- Literate Zeal: Gender and the Making of a New Yorker Ethos by Janet Carey Eldred
This rhetorical history of literary editing at the New Yorker, and of women magazine editors in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, seeks to reframe histories of literary magazine labor. Drawing on a limited amount of scholarship, and a substantial amount of archival work (mostly on Katherine White, literary editor at the New Yorker for many years), Literate Zeal argues that we need to recover the work of women literary editors at magazines, without privileging a narrative of exceptionalism that stereotypes women literary workers as either outgoing radicals or simple conformists. Instead, we need to understand the "ordinariness" of this labor, since for "women rhetors . . . ordinariness offered both a point of identification and the possibility of enriched lives" (xiii). While the book does not provide an elaborated history of the articulation of literary writing to middle- and high-brow magazines, and so feels a bit vertiginous at times, this is a price paid for the advantage of discussing matters of grammatical style, editorial relations with sometimes crusty writers, and the working conditions for women at magazines, an investigation that is at times enlightening. The argument for ordinariness, which is in itself intriguing, is accompanied by an argument that many editors "committed themselves with missionary zeal to a publishing culture in which high American letters became something to be consumed alongside haute couture" (x). The overstatement (missionaries are generally subject to greater dangers than the witty barbs of Tom Wolfe) is a bit problematic but in line with the argument that people can be committed and industrious while remaining ordinary. The book is written in a clear style and provides a smart and mostly gentle examination of magazine editorial working conditions, especially those of women, punctuated by the occasional sharp jibe at academics and liberal elites. While it may be of most value to historians of the New Yorker, and of Katherine White, it does not do enough scholarly work to situate itself within magazine history, or within the history of women's literary labor, and so scholars in the field will not find it an essential read.
This problem is a curious one, and it starts with an odd rhetorical position. At numerous times throughout the text, Eldred complains about "liberal elites" who are never identified. For instance, the book claims it "counters a [End Page 192] liberal elitism—even more pronounced in the opening years of the twenty-first century—that assumes that women's magazines and literature are antithetical and thus ignores decades of women's editorial and literary achievements" (35). Eldred also claims the book will not be like standard trade accounts that depict editors as saints, nor will it be like standard scholarship: "Academic studies tend to veer in the opposite direction, depicting villains (or merely patsies) who compose not-so-little white lies and employ wholesale deception to sell a commercial gospel" (35). I cannot say what academic studies Eldred is referring to, partly because she does not do much work to identify them, but I can say that I have not read a substantial work of academic magazine history written in the past two decades that meaningfully resembles what Eldred describes. The effect is oddly like watching partisan news coverage and has no place in a serious work of scholarship. Moreover, all of the vague references to other "academic studies" make me long to reread Ellen Gruber Garvey, Janice Radway, and Richard Ohmann, among many others, and underscores the difference between their works and this one.
There are some interesting contributions here. The discussion of the relationship between Mademoiselle and the New Yorker, for instance, highlights the ideological connections (cultural, economic, gendered) that made magazines that seem now to be miles apart actually surprisingly similar. The discussion of the way women editors were read by colleagues and writers in terms of their clothes and bodies, too, engages a dimension of labor at magazines that is, indeed, not...