July 12, 2004,
In 1891, Henry James meditated on some of the difficulties newspapers and magazines faced in attempting to publish intelligent cultural criticism. Perhaps the chief difficulty revolved around the exigency of the deadline. "Periodical literature," James wrote,
is a huge, open mouth which has to be fed a vessel of immense capacity which has to be filled. It is like a regular train which starts at an advertised hour, but which is free to start only if every seat be occupied. The seats are many, the train is ponderously long, and hence the manufacture of dummies for the seasons when there are not passengers enough. A stuffed mannikin is thrust into the empty seat, where it makes a creditable figure till the end of the journey. It looks sufficiently like a passenger, and you know it is not one only when you perceive that it neither says anything nor gets out.
I try to remind myself of this extenuating passage whenever I am forced to ponder the cultural coverage at the New York Times. Imagine having to fill all those pages, day in and day out. No wonder a squadron of dummies is kept in reserve!
I should say at the outset that I more or less gave up reading the Times in any regular way at the conclusion of Lent a few years ago. Why continue the penance? I asked myself. I quickly found I was missing...nothing. Oh, sure, there is the odd outrage on the op-ed page, and a publicist on the arts page touting some particularly horrible specimen of artistic nullity. But all that could be garnered in two minutes on the Internet without besmirching one's hands or compromising one's pocketbook.
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