Pauline Kael began writing about movies for The New Yorker in 1967. She was not a “discovery.” She was forty-eight years old, and she had already written for just about every well-known magazine in America but The New Yorker, including The New Republic, Partisan Review, The Atlantic, Mademoiselle, Holiday, Vogue, Life, and McCall’s. Before coming to New York in the mid-Sixties, she had made weekly radio broadcasts about movies on KPFA in San Francisco; she had been contributing regularly to journals like Film Quarterly and Sight and Sound since 1954; and a collection of her pieces, I Lost It at the Movies, had come out in 1965 and become a best seller. Mr. Shawn was not taking a gamble on a rookie.
In 1967 The New Yorker was the most successful magazine in America. It owed its prosperity to a formula that can no longer be duplicated: it was a general-interest commercial magazine for people who disliked commercialism and who rarely subscribed to general-interest magazines—a magazine, essentially, for people who didn’t buy magazines. For in the Fifties and Sixties, a literate and unstuffy anti-commercialism was still a cherished ingredient of upper-middle-class taste, and by catering to it, The New Yorker was able to deliver to advertisers several hundred thousand well-educated and affluent people who could be reached through practically no other medium.
It did so with an editorial product rigorously manufactured to avoid any semblance of the sensational, the prurient, or the merely topical—any semblance, that is, of the things educated people could be assumed to associate with the commercial press or television. It also avoided, less famously but with equal diligence, anything that hinted at cultural pretension. And this policy, too, was based on a genuine insight into the psychology of its audience. For New Yorker readers, though proud of their education and their taste, were intellectually insecure. They did not need to be told who Proust and Freud and Stravinsky were, but they were glad, at the same time, not to be expected to know anything terribly specific about them. They were intelligent people who were nevertheless extremely wary of being out-browed.
The New Yorker was enormously attentive to this insecurity. It pruned from its pieces anything that might come across as allusive or knowing, and it promoted, in its writing and cartoons, a sensibility that took urbanity to be perfectly compatible with a certain kind of naiveté. The New Yorker made it possible to feel that being an anti-sophisticate was the mark of true sophistication, and that any culture worth having could be had without special aesthetic equipment or intellectual gymnastics.
Pauline Kael made it possible for people to feel this way about the movies, and although that sounds like a modest accomplishment, it was not. It required disarming both phobias in the sensibility The New Yorker had so successfully identified: the fear of too low, and the fear of too high. It meant overcoming the intelligent person’s resistance to the pulpiness, the corniness, and…
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