Even in 2016 there’s a lot of brave talk from newspaper and magazine publishers insisting their print products are not doomed, despite falling advertising revenue and circulation, quarterly announcements of layoffs and buyouts, and unconvincing arguments that they’re adapting to digital quite nicely. It’ll just be a matter of time, they say, before survival is assured.
In fairness, what else can they say? Yet it’s wishful thinking. After James Comey’s FBI stunner about Hillary Clinton last Friday, there was, of course, a social media fury, with partisans slugging it out, and, as Stephen Stills sang 50 years ago, “mostly saying hooray for our side.” I’ve no idea—and neither does anyone else who’s honest—how Comey’s last-minute announcement affects next week’s election, but I can just imagine the reaction of acclaimed author Thomas Mallon upon hearing the news. Mallon, whose historical novels Finale, Watergate, Bandbox, and Dewey Defeats Truman, among others, are hilarious romps through well-known eras, published an essay in the October 31 New Yorker headlined “Presumptive,” which speculated on how a historical novel of this campaign might be constructed. (He’s not volunteering, as he’s currently at work on a book about George W. Bush’s second term.)
Yet once Comey became the center of attention, Mallon’s piece was essentially obsolete. On the assumption of a Clinton victory, Mallon wrote that the central character had to be Hillary, as the most nuanced, bitter, and conflicted figure in the election. He said Donald Trump would be given short shrift because, “Trump lacks even the two-dimensionality required in a sociopath; the emotional range is as impoverished as the vocabulary.” No disagreement here, but if Trump does win on Nov. 8—far more of a possibility than when the story was written—Mallon’s hypothetical outline for Presumptive would be thrown in trash.
And that’s just a small example of how instantly dated weekly magazines can become when centering on political events. It’s one reason that I, a New Yorker subscriber since the 1980s, rarely get around to reading the magazine anymore, save for Anthony Lane’s film reviews and perhaps a short story. I’m not a fan of Ryan Lizza’s political slant, but he works hard, sometimes for months at a time on a story, but how many readers, even fellow subscribers, get around to his dispatches? It reminds me of Elizabeth Drew’s “Letter From Washington,” a staple in The New Yorker until Tina Brown, upon assuming editorship in 1992, wisely cut her off, certainly because her long essays were dated—and this is pre-Internet—and likely because Drew is such a boring writer.
Daily newspapers face the same hobgoblin: each morning I pick up The Wall Street Journal and New York Times from my curb, and, scanning the headlines, realize I’m already familiar with the stories from the afternoon or night before. Worse still, at 61, I was raised on print and stubbornly continue to subscribe to a number of publications; younger men and women, perhaps no less dedicated to reading, don’t; instead scrolling online for material of interest.
In Mallon’s story, he explains why Anthony Weiner wouldn’t rate much space in Presumptive: “The temptation to add to this cohort Anthony Weiner, another minor character with a manna-from-heaven name and career story is overwhelming… but he doesn’t get a callback for something like the opposite reason of the one excluding Kaine and Pence: Weiner is the sort of character who could run away with the book. Moreover, his once farcical story has recently taken a dark and creepy turn with those texts to an underage girl; if all he can offer, instead of comic relief, is more misery and loathing, we don’t want him.”
Scratch! Now that Weiner, perhaps the only man in America who tops Trump for sheer grossness, is a key figure in the FBI investigation of Clinton’s emails, he’d have to, and I think Mallon would agree, take a role in Presumptive. Perhaps the worst news for Clinton, rather than the hard-to-understand workings of the FBI, is Weiner’s mug (and sexts) now reprised in the media, and the thought that he had access to then-wife Huma Abedin’s computer, and Hillary’s emails, has caused serious Democrats across the country to dirty their drawers.
At least for Thomas Mallon, this sudden change in the political environment was a “Nuts, my story doesn’t work now” moment, but he’ll be paid a handsome fee, and get on with his writing. But for The New Yorker, it’s a clear sign that its days as a “must-read” are over.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955