Saturday, April 5, 2014

If you think some things are indescribable...

...Harold Ross, the legendary founder-editor of The New Yorker, would have told you that you've got another think coming. Read this passage from an absolutely brilliant, and brilliantly funny, book by Brendan Gill, who worked with the iconic magazine for 60 years:

I recall on one occasion writing a "Talk" piece [for the magazine's "Talk of the Town" section] about a man who had invented a toy that became, as toys will, a seven days' wonder; it was called a Zoomerang and it sprang into existence as a result of its inventor's having noticed that a certain kind of laminated paper used in adding machines and the like had a tendency, when stretched out and then released, to curl back tightly upon itself. Well! The toy itself was so unimportant and at the same time so difficult to give an accurate account of in words that for what must have been the first time in my career, and was certainly the last, I fell back upon applying to it that lamest of adjectives, "indescribable".

Ross was on the phone the moment he got my copy.

"Nothing is indescribable, Gill," he barked. (Ross had no difficulty turning "Gill" into a bark; moreover, he gave it the same ring of contempt that he gave the "god" in "goddamn".) "Send that damn toy down to me. I'll show you."

And so there appeared in the magazine a "Talk" piece in which Ross demonstrated to his satisfaction the triumph of the prose of reason, however lumpy, over the prose of intuition, however graceful.

The piece began: "The hottest novelty in the toy line this season is an article called the Zoomerang, which consists of a two-and-a-half-inch-wide strip of tough, resilient red, white, and blue paper attached to and wound around one end of a stick somewhat smaller than a pencil. Using the other end of the stick as a handle, you flick the wrist or flail the arm and whip the coil outward in an elongated spiral for a distance of up to eight feet. The paper then springs back into place (if all goes well and it doesn't get tangled up)."

The anticlimactic parenthesis is characteristic of Ross. It effectively drains much of the looked-for playfulness out of the piece by its earnest truth-telling. What had happened was that Ross, by then a grumpy man in his late fifties and one not regularly given to playing with toys, had felt obliged to experiment with the Zoomerang and had found that it didn't always work properly.

Who cared?

Why, Ross cared, of course. He would no sooner have withheld from the readers of The New Yorker the fact that the Zoomerang occasionally failed to recoil than he would have given them an inaccurate measurement of the height of the Washington Monument.

Ross clung to facts as a shipwrecked man clings to a spar.

And there you have it: Nothing is indescribable, not even the endeavours of a magazine editor who is attempting to show the ropes to an underling, as proved by that masterly passage by Brendan Gill (what an eloquent phrase Gill has given us: "the triumph of the prose of reason, however lumpy, over the prose of intuition, however graceful"). It is no wonder, then, that Here at The New Yorker is one of my prized possessions.
  • Many books have been written about Harold Ross. Here's a review of one of the best: "Genius in Disguise".
ALSO READ: In the New Yorker — "Citizens Jain: Why India's newspaper industry is thriving" and "The amazing books that made me fall in love with journalism all over again-1"

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