Ariel Levy's portrait of Nora Ephron as a romantic and a food-lover in this week's New Yorker is great, and you should go read it (only an abstract is online, for now, or I'd link). But I don't actually want to talk about Nora Ephron. Instead, I want to say that Ariel Levy has been an insanely terrific addition to the New Yorker staff, and to talk a little bit about why. And I want to do it because in an age when bloggers are the new celebrity journalists, and when discussions about the future of print media have alternately panicked and condescending, I think it's worthwhile to spotlight folks who are doing important things in print. I say important, being fully aware that Levy spends a lot of time writing about popular culture and fashion, when she isn't, say, filleting Cindy McCain or writing about feminist history. Raffi Khatchadourian's piece on military training and the Rules of Engagement in the same issue as the Ephron profile undoubtedly taught me more about current events and morals than Levy's piece did. But I think Levy is worth watching for two reasons, other than the fact that she has a great eye for an anecdote, she understands the intense gut-level where fashion and culture hit us, and she's a beautiful writer.
First, Levy is a good example of why diversity can help a magazine. She says in her piece on lesbian separatism from this March that she doubts that Lamar Van Dyke ever would have talked to her if she wasn't gay. That might sound like an outrageous claim, but having spent some time interviewing some of the gay rights old guard, I think she's probably correct. Not every story is going to be characterized by that you'll-get-it-or-not dichotomy, but I think it's worthwhile to say aloud that journalists from certain backgrounds and perspectives will get stories others won't. That doesn't mean that journalists can't immerse themselves in cultures that aren't theirs--the work James Fallows here at The Atlantic and Peter Hessler at The New Yorker have done in China is a great example of that kind of reporting. Observers' stories are valuable, and so are the stories of participants in communities written with a critical eye. Levy's hiring is a step in the direction of having more folks at the New Yorker who can do the latter.
Second, I think Levy is a writer who may end up doing interesting things with some of the basic New Yorker forms. When I interned at The Atlantic a while ago, I was doing some research for Scott Stossel on Dr. J that basically involved going out and reading every profile of the guy I could find. That led to something of an obsession with profiles, and I went and printed out every profile the New Yorker had run over the previous two years (SO sorry about the ink and paper costs, guys. I've tried to make it up to the company in productivity ever since.). Those profiles have an extremely definitive form: a long anecdotal introduction that introduces both the subject's personality and the reason they're profile-worthy now, an abrupt break that takes the reader back in time to the subject's childhood, a terrific kicker at the end. The formula is extremely effective: even when I know it's coming, I get jolted by the switch in time in every piece, and I'm always hungry to know what that fabulous summary line is going to be. It's a form that works particularly well in print, and would work less well converted to blog posts or a series published online, because if you break it up by sections, you lose the impact of the adjustment between them, and by the time you reach the kicker, the beginning of the piece is several days away.
And Levy kind of subverted the form this week. There's no sharp break to the past, and no discussion of Ephron's school years. Almost all personal discussion is kept in tight focus on Ephron and her sisters' art: the impact of her parents' dynamic, including his father's administering a lethal dose of sleeping pills to their mother, leads directly into a discussion of their novels. Ephron's divorce from Carl Bernstein comes almost exclusively up in discussion of the cultural impact of her novel Heartburn and the movie based on it (a contentious element in their divorce was whether Bernstein would be given script approval on the movie. Levy has a kicker, but she makes a sharp turn away from it before getting there, giving a wicked capsule review of Ephron's new movie Julie and Julia that references a line from one of Ephron's own profiles, of Dorothy Schiff. The review in and of itself is great, and that decision to make the diversion into the review, ends up producing a perfect kicker. The departures aren't radical, necessarily, but they're the mark of a writer making a form her own, and it's lovely to read.