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New Yorker, New Yorker

August 2012

  • David Knight

The Melbourne Writers Festival will bring a taste of New York’s celebrated magazine The New Yorker to the southern hemisphere.

A gathering of editorial staff from the 87-year-old publication will be in Melbourne to discuss criticism, art and The New Yorker itself, which we discover from the magazine’s music critic Sasha Frere-Jones is now two different beasts with its website more than complementing the print version.

Famous for its think-pieces on everything from politics to pop culture; essays, satire, its cartoons, reviews and fiction, The New Yorker remains one of the globe’s premier general interest magazines. It has a circulation over a million and has one of the highest re-subscription rates in the industry despite the internet’s war chant supposedly sounding print’s death knell. Frere-Jones, who started at The New Yorker in 2004, will be appearing with art critic Peter Schjeldahl, staff writer David Grann, cartoonist Roz Chast and the editorial director Henry Finder for the keynote event ‘An Evening with The New Yorker’. There will be 13 other New Yorker related events at the festival with Frere-Jones joining former Go-Betweens singer and songwriter, and The Monthly columnist, Robert Forster, on a panel, with Frere-Jones saying he is a “huge Go-Betweens fan”.

 Despite a recent scandal that saw staff writer Jonah Lehrer resign from The New Yorker for making up Bob Dylan quotes for his Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published book, Imagine: How Creativity Works (after Lehrer recycled his own work from other publications for blog posts), The New Yorker is infamous for its fact checking, as 16 fact checkers were employed at the magazine in 2010. Frere-Jones says the magazine’s website is another beast, which has infinite potential with its blogs, instant reporting and analysis of global events such as Bin Laden’s death and, on the entertainment side, the death of Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch.

 “These two different things operating under roughly the same rules, but not exactly, will co-exist,” Frere-Jones explains. “That will be really interesting to watch because the magazine isn’t going to change much and I don’t think anybody really wants it to.”

Frere-Jones adds that the magazine is unpredictable despite its eternal and much satired style and iconic emblem – the dandy gentleman with the top hat and monocle, which appeared on the cover of the inaugural magazine in 1925. 

“If you look at the scope of the magazine, not that you have three weeks to set aside, but if you go though the magazine from the 20s especially up to the 50s, 60s and 70s, it’s sometimes an extremely odd magazine,” Frere-Jones continues. “It’s hard to stereotype The New Yorker.

“There are all sorts of thumbnail ideas about what the magazine is and isn’t and aside from the care and attention to language, which I think people assume and it is true, there are a lot of misconceptions. There are also misconceptions about how tightly things are overseen. The really magical thing about working here is that once you’ve proven that you know what you are doing, writers are given a phenomenal amount of freedom and then there is this astonishing support system.”

The music critic is excited about the music he is hearing this year, citing Frank Ocean’s Planet Orange, Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music and Nas’ Life is Good as three recent long players continuing the album’s relevance in the 21st century. He says Frank Ocean’s gift is “major” and thinks the 23-year-old Odd Future member has created the album of the year. Also, albums like Ocean’s dismiss the whole ‘music was better in the 60s’ argument, which is often highlighted when magazines such as Rolling Stone publish their greatest records of all time editions.

“I love that magazine to death but when they put out these special edition 500 Greatest Albums and there’s Sgt. Pepper’s number one – why? How did rock’n’roll become such a conservative force? Do things not change? Wasn’t the point that we were going to burn this house down every five years, do you really need to have a piece of paper saying that? I think the album will be fine if you didn’t say that again. In the historical context, is it [Sgt. Pepper’s] the greatest album of all time? We don’t live in amber. Times change. I don’t want to fucking hear that record. And that was literally the very first record I became obsessed with… Sgt. Pepper’s was my first pop record and I listened to it when I was a kid, and it was as great people say it is. We know it’s great. But is it still the greatest record in the world in 2012? I don’t think so. Do we not ever change our opinions?”

Frere-Jones adds he would put D’Angelo’s 2000 neo soul classic Voodoo“way above Sgt. Pepper’s”.

“If you racked up the number of listens, the first three Wire records are better for me, Biggie’s [Notorious B.I.G.] Ready to Die or by the end of the year, I would have listened to Channel Orange more than probably most Marvin Gaye records.”


Melbourne Writers Festival

August 23 to September 2


Photo: Sasha Frere-Jones 2012 (c) Nikola Tamindzic



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