The New Yorker

June 01, 2004

Analyzing The New Yorker

Today's New York Times features a fun article on a recent senior thesis by a Princeton engineering student who mathematically analyzed the fiction published in The New Yorker:

Ms. Milkman, who has a minor in American studies, read 442 stories printed in The New Yorker from Oct. 5, 1992, to Sept. 17, 2001, and built a substantial database. She then constructed a series of rococo mathematical tests to discern, among other things, whether certain fiction editors at the magazine had a specific impact on the type of fiction that was published, the sex of authors and the race of characters. The study was long on statistics and short on epiphanies: one main conclusion was that male editors generally publish male authors who write about male characters who are supported by female characters.

The study's confirmation of the obvious left some wondering why Ms. Milkman, who graduates this morning from Princeton with high honors, went about constructing such an intricate wristwatch in order to tell the time, but others admire her pluck and willingness to cross disciplines in a way that wraps the left and right brain neatly into one project. Her adviser on the project, Prof. René Carmona, was thrilled by the concept and amazed by the resulting thesis.

Here are some of the student's more substantive findings:

In analyzing such matters, Ms. Milkman has brought statistical rigor to one of the more intense parlor games in the literary world. Critics have long suggested that under Mr. Buford — who took over the magazine's fiction department in 1995 when Mr. McGrath came to The New York Times, and left to write books in 2002 — female authors were about as welcome as they would be at the clubhouse of Augusta National.

According to Ms. Milkman, the number of male authors rose to 70 percent under Mr. Buford, compared with 57 percent under Mr. McGrath. She also found that Mr. Buford was much more likely to publish stories set in the New York area: the number of stories set in the mid-Atlantic region rose to 37 percent under Mr. Buford, compared with 19 percent under Mr. McGrath. The study also found that the first-person voice rose mightily under Mr. Buford, which may reflect the growth of memoir in the 90's more than anything else.

Under both editors the fiction in the magazine took as its major preoccupations sex, relationships, death, family and travel. Mr. Buford was relatively more interested in sex, a topic in 47 percent of the stories he published as opposed to 35 percent under Mr. McGrath. Mr. McGrath's authors tended to deal with one of the occasional consequences of that act, children, more frequently than Mr. Buford's writers: 36 percent under Mr. McGrath, 26 percent under Mr. Buford. (History, homosexuality and politics all tied for the attentions of Mr. Buford at a lowly 4 percent.)

The article is entertaining, but I'm not convinced that the thesis itself is interesting or significant. For that matter, the article's author (David Carr) also seems to have had his doubts: at one point, he writes "In a conclusion that will probably cause few readers to spill their evening tea, she states that 'quantitative analyses revealed that New Yorker characters are not representative of Americans or New York State residents in terms of their race.' " Almost makes you wonder why Carr wrote the article... Carr alludes to the research of Franco Moretti, a Stanford professor known for his fascinating text-free literary studies, but that's a subject for another day.

The more I think about it, the less I'm sure what to make of this article. On the one hand, I'm delighted to see that The New York Times has written a humorous article about academia: America's paper of record would benefit from a couple more good laughs, and I'm always glad when it delves into a (supposedly) intellectual subject. There's a part of me, however, that would have liked to see the paper pay more attention to the thesis's ideas. But would it really be appropriate for the Times to rip an undergrad thesis to shreds? (For that matter, is it fair for a major national newspaper to subject a young student's ideas to a really rigorous public examination, even if those ideas turn out to be sort of okay?) I guess I'm glad that the Times published this article, since it was kind of fun and kind of interesting. But a different sort of publication might have been better suited to giving this story the kind of attention it deserves.

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