The New Yorker Looks at the Village Voice

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We commend to you Louis Menand's New Yorker piece, "It Took a Village: How the Voice changed journalism." You'd expect us to do that, of course, but we aren't just reflecting perceived flattery. The article is mainly about the past, after all, and might just as easily be taken as a rebuke (as at Portfolio: "Remembering When the 'Village Voice' Was Great"). Pretend it's about someone else's paper if you like. There's a lesson in it for all of us.

Menand sketches the historical outlines of the Voice's founding and rise, from the conversations of Jean Malaquais and Norman Mailer, to the hard work of Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf, to the power plays of the Felker era, and includes some fun details ("At one point, every member of the sales department was a poet"). He also notes the cultural waves on which the paper was launched and the currents that sped it along.

These don't have as much to do with espresso, "tea" and folk-singing as you might think. To imagine the Voice was summoned, Golem-like, from the bohemian funk of postwar Greenwich Village would scant the vision of its founders and mistake the reason for its success.

For one thing, Menand points out, "the cultural history of the Village is a Slinky on a staircase; it seems to flip over every three years or so." From the beginning the Village "stood for an advanced taste in literature and the arts" as well as "sexual opportunity" -- which still goes, as a look around the current edition will prove. But within that tradition a lot of shape-shifting always takes place: the beats begat the hippies begat the punks, and so on and with endless sub-categories and dotted-line connections. The "disillusioned leftism" shared by the first Voicers kept them aloof from these trends even as their instincts as reporters enabled them to capture and illuminate them. And despite our liberal bona fides, the Voice never pledged itself to one ideological faith, either ("Ideology bored us," says Fancher). Feiffer's cartoons mocked the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and the Boy in the Frayed Denim Jacket; Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" got panned.

The paper became what the writers made it, and the writers went not just through the Village but all over the place. The great thing about Wolf's editing, per one perhaps overstated observation, was that "he didn't edit." He also tended to "recruit new talent just by offering a place to publish, and it did not have to pay much," a method that (we can attest) also still goes. This cultivates a fair amount of chaff, but the wheat comes up strong and tall. You can see that in the big names that the Voice has nurtured (Feiffer, Andrew Sarris, Teresa Carpenter, Matt Groening, Robert Christgau, Hentoff, Robbins, Hoberman, Musto, Yaeger et alia), but also in the less-well-remembered ones; take a look through our editor's Clip Job files of articles by John Wilcock, Mary Perot Nichols, Bill Manville, J.R. Goddard and others who filled our pages back in the day. They still make good reading, because they wrote to be read.

Thus, says Menand, "The Voice was not on the cutting edge of anything except journalism. That, of course, is why it survived." He also says "The Voice was the blogosphere... and Craigslist fifty years before their time." We say that's still true -- click around and see if you agree. As to the continuing relevance of the mission of our forebears, we're aware of it, and we do our best. The Voice covers the Village, and the Village, so far as we're concerned, is everywhere.

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