electrons. Now that I am dead, I find that I am even more isolated than I was during my forced retirement. Were it not for the tireless efforts of an earnest young account representative from US Sprint, I would not be able to communicate with you at all.

(Being summarily dismissed from The New Yorker was a splendid rehearsal for death; but my conviction that language is most fully realized when it is displayed on pieces of paper has not died, and I miss paper and my silver mechanical pencil very much.)

My research projects keep me quite busy (I am now investigating the origins of the semicolon, that ambivalent amalgam of the pause and the full stop, and the consequent tension it generates between the clauses it joins, or separates, as you will), but from time to time I pause to browse through issues of your (yes, “your”) magazine. Because I still harbor some hopes for the magazine’s future, I want to offer several observations, for whatever use you may make of them.

Let me begin on a positive note. I rejoice that those tiny boxes full of plump grapefruits, shapely pears, and thick steaks continue to appear in your advertising pages. In a recent issue, I noticed also a box of tomatoes that looked as big as grapefruit. Congratulations are due the business side of the house for attracting this account. Historically, the magazine’s fortunes have largely risen and fallen on the strength of such revenues.

That business is picking up is evident in the quality of the paper the magazine is now printed on. I hope you will not take offense if I mention that I always found paper of this weight and sheen repellent to the touch. Consequently, your selection of this paper as the physical medium by which The New Yorker is conveyed to its readers distresses my moral sensibilities. More seriously, it strikes me as directly counter to the magazine’s self-interest. Serving no functional purpose, such stock suggests an off-putting air of self-congratulation. This, in turn, places a burden on the text to be “up to” the paper—a burden that the text unfortunately does not consistently bear. Such heavy stock also suggests a hope that the magazine will appear weighty with advertising pages, to attract still more advertisers. I assure you that advertising agencies (at least those located in New York City) will not be fooled by this ruse.

Moving from tactile to olfactory considerations, I am deeply relieved that perfumed advertising inserts no longer assaults readers when they open these slick pages.

Visually, the magazine seems to have been seized by a kind of fit. However, I do not join those critics who say that it looks “tarted up.” While my first love has always been language (and more narrowly, punctuation), as editor, I faithfully adhered to the principle that every so often the reader needs some pictures to look at. It is rather a matter of degree: how many pictures? how vivid? how various? how big?

The photographs of celebrities are stunning—perhaps a bit too stunning. (Young people’s crude expression, “in your face,” comes to mind.) One turns a page unawares and is suddenly startled by one of these large, velvety, confrontational individuals. I make these annoying people go away by closing my eyes, or looking elsewhere, and turning to the next page; but I am an experienced editor, and not all of your readers may have as much presence of mind. There is something almost more indecent than nudity in such high resolution.

Many of the small pieces of art that crowd your pages are little gems, and their ephemeral nature lends them a poignancy that makes one reluctant to turn the page. But taken together, the array of graphic styles within a single issue can be bewildering. Harmony without monotony; energy without incoherence. How many times I invoked these goals myself! How elusive they are! With time, you will, I am sure, get a better grip on them.

(Note that in the italicized sentence above, the ambivalent quality of the semicolon perfectly mirrors the tension between the clauses it joins/separates, and indeed the tension within each clause. [Note, too, that inverting the word order within each clause (“Monotony without harmony; incoherence without energy.”) produces an oddly unpleasant inversion of meaning.] I may seem to digress, but it is this attention to detail that spared me the embarrassment you have occasionally suffered: typos.)

The cartoons are holding up pretty well. However, the garish captioned panels you have introduced in “Talk of the Town” disrupt the decorum of that section and generally prove too much work for too little reward. May they go the way of the perfumed inserts!

Of course, the covers cry out for comment. You must have guessed that some have been a bit too aggressive for my taste. On the other hand, their distinctiveness and energy have made me painfully aware of how bland and indistinguishable from each other many of our old covers were. When I close my tired eyes, I seem to see acres of suburban lawns with autumn leaves and rakes….

Now to matters of text. I like having the name of the author at the very front of the piece, right under the title. I wish I’d thought of that. And I don’t mind the summary sentences you’ve folded into the table of contents, although some hard-liners who resisted the introduction of a table of contents in the first place would say you are spoon-feeding readers by letting them know anything about what the magazine contains in advance of their reading it. Reminding readers of what the magazine has contained, as you did by printing an index of all material published in 1992, simply smacks of more self-congratulation.

“In the Mail,” for letters to the editor, seems as problematic in practice as it always did in theory. It’s a gracious gesture; but why would anyone bother reading what our readers write when they can read what our writers write? Encouraging your writers to write to the editor about each other’s pieces might help.

Even George Steiner confessed to me that he loved best the filler material that helped us reach the bottom of the page when a piece ended too soon and the business side was unable to come up with enough earring ads to fill the gap. (Have you noticed that those business people read the magazine by holding it half-closed and fanning the pages so that all they see are the right- and left-hand columns on which those little ads appear?) I am at a loss to understand why you have so drastically curtailed your use of material that unfailingly delighted everyone. I hope you were not irritated by the category “There’ll Always Be an England.”

The use of vulgar words in conversation has always made me uncomfortable, and seeing them written down makes me feel worse. I wish the magazine would demonstrate its mettle by tackling difficult issues instead of by displaying its street vocabulary. You might consider the example of a tough-minded writer like Edith Wharton (herself a New Yorker), who with an impeccable vocabulary displayed considerable muscle entirely through her exercise of intellect and sensibility.

I will forever maintain that descriptions of or allusions to sexual congress have no place in the pages of any magazine that may find its way into a dentist’s waiting room.

The suggestion of human emotion in some of your fiction (stories by Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore come to mind) is bracing after all that minimalism. Actually, it’s more: It feels true and brave. And some of your fiction writers, like Elizabeth Hardwick and Mavis Gallant, are daredevils—shooting the rapids stylistically without losing control. I like that. I do suggest that you discourage as many new writers as you can. The word processor has created a terrifying number of them and they threaten to flood editorial offices everywhere. To me, it makes more sense to keep encouraging the old writers to write better and better.

The long pieces you’ve run have been nice and long. You know I like that. But some of the short pieces have been too short. The medium-length pieces seem about right.

The poetry pretty well writes itself, don’t you think? About the columns, I have only a few remarks. I regret you let Holly Brubach get away; she finds riches in the subject of fashion that other writers never guess at. Adam Gopnick is talented, but covering that overheated art world carries an occupational hazard: He sometimes overwrites. I used to make writers with this problem sit on my couch for a few minutes every day to calm down. You may have your own techniques.

Some of the book reviews are too long, even for me; but I think Martin Amis’s appreciation of Philip Larkin was as morally fine and important as anything the magazine has ever published. Larkin tells me he liked it, too.

“Shouts and Murmurs,” as a predictably light and personal finale, is an appealing idea (although the title strikes my ear as empty), but most of the pieces on this page have seemed fey or flat. Bring back the belly laugh, I say! You might reprint some of James Thurber’s old pieces, if you can’t get better new material. (Your occasional practice of recycling old covers as drawings inside the magazine is an ingenious economy.)

Creative people whose work is displayed so visibly can create excruciatingly sensitive personnel problems, can’t they? For years, the magazine successfully avoided or at least muffled such problems by embracing what is now heralded as an exemplary Japanese corporate policy: employment for life. Most of our writers flourished, and those that didn’t had at least the distinction of being nominally affiliated with us and the comfort of being able to pay their bills.

With the “letting go” of Elizabeth Drew, you have shattered this sense of security. The consequences may prove insidious. Most immediately, Sidney Blumenthal must now live with the terrible knowledge that he gained his place because Drew was dethroned. Haunted by the guilt of a kind of matricide and by the specter of his own future unemployment if history repeats itself, he may never realize his full potential. And the lessons of his dark tragedy will not be lost on your other writers, by nature quick to find the larger meaning in events. On balance, letting superannuated writers linger on seems preferable to unleashing these furies.

I can’t resist offering one story idea: Vicki Hearne could apply her insights into animal behavior to those cat and dog cartoons that have proved so popular over the years. I suspect she’ll find a rich subject there.

And here’s a promotional idea you might pass along to the business side. (The widespread belief that I was insensitive to the business side was simply wrong. If anything, I was hypersensitive in vigilantly safeguarding our most valuable asset—the magazine’s integrity—from their marauding schemes. [A mild example: their “oil shill,” a proposal that Jonathan Schell write a flattering three-part profile of Exxon to induce it to advertise heavily with us.])

My promotional idea involves a bit of math. (I used a calculator.) When you consider that my accustomed lunch of a bowl of cereal at the Algonquin costs $3.95, and that a movie costs $7.50, your newsstand price of $1.95 makes the magazine one of the best bargains around. For a magazine intended to last a week, that works out to a mere 27.85714 cents a day.

The one-year subscription price works out to only 8.7912 cents a day, which falls to 7.14285 cents a day for a two-year subscription. The paper the magazine is printed on is alone worth more than that.

Of course, many subscribers keep the magazine around for several weeks and even months in vain hopes of reading it. For them, the magazine is practically free.

The businesspeople should point this out in their subscription solicitations. After all, selling a magazine through the mail is not as easy as selling grapefruit through a magazine, particularly this magazine. All those glossy ads for expensive watches and fancy cars create a halo effect that enhances the grapefruit; but a mailbox stuffed with junk mail promoting vinyl siding, hearing aids, and scratching posts for cats is a brutal environment for a polite letter from The New Yorker.

Perhaps the artists who are doing your covers should turn their hands to the direct-mail materials.

From this remove, I can only marvel at your prodigious energies. It must be quite taxing—striving week after week to devise yet more ways to make the magazine look different yet still recognizable. I’m sure I couldn’t have done it. But I can offer you a thought that often steadied me: A surprising number of people do read at least portions of the magazine. Week after week, they turn to it, trusting that it will earnestly explore matters of importance, illuminate matters of passing interest, and create delight from matters that are small.

It has been, finally, the quality of these readers rather than the quality of the paper the magazine is printed on or the vivacity of its graphics that has made The New Yorker great. Its readers have permitted it to be great.

I wish you well.


William Shawn

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Peter Hayes.