This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

June 11, 2001 — After years of effort — after all the manuscripts I'd stuck into all the large envelopes; after all the SASE's I'd stuck in after them; after all the cover letters pleading for a chance that I'd stuck in there, too — it was the announcement I'd been waiting for. Apparently, to get a story into the New Yorker magazine, what I should have been sticking in those envelopes was some cash.

Now, why hadn't I thought of that?

Yes, according to the May 8 edition of the industry e–newsletter PW Daily, to follow in the footsteps of Nabokov, Cheever, Updike and Salinger all you had to do was "ante up a premium ad fee. That's what it will take to buy an advertorial excerpt in the pages normally reserved for the superliterati."

These "advertorial excerpts," it seems, are the brainchild of the New Yorker's new publisher, David Kahn, who thought they might be attractive to publishers looking to promote new books. Even though he told PW Daily that the supplements would be labeled as ads, and would "go through the same minimal screening as any other ad," he also said there would be "no coordination with the editorial department." Kahn was clear about what he was really selling: The New Yorker's imprimatur.

"The idea of being able to excerpt your book in the New Yorker — I can't imagine a more appealing concept to publishers," Kahn explained. "It's as though Titleist was able to bind golf balls inside Golf Digest."

An analogy that will, no doubt, immediately quiet all those whiney bohemians who complain that the magazine has been taken over in recent times by yuppie philistines.

And Kahn certainly has a point — the New Yorker's imprimatur is worth something. Why, back when I was in the Famous Writers School, we would have sold our mothers down the river for a publication in the New Yorker. Get a story or poem in the New Yorker, and your chances of getting a book contract went from impossible to probable. Get a story in there from a forthcoming book and good sales and reviews were probable, too.

But that wasn't why we all aspired to be in it — we all aspired to be in it because it was the very height of American contemporary literature. The magazine not only published the short fiction greats I mentioned above, but also poets Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop. There was non-fiction from Rachel Carson and Hannah Arendt. A James Baldwin article on the Civil Rights movement — subsequently published as the book, "The Fire Next Time" — once took up an entire issue.

That was why we aspired to be in the New Yorker.

And even though the magazine now gives over entire issues to things like, er, fashion, well, it's still living, to a large extent, off the literary oomph it earned decades ago. In fact, news of the "advertorials" came out just after the magazine had won five National Magazine Awards for excellence.

So why do it? Kahn told PW Daily he was trying to improve on an editorial–page to ad–page ratio that, as the newsletter noted, was already an "unusually favorable" 60% editorial to 40% ads; Kahn wants to get it up to 50% ads.

It's already hard to tell the ads apart from the content in most contemporary magazines, and the New Yorker, the magazine that admits it barely even screens its advertising, is less and less of an exception. As for that content, much of what runs in the magazine now is already an excerpt from a book due out momentarily — in other words, not something self-generated by the magazine. In other words, somewhat of an ad already.

David Kahn's advertorial idea blurs the lines even further, and, apparently, was just too shameless even for the new New Yorker. Or was it?

The very next day, PW Daily reported that, despite all the straightforward quotes from Kahn saying otherwise, "it looks like the magazine will not be offering excerpt space to advertisers" after all. Speaking on behalf of the New Yorker was not new publisher Kahn but a spokesperson, who noted that "two pages of straight text will not be allowed." Instead, the first "advertorial excerpt" — purchased by Crown — would consist of a mix of blurbs, graphics and "book text." Decisions on what would be allowed in subsequent supplements would be made on a "case–by–case basis."

Hmm. God knows how many salivating publishers had called the New Yorker after reading David Kahn's original comments. God knows how many horrified fans of the magazine called in, too. And God knows what the difference is between an "excerpt" and "book text." But does that "case–by–case" door still look open to you?

I'd still stick a twenty in with that next poetry submission if I were you.

Last Week’s Column: THE WILKOMIRSKI AFFAIR It was one of the most acclaimed books ever written about surviving the Holocaust. So why did its publishers withdraw it from publication?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.