GONE

The Last Days of The New Yorker

By Renata Adler

Simon & Schuster. 252 pp. $25

In its golden era, roughly from 1946 to 1980, the New Yorker was a kind of museum--eclectic, vast, but expertly chosen, the whole collection carrying a faint whiff of musty mandarin elegance. If there was too much of it for anyone but retirees to keep up with, that was all right: Each reader could carve out his or her own New Yorker from the excess of riches bundled inside. For some, a short story by John Cheever might be the piece de resistance; for others it might be the movie criticism of Pauline Kael, a book review by V.S. Pritchett or reportage by John McPhee.

There were lovable oddities, too--sui generis pieces by writers who would not have been given so much rein in any other arena: Berton Roueche transforming outbreaks of disease into gripping mini-mysteries, Roger Angell imbuing baseball with all the majesty of the Peloponnesian War, Brendan Gill injecting his high-spirited cleverness into whatever subject happened to catch his eye. And the magazine would confound expectations by publishing, say, a terrifying essay on the perils of nuclear weapons by Jonathan Schell or a fiery story about racism by Eudora Welty.

With its droves of upscale ads and its sly cartoons, each issue was a prestige item, to be displayed and leafed through, even if not read. The magazine set the tone in another way, too. After one of its main men, E.B. White, breathed new life into "The Elements of Style," a bossy but mostly sensible guide to writing by his college teacher William Strunk, a generation of budding prose stylists lived by such commandments as "express co-ordinate ideas in similar form."

As Renata Adler, a longtime staff writer for the magazine, points out in "Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker," it specialized in publishing "minor masterpieces." You weren't going to find Hemingway or Faulkner in the New Yorker. But that was all right, too. The absence of titans seemed to imply that it wasn't cricket to be too idiosyncratically good--and, anyway, the magazine went by its own standards, the Nobel Prize Committee be damned. The exceptions--Vladimir Nabokov appeared frequently, and Rebecca West did some of her best work for the New Yorker (see the reports on criminals and trials collected in "A Train of Powder")--were likely to be foreigners, to whom ordinary rules did not apply.

That era is gone, as are most of those characteristic contributors. But for Adler, the magazine itself is no more. "As I write this," her book begins, "The New Yorker is dead. It still comes out every week, or almost every week. . . . Otherwise, not a single defining element of the magazine remains." Her ostensible mission is to explain how this pitiable loss occurred.

Books about the New Yorker have been tumbling off the presses in the past few years, but this one seemed likely to stand out from the pack. Affiliated with the magazine since the early '60s, tight with both longtime editor William Shawn and S.I. Newhouse, the man who fired him in 1987, Adler seemed ideally poised to explain how a grand American institution lost its cachet--along with most of its ads.

Unfortunately, she has squandered her opportunity in favor of settling scores. A few are worth settling, especially the one occasioned by "Here but Not Here," the memoir in which another veteran staff writer, Lillian Ross, chronicles her protracted affair with Shawn. Adler makes a good case for distrusting Ross's version of the magazine's workings, not to mention her portrait of Shawn himself. But Adler has let herself be distracted by multiple other grievances, against multiple other miscreants, many of whom seem tangential to her purpose. She trashes everybody from Robert Gottlieb, the outsider who took over editorship of the magazine after Shawn's canning, to Pennsylvania Justice Michael Musmanno, who wrote an allegedly "dishonest and foolish" review of Hannah Arendt's book "Eichmann in Jerusalem." Some victims are introduced apparently just to be swatted down--for example, Thomas Whiteside, a staff writer whose sin was to talk infuriatingly slowly while making a point at the apocalyptic staff meeting called after the announcement of Shawn's dismissal. Whiteside gets up, speaks his piece so as to get on Adler's nerves, then disappears from the book. This is cameo trashing.

Other figures get bashed roundly and repeatedly, however. The amount of venom Adler lets fly at Adam Gopnik, a man who seems rather harmless--for the past several years he has been hors de combat, reporting for the magazine from Paris--is astounding. According to Adler, Gopnik is a nonstop producer of self-infatuation. This is not a surprising trait among writers, and her sketch of him might be convincing if it didn't go on so long and stoop so low. She keeps harping on his quirks and tics until an unintended effect takes hold: You start feeling sorry for, even identifying with, poor Gopnik. My God, you find yourself wondering, what would Adler say if she got an eyeful of me? Later in the book, she deconstructs what she claims to be the typical Gopnik piece, finding it demonstrably shallow, not worthy of the magazine. Never mind that four editors in a row--Shawn, Gottlieb, Tina Brown and now David Remnick--seem to have rated Gopnik highly, judging by the rate at which they publish his stuff.

Now and then she stops grinding axes and inserts a telling anecdote. After vacating his office, she says, Shawn set up shop in the nearby Algonquin Hotel, from where he continued to edit the magazine, or at least substantial parts of it, which were shuttled to him behind his successor's back. This may reflect badly on Gottlieb, but at least it's relevant to the main issue, rather than oblique, petty and gratuitously belittling.

As for that issue--how the New Yorker declined and fell--Adler depicts Shawn repeatedly ignoring advice, even after Newhouse bought the New Yorker in 1984, that he would do well to name a successor, get the approval of management and step down. But out of innocence and selfishness Shawn kept sailing along on his dream course. Did it never occur to him that a new owner might be getting tired of an editor in his late seventies and well into his fourth decade at the helm? Shawn seems to have become so sold on the notion that he and the New Yorker were one, so caught up in his own mystique of benevolent despotism, that he considered himself untouchable.

In the end, Adler doesn't wholly face up to the tragic implications of her inside knowledge. If the New Yorker as we knew it is dead, who killed it? Though she never quite says so, her storytelling suggests that it was not S.I. Newhouse or Robert Gottlieb or Tina Brown. It was the man who loved it most: the feckless William Shawn.