From bon mots to buzz words

About Town by Ben Yagoda (Duckworth, £20) | Nobrow by John Seabrook (Methuen, £9.99) | Slab Rat by Ted Heller (Abacus, £10.99)
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The Independent Culture

With a possible exception of the Church Commissioners, no commercial enterprise is so given to malice and feud as publishing. It thrives upon methods rooted in slander and hoodwink, which frequently broach a mania that, in more respectable trades, would not only be commercial suicide but bring their perpetrators a stint in the jail or asylum.

An editor, however, often finds that his folly has the headhunters in a frenzy. Sometimes, profligate muddle wins through. Heads turn in restaurants, egos are satisfied, and the scramble continues - all more entertaining than most company histories. Hunch has no rules.

The 500 pages of Ben Yagoda's About Town, his history of the New Yorker "and the world it made", chronicle Harold Ross's mere notion of starting a magazine of some sort after the Great War, through its beginnings, the edging towards its glory days and, briefly, their aftermath. A true opinion of all this would mean reading 3500 old magazines, which even Ben Yagoda has not quite done. But his nuts-and-bolts approach makes for a distinctly useful account of a magazine which, at its finest, produced seamlessly welded prose - for which it was criticised by those who feel that American writing should ooze blood onto the margins.

No polemic, but open to all opinions, Yagoda's sedulous chronicle stands on the increasingly long shelf of New Yorker books between the fawning of Brendan Gill's account and the recent bile of Renata Adler. It is a fit supplement to the biography of Ross by Thomas Funkell, who has recently edited his letters (a volume, like Adler's, not available over here).

Ross was rivalled only by the Hollywood mogul David Selznick for lobbing memos on everything. A mark of his success is that his name did not appear in the New Yorker until his obituary, a quarter-century later. In that time, the magazine had got better. It became funnier when shedding the Twenties topical bias; the great period was bounded by Ross giving over an issue to John Hersey's Hiroshima in 1946, and his successor William Shawn's quiet espousal of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Which is not to say that one does not equally relish its cartoons, so many of whose captions have become catchphrases (as in James Thurber's "all right, have it your way - you heard a seal bark").

Why have people over here taken so long to wake up to the genius of the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell? Yagoda quotes him: "Inside a fact is another fact, and inside that is another fact. You've got to get the true facts." Yagoda supplies many facts, and an eye for salient detail brings an essential air of truth. One need hardly mention such familiar figures as John Updike, Edmund Wilson, J D Salinger and Pauline Kael, but one is eager to seek out the stories of Gilbert Rogin, who was published regularly in the Sixties but, when two were rejected, fell victim to a continuing block.

The magazine refused to print the words "balding" and "pimples", and a poem by W D Snodgrass was rejected because it mentioned "dandruff". Kenneth Tynan referred to a pissoir and, after much argument, settled for "a circular curbside construction"; which, if used when seeking directions while matters pressed, would only increase the agony. Still, why edit if not to lay down the law? (I would ban the formula "because, or in spite of" and certainly strike out Yagoda's phrase "periodicals boomed in the period".)

The magazine can rightly point to E B White's note on Hitler's coming to power in 1933: "thus in a single day's developments in Germany we go back a thousand years into the dark". Janet Flanner's three-part, 1936 profile of Hitler began "Dictator of a nation devoted to splendid sausages, cigars, beer, and babies, Adolf Hitler is a vegetarian, teetoller, nonsmoker, and celibate." But why isn't Walter Bernstein's great collection of New Yorker war reporting, Keep Your Head Down, in print? Or Mollie Panter-Downes's record of wartime England?

The New Yorker never claimed to be all of American literature. Its strength lay in a particular collective confidence of judgement, something so lacking in the Nineties chronicled by the magazine's dismayed ex-staffer John Seabrook in Nobrow. His former editor, Tina Brown, was forever looking over her shoulder at what other people were doing and shovelling up more of the same. The result was that there were far fewer of Whitney Balliett's graceful jazz pieces and, instead, endless accounts of the O J Simpson trial which nobody will look at again.

Nobrow is an intermittently engaging muddle. Sassy (with allusions to Puff Daddy videos), it is also naively candid, never more so than in Seabrook's account of how - in his thirties - he was taken in hand, clotheswise, by his father, who has a Marcosian mania for suit-buying.

"Nobrow" is Seabrook's coining for a debased, megastore world in which PR drones boost the latest trumpery "sensation", something Tina Brown repeatedly mistook for true "buzz". Seabrook is fascinated by a world which appals him. He was coerced into writing a long, unnecessary piece about Star Wars, but Nobrow was printed before the recent disaster of Dorling Kindersley's tie-in product, against which the public held up a refusing palm.

The signs are that people will not be force-fed. Witness, say, the rejection of the New Labour "message" via Ken Livingstone, or the success of the Buena Vista Social Club. There is a taste for the genuine: for things more inspired than, say, Slab Rat, a novel about Zachary Post, a junior staffer one step up from grunt-work at a Manhattan magazine. It is the length of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop and Michael Frayn's Towards The End of the Morning combined, and one hardly need be J K Galbraith to mutter about the law of diminishing returns.

There are occasional neat touches, such as "She reads the Times, for Christ sake, and the New Yorker, which in a good week I only skim" or Richard Avedon's $4000 bill for taking an airhead's passport photograph at short notice. Yet an effort of will is required to do more than skim this account of the tangle that is office politics and sexual yearnings. Why did not a more proficient novelist advise that the first person is harder than it looks, as is the present tense; and, as for dialogue, the less said the better?

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