The Elements of Styles
It was, in its way, a journalistic milestone: On March 22 of this year, the New York Times admitted that twice a week, on Sundays and Thursdays, it publishes a humor section. The editors of the Times don’t call their humor pages the “Comics” or the “Funnies,” for that would undermine the polished, coiffed, formal sensibility of the Gray Lady. Instead, its humor section has been dubbed “Styles,” as in “Sunday Styles” and “Thursday Styles.”
Like the various chapters in the lives of Calvin, Hobbes, Garfield, Opus, and Hagar the Horrible, the Styles pages make me laugh. A lot. But until the March 22 column by Margaret Sullivan, the Times’s “public editor,” I had thought that the similarities between Sunday Styles and the comics were unintentional—that the glee with which I turn to the Styles pages each week was mine and mine alone, a function of my finding humor in liberal convention, in liberal insularity, in liberal faddishness. Now I am not so sure.
On March 5, Thursday Styles published a piece entitled “One Part Mr. Peanut, One Part Hipster Chic,” which reported on the return of the monocle as a fashion accessory. “From the trendy enclaves of Berlin cafés and Manhattan restaurants to gin ads and fashion magazines,” reported Allen Salkin, “the monocle is taking its turn alongside key 21st-century accoutrements like sharply tucked plaid shirts and certificates in swine butchering.”
Martin Raymond, “a British trend forecaster,” told Salkin that during a recent trip to Cape Town, he spotted a group of young men “carrying monocles along with tiny brass telescopes kept in satchels.” Why? “All of this,” Raymond said, “is part of a sense of irony and way of discovering and displaying artisanal and craft-based technology. You see the monocle appearing in Berlin, parts of South Dublin.”
Ah, South Dublin! The world capital of cool! I like to think it was Martin Raymond’s quotation that sent the bloggers scurrying to their keyboards to poke holes in Salkin’s reporting. It was easy to do. Salkin had managed to cram monocles, Berlin cafés, Manhattan restaurants, sharply tucked plaid shirts, certificates in swine butchering, parts of South Dublin, gin ads and fashion magazines, trend forecasters with British accents, Cape Town, tiny brass telescopes kept in satchels, irony, and artisanal and craft-based technology into a brief, 585-word piece. He had crafted sentences with more hipster posturing and pretense per character than the tweets of Lady Gaga.
“Media watchers received the story like a Christmas present, tearing off the wrapping to get at the goods,” wrote Sullivan, and their assaults necessitated her intervention as the Times’s chief journalistic ethicist. From her investigation into the editorial machinations of the Styles pages, Sullivan learned that readers were not supposed to take the piece at face value. Salkin’s article, it turns out, was a knowing, self-conscious work of Styles self-parody.
Its editor, Denny Lee, told Sullivan, “When I first read it, I thought, ‘This is so Onion.’” That didn’t stop him from publishing it in the most important newspaper in the country, however. On the contrary: Lee said it ought to have been obvious to the reader that the author was “in on the joke.”
But whom, exactly, is the joke on? Self-obsessed hipsters? Clueless readers? The luxury brands—Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger, Barneys New York, Paul Stuart, David Yurman, Céline, Dior, Ralph Lauren, Bergdorf Goodman, Dolce & Gabbana, and other favorites of the One Percent—whose costly advertisements, putti-like, adorn the section?
Or is the joke on Arthur Sulzberger himself?
The knowledge that the newspaper of record self-consciously imitates the Onion casts the Styles sections in a whole new light. The “jokes” are everywhere. The articles on “man buns,” pubic hair, “green funerals,” and men who wear tights; the disquisitions on the politically correct use of the term “homosexual”; the portraits of gay bars where men dress up as superheroes; the pieces in which “people who are drawn to power exchange in sexuality and may refer to themselves as kinky are finding themselves in the spotlight as never before”—might they all be put-ons?
On my desk as I write this is the most recent Sunday Styles. Its top story transcribes a recent lunch held between actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, wearing “an embroidered black cardigan and slim skirt,” and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, wearing “a pistachio jacket and trousers.” At a Los Angeles restaurant—South Dublin must have been too far away—the two women “shared plates of roasted vegetables, cheeses, and charcuterie.” They met for the first time only recently, in February, at the state dinner for French President François Hollande. But the Times thought it worthwhile to bring them together again, for a discussion of the similarities between Louis-Dreyfus, who plays a politician on a very funny show with a very minuscule audience, and Pelosi, whose political career is all too real, and not at all amusing.
Alas, this particular “joke” falls flat, as does the other cover story. It tells of a 42-year-old man who, in the hopes of one day having children, visits a fertility clinic, where he peruses a “sizable, if rather dated, collection of pornographic DVDs and magazines.” He selects a movie called Camel Toe, which he finds “a very disappointing film on so many levels,” and—well, I will leave the rest of the article to your imagination. Self-indulgent, unoriginal, creepily confessional, the sperm-bank piece is, like the Louis-Dreyfus–Pelosi summit, an example of a Styles section idea gone wrong. Every comic strip has its ups and downs.
Even when a Styles piece fails to amuse, however, it is still useful as a window into the concerns and behaviors not of most people in our vast and heavily populated country, but of the parochial clique that lives in Manhattan and Brooklyn, travels frequently throughout the globe, competes strenuously to be hip and “with it,” and determines at any given moment what is tasteful and what is unfashionable, what is politically correct and what is politically har–am. Asked how his staff comes up with such ridiculous articles, Styles editor Stuart Emmrich says, “Most often they come from a Monday morning meeting with my staff where I open with a very specific question: What did you do, see, listen to, read, or talk to friends about this weekend? Is there a story there?” Inevitably there is.
Working backwards from what appears on his pages, Emmrich’s staff would seem to be filled with people who are supercilious and superficial, sex- and food- and looks-obsessed, materialistic, social-climbing, attentive to status detail but only in the most marginal and bizarre of settings—precocious, prepossessing, well-schooled types whose sense of irony is so attenuated that it blurs easily into cynicism. All in all, they produce journalism that, in the words of their own public editor, “can sometimes seem self-serious, overblown, and out of touch.” Seems to me to be a fair description not only of the Styles pages but also of much of the Times itself. The joke’s on them.