The Point Podcast

Selected Essays | Christian Lorentzen on George Trow

April 11, 2023 The Point Magazine Season 1 Episode 3
Selected Essays | Christian Lorentzen on George Trow
The Point Podcast
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The Point Podcast
Selected Essays | Christian Lorentzen on George Trow
Apr 11, 2023 Season 1 Episode 3
The Point Magazine

On this episode of The Point podcast, we’re introducing a new series called “Selected Essays”—about essays you should read but probably haven’t. Jess Swoboda and Zach Fine talk to the critic Christian Lorentzen about George Trow’s “Within the Context of No Context,” an essay that took up almost an entire issue of the New Yorker in 1980, and they revisit Christian’s cover story from the April 2019 issue of Harper’s, “Like this or Die: The Fate of the Book Review in the Age of the Algorithm”—which was partially inspired by Trow’s essay.

Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of The Point podcast, we’re introducing a new series called “Selected Essays”—about essays you should read but probably haven’t. Jess Swoboda and Zach Fine talk to the critic Christian Lorentzen about George Trow’s “Within the Context of No Context,” an essay that took up almost an entire issue of the New Yorker in 1980, and they revisit Christian’s cover story from the April 2019 issue of Harper’s, “Like this or Die: The Fate of the Book Review in the Age of the Algorithm”—which was partially inspired by Trow’s essay.

Jess Swoboda  00:04

Hey everyone, welcome to Selected Essays, a podcast series from The Point magazine about essays you should read, but probably haven't. Each episode we'll be talking with writers about an essay that's influenced one of their own. My name is Jess Swoboda, and I'm here with my co-host Zach Fine.


Zach Fine  00:22

Hey, today we'll be talking with Christian Lorentzen about George Trow's essay "Within the Context of No Context," which took up nearly an entire issue of the New Yorker magazine when it was published in 1980. The essay has been described as a fever dream of media criticism. It's composed of a series of subtitled fragments that are about the effects of television on American culture, but the essay is also about the state of magazines, celebrity, childhood, power, alcoholism and the 1964 World's Fair. It's a sprawling piece of cultural criticism that feels like it's trying to gather everything in America into a single document. As you hear from the excerpts that Christian reads, it's also a really unusual piece of writing a sort of incantatory prose poem as much as an essay, it's considered by some writers is one of the strangest things the New Yorker ever published, though Christian didn't totally agree with that assessment. Christian knows a lot about the history of media and is a veteran of the magazine world, he was associated with n+1 for many years, and has done stints at Harper's and the London Review of Books. And he writes criticism for a range of publications. He also recently debuted as an actor in the play Dimes Square.


Jess Swoboda  01:25

We hope you'll enjoy this episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments or anything else, send an email to We'd love to hear from you.


Christian Lorentzen  01:43

Is it bad to eat crackers during the podcast? Maybe?


Zach Fine  01:48

I think it's fair game.


Christian Lorentzen  01:50

Okay, I won't try to obsequiously crunch.


Jess Swoboda  01:54

Maybe don't eat them while you're speaking because that…


Christian Lorentzen  01:56

Yeah, no. I'll try not to.



Can you at least tell us what kind of crackers are eating? What's the—what's the brand here?


Christian Lorentzen  02:05

I'm from the Eighties. Ritz


Zach Fine  02:08

Oh, Ritz—plain, the original?


Christian Lorentzen  02:10

Yeah. Yeah. The kind with salt.


Jess Swoboda  02:15

I really like those ones with peanut butter.


Zach Fine  02:17

Oh, yeah those are really good.


Christian Lorentzen  02:18

I used to just put the peanut butter on them myself. 


Jess Swoboda  02:21

No, that's yeah, that's what I do. 


Christian Lorentzen  02:23

I thought it was a little cheap when they started doing that for you. Um, yeah, so I got my Cherry Coke. Got my club soda.


Zach Fine  02:34

You alternate. 


Jess Swoboda  02:35

You're ready to go. Now you're done with the club soda?


Christian Lorentzen  02:38

Club soda's pretty kicked. Like two days old, just sitting by my bed. I've had a cold so I'm sorry. I'm not. It was bad a couple of days ago. Now it's pretty much—I should get over. But you know. How are you guys doing?


Jess Swoboda  02:57

Yeah, fine.


Zach Fine  02:58

We're hanging in there. Um, I'm in England right now. So it's it's nighttime.


Christian Lorentzen  03:02

Oh, yeah. I used to live there. Yeah, where…?


Zach Fine  03:06

Deborah Friedell was here a few weeks ago when we were talking about you.


Christian Lorentzen  03:09

That's nice. I haven't seen her in a while. 


Zach Fine  03:12



Christian Lorentzen  03:12

I had a dream in which she should have been one of the characters but I haven't seen her in, like, three years now. So her role was played by Merve Emre, who I had had coffee with a few days earlier. I was out—I was out to lunch with Mary-Kay Wilmers and Merve. They were—it was a nightmare in which Mary-Kay took me out to lunch in order to tell me that my piece in the last LRB of last year, or the first one of this year, whatever it was, about Cormac McCarthy was too nice. And Merve was like, "Yeah, it was," and then I woke up and I was like, that should have been Deborah in that dream role, but I hadn't seen her in a while.


Zach Fine  04:02

Was that Deborah's role to tell you that you're being too nice?


Christian Lorentzen  04:05

No, no, they, you know, if that was true, that they wouldn't have printed the piece.


Jess Swoboda  04:13

Well, thanks for joining us, Christian.


Christian Lorentzen  04:15

Thanks for inviting me.


Zach Fine  04:17

I was wondering if we could start with maybe you telling us a little bit about what the essay is about if it's about anything.


Christian Lorentzen  04:25

George Trow was born in 1943. And I see the essay as an attempt to create a framework and vocabulary for understanding the changes that America was undergoing during his lifetime. And both in terms of and especially the effects of media and technology on the country and its people and the way they looked at themselves. I've come to more and more think that the book, in that sense is of a piece with Christopher Lasch's late-seventies book The Culture of Narcissism, and Don DeLillo's book from five years later, White Noise. And so, television and magazines, and media and cultural artifacts and analysis of such artifacts is central to Trow's method. And he works through these ideas in a poetic and aphoristic style, that creates a, that creates a vocabulary that becomes native to the essay itself. And works more and more, the further along you go within the essay. If you were coming to it cold, even though it appeared taking up, I think of an entire issue, almost, of a New Yorker, or most of an issue of the New Yorker, it would be strange to you to receive "Within the Context of No Context" out of context, shall we say. It creates its own context. And that I think is part of its beauty and power.


Jess Swoboda  06:41

And is there anything going on in Trow's life at the time that's especially notable?


Christian Lorentzen  06:47

Well, let's see. Trow, as he lays out in the introduction was from a kind of old, New York slash New England Wasp family that had been involved in one way or another in the printing business or in journalism for several generations. He himself went to Exeter and then Harvard. And then he was a writer for the Harvard Lampoon, then in the Seventies for the National Lampoon. He was also a playwright. He was gay, and his partner was a guy named Timothy, I think his name is in here—I looked up his obituary earlier. Timothy S. Mayer, who was a theater director, writer of musicals, also a songwriter who collaborated with James Taylor and Donald Fagan of Steely Dan, and died of lung cancer at the age of 44 in the late Eighties—so in between the composition of "Within the Context of No Context" and the composition of "Collapsing Dominant." 


Jess Swoboda  08:07

Oh, okay. 


Christian Lorentzen  08:08

That was his partner, Timothy Mayer. Trow—in the Seventies Trow was a frequent writer for the Talk of the Town section of New York City and a real kind of downtown figure. He was very close to the New Yorker writer Jamaica Kincaid, who he brought to the magazine. His other, he wrote a lot of great New Yorker pieces. There's a great profile, he wrote a Sly Stone. There's a magnificent profile he wrote of Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun, which was a result of several years of reporting and research, whether that was because he did do a lot of reporting on it. But in those days, writers were just allowed to conduct very long-term projects for the New Yorker that would result in these very elaborate portrait profiles. He was connected to the people who created Saturday Night Live, especially Michael Donahue, who was one of the more avant-garde of the original Saturday Night Live writers. Later, he has a few other books. One is, he wrote a novel called The City in the Midst, which has two halves, that is historical. First half set in the nineteenth century, and then I think, a much weaker second half set in sort of contemporary Manhattan cafe society, or then-contemporary Manhattan Cafe Society. He has a collection of New Yorker casuals—so sort of humorous short stories that are in between short story and what we know know as Shouts and Murmurs, called "Bullies," that's very good, genius, really. And he wrote us kind of sequel to "Within the Context of No Context" in, I think, 1996 called "My Pilgrim's Progress," which is also a very good book and quite important to me. He lived on, I think, into his early sixties and died in Italy, sometime during the Bush administration.


Zach Fine  10:38

Could you maybe read the beginning of the essay for us, starting from the top?


Christian Lorentzen  10:43

I was thinking I would go from the first paragraph. To not—I wasn't going to do "Collapsing Dominant," if you're working with that edition. In the edition from the Nineties, it's within—it's the original essay plus a forty-page essay that he wrote in the Nineties. Which is very good and useful, but I figured I would go from wonder on page 43, to no good has come of it on page 45.


Jess Swoboda  10:57

Sounds good.


Zach Fine  11:10

Let me see—wonder. Okay, yeah, at the end of television, okay. Got it. 


Christian Lorentzen  11:22



Christian Lorentzen  11:23

Wonder, wonder was the grace of the country. Any action could be justified by that. The wonder it was rooted in. Period followed period. And finally, the wonder was that things could be built so big. Bridges, skyscrapers, fortunes, all having a life first in the marketplace, still drew on the force of wonder. But then a moment's quiet, what was it now that was built so big, only the marketplace itself. Could there be wonder in that? The size of the con? History, that movement from wonder to the wonder that a country should be so big, the wonder that a building could be so big, to the last, small wonder that a marketplace could be so big, that was the movement of history, then there was a change, the direction of the movement paused, that silent for a moment and then reversed. From that moment, vastness was the start, not the finish. The movement now began with the fact of 200 million, and the movement was toward a unit of one, alone. Groups of more than one, we're now united not by a common history, but by common characteristics. History became the history of demographics, the history of no history. Powerful men, the most powerful men were those who most effectively used the power of adult competence to enforce childish agreements. Television, television is the force of no history, and it holds the archives of the history of no history. Television is a mystery. Certain of its properties are known, though. It has a scale. The scale does not vary. The trivial is raised up to the place where the scale has its home. The powerful is lowered there. In the place where this scale has its home, childish agreements can be arrived at and enforced, effectively. Childish agreements and agreements wearing the mask of childhood.


Zach Fine  13:50

In 1997, in a new intro to the essay, Trow says that, "I think the central formulation was correct, that it was the role of television to establish the context of no context, and then chronicle it. And I think that's what happened." Can you help us understand what he means there by the context of no context? And how would television in particular chronicle that?


Christian Lorentzen  14:16

I'm not a historian of television personally, but I've watched enough of it to have some ideas about what he means when he says that. And there's like a—there's a passage late in the proper essay, where he gets around to that line, but he also says that, you know, daytime television, by which he means soap operas, is the power of, or is the context of loneliness. And then, and talk shows themselves are the context of no context, that chronicle that context, that no context. He's there's a scene where he's flipping the channels and he sees actually my friend, Gary Indiana, at a very young age being interviewed about an avant-garde film, a video he made, in which he describes himself engaging in a sex act while another character is shown tap dancing. Gary's—I know Gary has always taken somewhat of offense at that, at that appearance in this essay, but I think if you go on to, at that point Trow would have considered Gary, Trow being this kind of old school Wasp, who yet was born in 1943 and was somewhere in between, you know, he's a habitue of Max's Kansas City. And he knew like the Warhol Factory people, yet he worked for the New Yorker, but he was always hanging out at like the Yale Club or whatever. He had his feet, both in the establishment and in downtown. And even though when he talks about punk art as the aesthetic of excrement, or whatever, he notices that there's a sophistication to the protest, and the putting shit on the wall and making intricate designs out of it. I'm getting away from the idea of the "context of no context." But I think, even though it's not the vocabulary he uses, often what Trow is talking about is a revolution in marketing and advertisements, and consumerism. Right? And, essentially, television is the consumerist medium because for most of its history, it was funded by advertisements, right? And the point of even a sitcom or drama, was to get you to buy soap. Obviously, that model has changed now, although I know prestige TV writers who still will deprecate themselves, ironically, as soap salesmen. Um, but the point—because the point of television was to get you to buy soap or to get you to buy whatever, the secondary point of it was to keep watching. Was to get you to keep watching. And he has a brilliant line where he's talking about a talk-show host interviewing a celebrity, and giving the viewer the illusion of—the host giving the viewer the illusion of access to that celebrity and the context of their lives. But in fact, all the host is doing is giving the celebrity access to the viewer, because it's another form of marketing. A lot of what Trow is writing about, which is a subject he shares, as I said, with Lasch and DeLillo are to do with the warping of human character under the forces of marketing, consumption and consumerism. And the particular model of capitalism that emerged in America, especially after the war and the dawn of television was that the population would primarily be thought of as consumers rather than as producers.


Jess Swoboda  18:54

He's really capturing the onset of the attention economy and the blight of it on on us as individuals, as well, throughout this essay.


Christian Lorentzen  19:03

Yeah, he's—at one point he talks about people who had experience of life before the First World War as people who, whose idea of the landscape was that of the real landscape and of books, which is to say they experienced life before radio, and television, and all electric media. So I don't know I just try to keep that in mind in my life.


Jess Swoboda  19:39

How would you describe the tone of the piece? Is it contempt? Is it exhaustion? Is it bitterness? I know in the 1997 intro, he describes retrospectively the mix of entitlement and feverishness in the essay.


Christian Lorentzen  19:56

Yeah, I mean, well, you can't just count his sort of semi-aristocratic background which, you know, translated to working at a very tony and coveted position at the New Yorker, palling around at Exeter with the son of the mayor of New York City. So I suppose you could call it prophetic, you could call it declinist. I mean, it's hard not to see it as being declinist. But it also, there's also a coldness to it that I think is simply trying to describe and understand changes that have—that there's no denying happened within his lifetime. And going back, you know, in terms of like—and he also says that… I mean, he's not entirely against the way that the world was changing. In that introduction, he also talks about how in 1957, when he was thirteen, the big movie for guys like him, and later, guys like me, was The Sweet Smell of Success, which is kind of almost like a Hobbesian state of nature sadistic vision of Manhattan media power playing between this powerful gossip columnist played by Burt Lancaster, and kind of groveling publicist played by Tony Curtis. And I think he describes his own generation, as, you know, ushering out that world towards a society that was fairer, while perhaps mourning the loss of some of its happier aspects. So, I guess, I mean, another word for it might be an elegiac vision of the world of his father, and his forefathers, but also, he has a vision of America that takes into account the fact that, you know, African Americans have been in this country as long as or longer than the Wasps that he was born from. And that the—I mean, there's a very powerful passage where he kind of, like, in a scene from Harvard in the 1960s, he kind of anticipates all the privilege checking of the present. When a African American student points out that, says something like Rembrandt belongs to the white students in the class. And they all admit that they have had historical privilege or whatever, or power. And he says that what was flowing through them wasn't white guilt so much as white euphoria. But it was a very superficial feeling, because these guys were rather uneducated. And so they were able to take pride in the association. But if you ask them the meaning of Rembrandt, they would have been lost and embarrassed if they had to explain it in intellectual terms. Which I think is—you can look at the way the right today tries to appropriate, you know, the power of Western civilization or whatever, and it's equally superficial and ultimately embarrassing.


Zach Fine  24:14

So what do you think his vision for a kind of better American culture looks like? So he's partially nostalgic, looking back to his dad's generation, his grandfather, who was also in the newspaper business, but you're saying that he has the kind of a more updated kind of politics particularly as it relates to race?


Christian Lorentzen  24:31

Well, he, yeah, no, he, I mean, he, I think he just, he could see it happening and see that it was changing. And he, I think that he… So the title of the introduction, right, is "Collapsing Dominant." So the idea and he expands on that idea in "My Pilgrim's Progress," the book he wrote around the time that this book was reissued like 1996 by saying that like with an idea of something called "the assumed dominant mind," right? So the assumed dominant mind of like 1952 was the front page of the New York Times. But he says, in 1996, the assumed dominant mind over the culture is MTV. Right? So I think Trow is savvy and he has, he's, he's in this, he's nostalgic, but he's savvy enough to know that things change. He's part of those changes. He can't wear a fedora the way his father used to wear a fedora, he'd have to wear it ironically. His game is to observe those changes, and analyze them and describe them accurately rather than to mourn the passing of things that are lost, or try to prescribe and shape a future that he'd be powerless to shape. I personally feel that same way about the future, right? I feel like whenever I see my fellow old Gen Xers panicking about children or whatever, I'm just like, the young people are going to reshape the world the way they want to, and they should be able to, you know, as long as I can still have my Ritz crackers and my Coke and my cigarettes.


Jess Swoboda  26:34

And your club soda, don't forget.


Christian Lorentzen  26:36



Jess Swoboda  26:37

Club soda.


Zach Fine  26:38

Wait, can ask about the fedora for a second? You know, the essay ends on the fedora, and you're saying he wears it ironically…?


Christian Lorentzen  26:46

I'm saying he can't wear it—in his own lifetime in the 1970s, right?, you can't wear a fedora. It's impossible for him to wear a fedora in any way but ironically. Like, if you think of like David Bowie in the Thin White Duke or whatever. That's an image note without irony. The next time you see a fedora worn in the culture is probably 1983 with Indiana Jones. But that it's not ironic, per se, but it's definitely in quotes. Because it's a quote of Steven Spielberg's fifties youth that Spielberg and Trow being not exactly but roughly of the same generation.


Jess Swoboda  27:35

I wonder now if we can turn to the second passage that you selected.


Christian Lorentzen  27:39

Sure, this is more directly focused on media. Okay, this is the first of several sections that begin under the headline "Magazines in the Age of Television": Magazines are based on agreements. Some of these agreements are simple. This magazine will report on events in the world of tennis. Some of these agreements appear for a moment to be simple, but are not. This magazine will report on events in the world of tennis, but will but will but will but will do more. In the second instance, you look at the agreement and you see simple words, "report" and "tennis," the rest is hard to follow. There is a modification, a little dance and a promise. It is seductive, possibly, and a little nervous. What is the real agreement to which the reader is asked to subscribe? Maybe it is this: this magazine will appear to report on events in the world of tennis. But it will—but will in fact strive to make the reader envy and seek to emulate a certain group of people who will be made to appear to be at ease in the world of tennis. Maybe it is even this: this magazine will seek to make its readers uncomfortable by the calculated use of certain icons associated with tennis, so that the readers will turn for comfort to the products advertised in our pages and buy them. To edit a magazine that seeks to report objectively on events in the world of tennis is not ambitious, perhaps, but it is not ungenerous. The editors will share with their readers some knowledge that the readers do not possess. The transaction is straightforward: money and attention from the reader, knowledge from the editors. If the transaction is completed successfully, month after month, year after year, a beneficial thing will occur. A rhythm and a trust will be established between the editors and the readers. And both groups will begin to bring more to the exchange than they did at the start, which is to say that each will bring the history of the relationship to the relationship as it unfolds. For the editors, the gift of history will be the natural formation of a certain authority. For the readers, the gift will be the comfort of trust, nothing like this will occur in the case of the magazine based on a deceptive or convoluted agreement. In this case, no natural context will grow, because the nature of the real transaction cannot be revealed without endangering the context of false authority, which the editors have sought to establish. There are very few simple magazines now. That is very few magazines that seek to establish a simple, honorable agreement with the reader.


Zach Fine  30:55

Just the focus on magazines there and thinking about where this was originally published in 1980 in the New Yorker…


Christian Lorentzen  31:02



Zach Fine  31:03

And Trow's relationship with with William Shawn, I think something that I'm just struck by reading the essay a couple of times is—I just can't figure out how it made it into the magazine at the length that it did. 


Christian Lorentzen  31:17



Zach Fine  31:17

And thinking about this essay in terms of what the New Yorker has published elsewhere, you know. So Ariel Levy, in a piece about Trow, says that it's the most extreme work of nonfiction that the New Yorker ever published. And I'm just wondering what you think about why this made it in its kind of current form into the magazine.


Christian Lorentzen  31:38

I think that she's right, to a certain extent, about that. But there were other more experimental nonfiction writers in the New Yorker that she might not have read because nobody really reads them anymore. My favorite of them besides Trow is Michael J. Arlin, who was its first TV critic, and would sometimes write his TV criticism in the form of fablelike fiction stories. There's a great essay about the rise of cable done in that style. He—and in Brendan Gill's book "Here at the New Yorker," he describes Arlin's television criticism as marking the entry point of postmodernism into the New Yorker at the same time as Donald Barthelme did the same as for the among fiction writers. So she's right, but not that right.


Zach Fine  32:54

So do you think Shawn was up to something, that he was trying to bring in a certain…?


Christian Lorentzen  32:58

I think, I think that Shawn—like Trow had written a lot more straightforward work. He'd written a lot more straightforward stuff for the New Yorker, for I think, thirteen or fourteen years, by the time that he published this essay, and I'm sure that he worked on this essay for a long time, and that it was published with—I don't know the history of its editing and publication, but I'm sure it was not, I'm sure they didn't just like shove it right into the magazine, you know. Probably, it probably was ready to go for a while, and it probably underwent significant revision. Trow also, it should be—there was a certain generation of writers who came to the New Yorker who had attended Harvard University with William Shawn's son, at least Wallace Shawn, whose roommate at Harvard was Jonathan Schell. Trow's friend Jamaica Kincaid went on to marry William Shawn's other son, who's a classical music composer, whose name escapes me at the moment. She wrote a fairly bitter roman a clef about their divorce. And I don't mean to say that like they were the benefit of undue nepotism. Their special status did benefit them, in the sense that they came—I think that… Well, one time I was talking to a friend of mine, who's an editor at the New Yorker—I don't know if I should get into this. But I've said, I felt that my generation Gen X writers, I don't care about me I've probably attacked too many New Yorker writers for them to ever use me, was somewhat neglected by the New Yorker for many years, then along come the millennials, and they just open up the floodgates and give the magazine over to them. And what this editor, who's about my age or a little older, told me, you know, "Well, when we were in our twenties and early thirties, Remnick and the rest of the New Yorker power structure were still in their, like, late forties and fifties, and they felt that they understood the world and didn't need it to have it explained to them by younger people. Then their kids got out of college, and wow, things seemed crazy and different, and they wanted to get that perspective into the magazine. So then you have the, you know, like, Jia Tolentino generation arrives and does its thing. So, to a certain extent, Trow and Jonathan Schell, Hendrik Hertzberg, who was a friend of Trow's, they co-wrote some pieces together. Ian Frazier is another member of that generation. Veronica Geng, I think, who is mostly a fiction editor, but also wrote a lot of casuals, they were part of a new generation at the New Yorker that represented to my mind very interesting, and creative flourishing that I cherish, personally.


Jess Swoboda  36:37

So why do you think Trow shapes the essay in the many fragmented sections with subheaders? Is he just trying to mirror the format of the television? Is it a sort of critical appropriation? Or is there something else going on?


Christian Lorentzen  36:56

Hmm. You know, I've never given that question much thought. Um, I assume that the form kind of revealed itself to him. I don't know if he was thinking of other aphoristic essayists, like, I don't know, Sorayan, or, you know, Spinoza, or, I mean, didn't John McPhee publish, like, the Atlantic City essay's sort of written in an aphoristic style? These kinds of experiments weren't—I mean, I think there were some New Journalists who experimented with this kind of form. Although their experiments tended more towards the kind of like, the voice—well, not in voice here, but the emphasis of the authorial presence in the midst of a naturalistic depiction of reality, which, this is an essay and not a piece like that. I'm not sure I have a good answer to that question. Whether it's kind of like, these fragments I've shorn against my ruin—kind of T.S. Eliot modernist notion, that or whether it's kind of trying to mimic the "scroll and the flow," I think what Raymond Williams called the flow of the box. But maybe. I mean, one thing that the one thing that it allows him to do is to work in very many modes, he has his sort of gnomic mode, where he could say, "History is the record of growth, conflict and destruction," and then just move along, right? And then bring that back whenever he wants to. Or he can tell a long story about going to the World's Fair and then later working there for pages upon pages. Or he can just analyze an issue of LIFE and, you know, it just—I think, probably the main… you know, once you're tied to… as an essayist, once you're tied to a specific way of doing things, there are certain moves, you just can't make, you know,


Jess Swoboda  39:25

I guess so. So in your Time Out…?


Christian Lorentzen  39:28

Or if you make them, you have to make them right, you know.


Jess Swoboda  39:32

Right, and I suspect that you would say he did, he made those moves right.


Christian Lorentzen  39:38

Um, well, I think the work I think the work—the work, so to me, it's so great and powerful that it's really like beyond moves, you know. But yeah, sure. I mean, I'm thinking more of like, you know, I just had piece in Harper's, where the whole piece has hardly anything of myself at all. And then in the last couple grafs, I break from the courthouse where the antitrust trial was going on. And for a couple of paragraphs, just describe how I was spending my time in Washington, D.C. and tell a couple of anecdotes. And then bang, I just described the decision on the trial, and I'm out, when that was what—that section was, I just, I didn't have an ending. And so my editor said, why don't you just try this? And so I wrote a longer version of it, he cut a couple paragraphs out, and boom, that was it. So I felt that came off. But it was—I felt it was risky, because I hadn't created a structure where it was something like: the courtroom, me with some authors in Washington, D.C., or me with some of the witnesses at the hotel, which I thought was going to be possible, but wasn't, you know, I'd hoped to get more of that man-on-the-streets or talking to people behind the scenes flavor in there. But that didn't turn out to be the nature of the piece.


Zach Fine  41:14

It's kind of like Trow's essay where he comes in at the end with the World's Fair material


Christian Lorentzen  41:18



Zach Fine  41:19

But I'm curious which tro you like more? Do you like the bombastic, you know, history Trow, or do you like the…?


Christian Lorentzen  41:26

I like it when he's bombastic but funny and light at the same time. 


Zach Fine  41:31



Christian Lorentzen  41:31

You know, or when he's like—or, you know, I took it for my own essay. He says, he's like, "The message of many things in America is 'like this or die.' It is a strain. Suddenly, the modes of death begin to be attractive." Come on, that's funny, you know. And that, I mean, the word "like" in that instance, you have to understand it in the context of one of the first, like, when he's writing about the early Fifties and "I like Ike," right, he speaks of the slogan being divorced from an actual presidential candidate, General Dwight Eisenhower, who's been replaced with some entity called Ike, that means something different than a general who'd be president. And the word "like," which is—to him the power of the word "like" is that it represents the false intimacy of television and mass marketing. He says that you can tell television is getting weaker when it comes up with slogans like "CBS and you." You know?


Zach Fine  42:52

So we wanted to talk about Trow's essay in relationship to your 2019 Harper's piece, Like This or Die…


Christian Lorentzen  43:00

Yeah. Yeah. 


Zach Fine  43:02

…The book review in the age of the algorithm. And we were kind of wondering if you could talk a little bit about what the connection with Trow's No Context is, besides the title, and you mentioned Trow in the essay, but how you were thinking about the Trow as you went about working on that piece?


Christian Lorentzen  43:18

Well, I'd just reread Within the Context of No Context and My Pilgrim's Progress before beginning on that piece. Even though my assignment was to write a version of Elizabeth Hardwick's essay, I was writing on the sixtieth, I think, anniversary of her Harper's essay on the decline of book reviewing. So… and meanwhile, in the Columbia Journalism Review, a few book review editors, including some I'd previously worked with, were out there saying, like, "You know, we don't have to run book reviews or criticism anymore. We could treat books as news events, we can run Q&As with authors, we can we can give out lists of recommendations." And so essentially, what I felt that they were—part of what they were doing was trying to turn literary journalism into something more like celebrity journalism. I mean, I knew this because the people quoted in that article had literally already asked me to do this. And I had refused. And I mean, I guess like, when he—I believe more in like… I guess he's talking about in the part on magazines in the age of television, where he is… I guess, as a as a literary critic and someone who's worked as an editor at Harper's and the New York Observer and the London Review of Books—this applies less so to the New York Observer, and at the time when I was working there when it was still okay—is, you know, I do think there's value in a straightforward proposition between a magazine's editors and its readership. Right? So I remember, I remember interviewing for a job I didn't get at the New York Review of Books with Bob Silvers. And he said, "Well, you know, we want to let the critics have their say about the books, and then give the reader a sense of the wider context of a literary world." Right? So that is, I think, an honorable mission for a literary magazine, or a literary section within a general magazine to pursue. The way that I had been seeing so-called "books coverage" going was in the direction of stimulating literary consumerism by offering low-cost  pseudo-literary content that was clickable. Now, that passage that I read from Trow, where he's like, we can give you something just for a moment, just for a moment, if you give us more a little later, he's basically describing clickbait like thirty years before it existed, right. And, like, in some cases, like, the books media has been successful in making celebrities out of nothing. Take for instance Sally Rooney, right? Although that might have had a lot to do with the TV adaptation of Normal People. But… and also just the spontaneous way that like, TikTok works are something you know. But she became an itch that people just wanted to scratch and that many magazines and websites were all too willing to scratch in that way, you know. So, I guess what I—I looked to Trow for kind of thematic inspiration, and I would have liked to have been able to look to him for more formal inspiration. But after the kind of opening fusillade of my piece, which isn't even really Trow-y in what it's trying to do, or not that Trow-y, I don't think… I wasn't able to pull off—there was an earlier version where I was trying to write it in aphoristic chunks, some of which were highly abstract, or moved from abstract poetic pronouncements to more straightforward criticisms of various articles that appeared in the New York Times.


Zach Fine  48:21

Harper's scrapped that, or you decided it wasn't working…?


Christian Lorentzen  48:23

It wasn't even—I just …I was, you know, I just wasn't, I was trying it and it wasn't working. Yeah. I mean, no, there was an earlier version that I sent to Harper's that was like, originally, they asked for a piece that was like, 2,500 words, which was cool, because they were gonna pay me $5,000. And I sent it in, and it had a little bit of the aphoristic thing to it. Or at least more sections and shorter. But then they were like, This is great, make it longer. And then I went back and made it 8,000 words. And that's it ran it like 8,500 words. And then I still got paid $5,000


Jess Swoboda  49:06

Oh, man. Word count doubles price doubles…


Christian Lorentzen  49:09

It's always the way.


Jess Swoboda  49:12

So has anything changed about the book review since you wrote this essay in 2019, or have they just gotten even worse?


Christian Lorentzen  49:19

I would say, well, it's not—book reviews have always been fine. It's just that certain places stop running them in favor of other garbage. I think in my old—the place where they, the place where they used to employ me to write book reviews, New York Magazine, they put in a new regime that was based on recommendations, book clubs, Q&As and other things that weren't reviews. And that regime was an immediate and total failure. Since then they've hired Andrea Long Chu to be their literary critic. And her pieces are excellent and sometimes often amazing. Often I don't think she's as interested in literature as she is in general cultural phenomena and television. But, hey, everybody's into their own stuff. The other trends going in book review land, you know, Bookforum has closed. It's possible that somebody may pick it up and bring it back. But as you know, the longer time goes on, the less likely that seems. Um, I don't know, I think in general, you have like a media power structure that is desperate for traffic, and lacks a certain confidence in itself. My friend described one magazine recently as like, constantly chasing the zeitgeist and yelling, "wait up!" Which bespeaks a lack of confidence in, like, what—I think the best magazines are run by really confident editors who are assured of what they value. And for me, when I was writing the books column at New York Magazine, I felt it was my mission to like, survey the landscape of contemporary American, and more generally, Anglophone, and maybe if I could fit it in world literature and fiction, and chronicle the significant books as they were coming out and register my critical reactions to them. There are only a few places that value that kind of thing right now. They would include the usual suspects like Harper's, the Nation, New York Review, London Review, then there are new places popping up like the Drift, Cleveland Review of Books. So you know… You know, a lot of my alarmism was a) rhetorical, b) aimed at people who I had actually had actual professional conflicts with, which resulted in them not continuing my contract. So I was airing our creative differences in public. 


Christian Lorentzen  53:02

I was doing so purposefully. In fact, I still had a feature that had nothing to do with books. It was a memoir about my family, sitting at New York Magazine that I was going to get paid like $13,000 for when it ran in their "Work" issue. And I pulled that from them in order to—because I was writing this piece attacking them.


Jess Swoboda  53:02

Ooh. Okay. 


Zach Fine  53:26

Did you still get…


Christian Lorentzen  53:29

No, it was originally commissioned by Vice but then Vice went out of business. I ran it later much later, in Sewanee Review, and it's also available my Substack. But, I mean, my—so, there's a lot of Trovian inspiration in my essay, but I couldn't quite pull it off. I mean, I think I pull off some moves in that essay, but—


Jess Swoboda  53:54

For sure.


Christian Lorentzen  53:55

But the occasion of the piece makes it—I mean, one of the, the thing that I don't think was, will be quite true of that piece is that because it was responding to a specific set of things, there's only a few things in it that will, you know, I want to get it out into collection before it's totally stale. Whereas this book, I think, will be worth reading in a hundred years, no matter how much the media landscape continues to change. In part because even if television ceases to exist, this book will still be beautiful and funny.


Zach Fine  54:40

There's a moment in the essay where you talk about the book review as a kind of tool or like the best tool we have to write about, or think about, books. And I'm curious as somebody who's been working with the book review for decades now, whether you feel like you'll ever hit a point of kind of exhaustion with the form or it feels kind of endless for you.


Christian Lorentzen  55:05

No, I don't really I don't really get exhausted with the form. When I was in D.C. having dinner with some friends.  My friends said, we just had dinner. They're college friends. They were asking me like, why doesn't this book get reviewed? I was like, Well, it's a heartwarming work of historical fiction. No book critic wants to address such a book. Because all you can do is rain on somebody's parade, because there are a lot of people who like such books, and there's not a lot of intellectual content to be mined from them. And then my—her husband asked me, What's the central question that a book reviewer asks? And I said, Well, there's all kinds of ways to skin a cat. And then their ten-year-old daughter said, "Why would you skin a cat?" aghast. And then her mom said, "Oh, that's an old and a bad phrase. And then it doesn't mean actually skinning a cat. But and we probably shouldn't use it anymore. But don't worry, it's okay. He's not going to skin your cat." And then her father said, "Plus, there's only one right way to skin a cat." Anyway, so…


Jess Swoboda  56:19

Poor girl, being traumatized.


Christian Lorentzen  56:22

I mean, I guess I would say that like, for as a book, critic, you know, I felt like, I do find myself writing about a lot of dead guys recently, to a certain extent, because that's what like, my editors are interested in having me write on. I don't really feel like, you know, a few years ago, I was out patrolling the debut authors for the new talent. I don't really feel like that's my job so much anymore, although maybe I should do it. I don't know exactly who's doing it these days. There is kind of, so it's less like the form itself. And I do I mean, I am trying to do more different stuff. Like I just wrote that big reported piece. I'm working on a one-act play at the moment. I talked with Norton about writing an essay book about boredom last week. So I'm doing—I have my Substack, which is called Christian Lorenzon's Diary, but might as well be called Christian Lorenzen Superficially Responds to Today's Literary Controversy. So, you know, but I like writing book reviews, so I'm gonna keep doing it.


Jess Swoboda  57:50

So we're about out of time, but we have one more question. And we're gonna go back to Trow for this one. So speaking of your Substack, I found on it the out-of-print Timeout piece you wrote on hipsters. 


Christian Lorentzen  58:02

Oh, yeah, yeah. 


Jess Swoboda  58:03

And you in that you call Trow "the late prophet of our cultural moment." And so I'm wondering what earns him that title? And then also, what about Trow's essay still applies today?


Christian Lorentzen  58:16

Well, I think when I wrote that, what I meant was that everything he wrote about television and Within the Context of No Context, and My Pilgrim's Progress, applies doubly to the age of the internet, but hasn't yet been properly theorized or theorized in such a poetic way.


Zach Fine  58:40

Well, thanks, Christian. Thanks so much for joining us. 


Jess Swoboda  58:42

Yeah. Thank you. 


Christian Lorentzen  58:43

Yeah, thank you for having me.


Jess Swoboda  58:49

Thanks, everyone, for joining us for this episode of Selected Essays. We'd like to thank Joe Coleman for editing the podcast and Meg Duffy of Hand Habits for contributing the original music. We hope you'll tune into our next episode where we'll be talking with the writer Anne Fadiman about Virginia Woolf's essay, "The Death of the Moth." Catch you later listeners.