Long-form reporting in the New Yorker

In his profile

of Larry David in this week’s New Yorker, James Kaplan finishes with an

anecdote. David is sitting in his editing suite, working on a scene where he

gets egged by a carful of teenagers. He can’t work out whether to cut to the

teenagers driving away, or to leave the camera lingering on his egged face.

"I don’t know," David says. "I mean, it’s kind of

fun to see them drive away. On the other hand, it’s fun to see that egg.”

That anecdote, as I just wrote it, takes 68 words to tell. In the magazine,

as Kaplan writes it, it takes 439 words. We learn who’s operating the Avid machine,

and what he’s wearing. We learn the colour and brand of the director’s shoes.

We learn that Avid systems involve both a keyboard and a mouse. We inwardly

scream "get on with it, already!" about half a dozen times.

The New Yorker prides itself on its in-depth features, and the fact that it

is able to devote a lot of space to subjects which in any other magazine would

be drastically truncated. Increasingly, however, I’ve found the magazine devoting

equal amounts of space to subjects which desperately need truncating. We learn

virtually nothing about Larry David in this 6,559-word article, which probably

earned Kaplan a good $20,000.

Weirdly, the piece actually feels brutally truncated in places. We follow David

and Jerry Seinfeld into an NBC meeting where they pitch a sitcom, for instance.

We’re told that "At first, the idea was to have two comedians walking around

in New York, making fun of things, and in between you’d have standup bits."

The NBC people didn’t like it – and next thing we know, the show’s been

going for three seasons.

Kaplan also doesn’t seem to have a clue how much technical knowledge he expects

us to have. One minute we’re expected to know the difference between a one-camera

sitcom and a three-camera sitcom; the next we’re being told how many frames

of video there are per second.

David’s show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, is incredibly self-aware, doing a magnificent

job at skewering the hubris of television types in Hollywood. Yet when its director

launches into hyperbole – something which I’m sure was accompanied by

no small measure of sarcasm in real life – Kaplan simply reprints his

comments verbatim, making him look like just another LA asshole with no sense

of perspective.

The show’s pivotal moment came in the third season, in 1991. Charles

remembers walking with David from the “Seinfeld” offices in Studio

City up to Fryman Canyon to try to break a story: the library-cop episode,

in which Jerry is investigated for keeping a book out for twenty years. “We

had a couple of strands, and I don’t know if it was the oxygen from

the walking, but we were very exhilarated,” Charles said. “We

went, ‘What if the book that was overdue was in the homeless guy’s

car? And the homeless guy was the gym teacher that had done the wedgie? And

what if, when they return the book, Kramer has a relationship with the librarian?’

“Suddenly it’s like—why not? It’s like, boom boom

boom, an epiphany—quantum theory of sitcom! It was, like, nobody’s

doing this! Usually, there’s the A story, the B story—no, let’s

have five stories! And all the characters’ stories intersect in some

sort of weirdly organic way, and you just see what happens. It was like—oh

my God. It was like finding the cure for cancer.”

It seems clear, from reading the piece, that Kaplan never really got what the

New Yorker editors had hoped for when they sent him off to spend a bunch of

time with Larry David and talk to the people around him. Yet after investing

all that time and effort, the magazine evidently felt that it had to publish


Critically, that’s where the general rules of the New Yorker feature well became

a large liability. This is a profile, it’s appearing in the New Yorker, and

New Yorker profiles run between 5,000 and 10,000 words. More, if they’re Joe

Klein on Bill Clinton. Even if the amount of substance in the piece would best

be conveyed in a 1,500-word "Larry David’s show is back on TV, here’s a

little story about him" piece, the New Yorker evidently feels incapable

of doing that.

So we end up with vast amounts of ill-constructed padding. "“Seinfeld”

was scherzo, its fun stemming from the constantly shifting play among its troupe

of four," we’re told. "David’s new form was" – and

here, of course, one expects another musical metaphor, to close the circle.

It never comes: "David’s new form was simpler and starker".

I’ve worried, recently,

about the front of the book; now I’m worried about the features. The New Yorker

under David Remnick is certainly very good at timeliness, and covers foreign

affairs magnificently. Newsier subjects in general are excellently done. But

the kind of thing the New Yorker is famous for – long articles about people

and subjects you didn’t know you might ever be interested in – have been

very weak for a long while. No one cares about John McPhee’s fish, and, as TMFTML

so eloquently put

it, "enough with the fucking bags already" when it comes to picaresque

tales of picking up litter.

We’re told that the New Yorker has recently moved into the black, after costing

Si Newhouse some exorbitant amount of money – much of which went on catering

to Tina Brown’s every whim. It would be a great shame, however, if financial

success came at the expense of the great long-form reporting in which the magazine

specialises. Weak long-form reporting is no replacement.

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5 Responses to Long-form reporting in the New Yorker

  1. jame says:

    I hate those McPhee fish stories. I tried to get through one in my earlier days of subscribing to the New Yorker. I figured it was Culture and I would be an Ignorant Boob if I didn’t give it a shot. After about three pages, I decided to watch a cop reality show on Fox instead.

  2. ben says:

    Your point about New Yorker profiles is worthy, if overlong. (Ha ha, only kidding.) I’m a New Yorker subscriber; I find myself thinking often about starting a magazine to provide them with some competition. Their self assurance has aged into something approaching self indulgence. I recall all that baloney about the ‘Newyorkistan’ cover; every issue issuing injunctions to give them 500 clams for a colour photocopy in a bad frame. And every second or third ad is for Humvee or Philip Morris, usually wedged between excoriating articles on same. At 33, I’m at an uncomfortable age for reading. Nothing really fits. Does anyone know of a magazine that’s like the New Yorker but for a somewhat more restless mind? Would anyone care to start one? Bueller?…Beuller?…anyone?

  3. Felix says:

    Ben, I think I might have .

  4. Ben Dover says:

    Larry’s subtle method of mixing mentally retarted individuals with an islamic woman in a berka is pure comic genius. What does he mean to say by this coy mix of symbols?

    I just wanted to say that the show is a bit off this year so far.

    Come on Larry, I know you have it in you!

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