How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 7)

NUSSBAUM The other thing is it [The Approval Matrix] got picked up all over the place. Which was exciting for me. We would start noticing people started refering to things as highbrow/despicable.

ROBERTS By “picked up” you mean by other magazines? People on the street?

NUSSBAUM A lot of people did imitations of it. Some of them mentioning it, other ones ripping it off. I’ve seen 10 or 12 other magazines doing things that were like The Politics Matrix or whatever. A bunch of European magazines did things. At one point Stuff magazine did something and we put their matrix on our matrix. I wasn’t involved in the placement at that point. We put their matrix on our matrix, and then they put our matrix on their matrix. It was this strange little down-the-rabbit-hole issue. I would occasionally read different articles or online things where people would start refering to something as lowbrow/brilliant. And at one point we talked about making stickers to put around town so that people could tag things as lowbrow/brilliant or highbrow/despicable like that. It never happened. There was a New York magazine event where they made t-shirts. I think the t-shirts are going to be a problem because I don’t think people are going to get a t-shirt that says highbrow/brilliant.  Everybody will want a t-shirt that says lowbrow/brilliant or maybe lowbrow/despicable. It was an interesting question: What labels are people willing to put on themselves? Which t-shirts would be more popular than others?
Later they created a online interactive Matrix on the website, but I don’t think it was that successful even though it was incredibly beautifully done. To me that was because people don’t want to place things on the matrix, they want to argue about the matrix.

ROBERTS I did it once and everything landed in the middle. It was no fun.

NUSSBAUM It was an interesting idea in theory because it was a Wiki-matrix. But to me it missed the point of what people liked about it. First, people like the authority of it being set and then responding to it. They don’t necessarily want to create their own.  The other thing was that the jokes out of context of their actual placement are not that interesting. If you just see a factoid about a particular fashion show that week — it’s not that meaningful unless you see where it’s placed on The Matrix. To me, it wasn’t supersuccessful. Did you find it that, technologically, it was lovely? I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t take off.

ROBERTS I did it once and the average answers were so boring I stopped. I don’t care what I think, I’m more interested in what other people think.

NUSSBAUM Exactly. I think that that’s the case. I launched it, and oversaw the editing for — I don’t even remember how long, I was working so hard at the time, the whole thing is such a blur to me. After a couple of months, like I said, we hired Sternbergh and he came on and he was the overseeing editor of it for quite a long time.  If you want to talk to him, he’s another good person to talk to.

ROBERTS Well, I’m just writing a blog entry about this, not a book. This is wonderful. This is so interesting to me, you can’t understand how interesting this is to me.

NUSSBAUM So why are you interested in it? How did this become a thing for you? I’m just so excited when someone likes it. It’s nice. What interests you about it?

ROBERTS Partly it’s that I worked at Spy . . . No, the first thing that happened was that I read Spy. I loved Spy. The interesting thing is not that I was so into dissing powerful people, it was that Spy made me interested in New York City in a way that I’d never been before. Spy did all sorts of things that made New York come to life and made it seem like a wonderful place. This was the city that has The New Yorker, remember? Spy did better, way better. Then I worked at Spy and I talked to the editors, I know they were very interested in coming up with new ways of telling things. I could see that it was very successful at this. And then Spy goes away, and a long time later The Approval Matrix comes up which has the same quality as Spy of making me interested in stuff. In a big way. It really succeeds in ways that other magazines don’t do so well.

NUSSBAUM I was very into Spy as well.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 6)

NUSSBAUM We do want it [The Approval Matrix] to be useful. Somebody told me that they were sitting on a subway and they saw somebody circling things on it. That was really cool, I suppose it was things they wanted to see.

ROBERTS Exactly!

NUSSBAUM I thought that was really great. There are the two reactions that I like the most: people finding it really useful and also people arguing with it. It was always interesting to trigger an argument where people just have a conversation about how good or bad something was in relation to something else. We actually made a little bit of a specialty in the Culture section in general of doing quasi-mathematical charts. We did a crazy guilt/pleasure index for reality television as a way of covering reality television. The other big one was when Sternbergh and I collaborated on this thing called The Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations. I don’t know that you’ve seen that. That’s the flowing time chart that shows how things move from buzz to saturation point, how good people think things are going to be, to backlash to backlash to the backlash. We’ve done a few mathematical things. But they’re kind of tricky. We tried to come up with others but sometimes they just didn’t work. Or were too complicated. It’s hard to come up with anything original just because magazines, this is their stock in trade. The thing I do really love about The Matrix and I did feel really proud about, was the fact that… I felt like it managed to combine a bunch of things in a good way.

ROBERTS Like what? What did it combine?

NUSSBAUM It’s fun to respond to, so it’s an entertaining thing. It allows us to have a final say on the culture for the week. In a magazine sense, it closes the section nicely. And it’s kind of a destination place, people open the magazine and go to it.

ROBERTS That’s very true.

NUSSBAUM Give a quick shot of wit and humor.

ROBERTS It’s easy, pretty easy.

NUSSBAUM On the one hand it’s easy and reductive. On the other hand, I’m telling you, I guess people who are just not mathematically-minded at looking at charts: I don’t get it. I don’t get it.

NUSSBAUM They don’t understand how charts work. I had somebody say: I don’t like it, it makes me feel dumb, it makes me angry. I mean, I think it’s clever but it’s not THAT smart.

ROBERTS They didn’t understand what the placement of the points meant? Is that what you’re saying?

NUSSBAUM Exactly. This wasn’t an uncommon reaction. There was a moment when it first came out where people felt like they had to work to understand it. I don’t think that was a bad thing. There was also a question of the tone of it. We had a meeting early on, when we first put out the section, where there was a discussion about whether it was too kind of snarky, bloggy, online, maybe juvenile in its sensibility, whether that was in some way problematic, or didn’t match what the rest of the section was supposed to be. I never agreed with that. But it’s always a discussion because when you have something that’s funny and punchy in that way, there’s the question of: Is it going to be sour and kind of rim-shot-ish, like it’ll just be a roast? To me it doesn’t feel like that at all. And obviously we celebrate things. A whole half of it is about things we think are brilliant! So those were the main points of debate. One of them was tonal, one of them was the idea of acting as if there really was a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow. And then, that’s it.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 5)

NUSSBAUM For good or bad there was actually a lot of conversation and real analysis about where to place things. In the very beginning one thing I did try was to make it a policy, if we could avoid it, to not snark on things that we hadn’t actually experienced or really knew nothing about, just make jokes at the expense of the names of books that we hadn’t read. I wanted to make the jokes about things that were very specific. Instead of saying we don’t like the movie Godzilla, saying “the ridiculous scene in . . .” — a specific scene, a specific performance, or a specific song in a musical, or something like that. Because to me it makes it more useful and more authoritative, and less just striking out at the general world of culture and saying good, bad, good, bad, good, bad, which is always a danger with something like that. Because we were under a time crunch.

ROBERTS Yeah, a little less Entertainment Weekly with its A+, B+. . . . I happen to like that.

NUSSBAUM I don’t actually have a problem with that. What Entertainment Weekly does with that is very basic, and a lot of places do that, is using a school metaphor thing to judge things. They’ve read the book. They’re actually writing a review of it. The Matrix isn’t writing reviews. but because it’s putting things on this chart, I do think we have to have some sense of responsibility about not just throwing something on just because that doesn’t sound good.

ROBERTS You’re real critics. You actually know about what you’re talking about.

NUSSBAUM The whole thing works better if we know what we’re talking about, if it actually seems like…it operates as though it has its own consciousness and  it’s this weird hive mind of a lot of different opinionated people who’ve experienced a lot of different culture.

ROBERTS If a book is on The Approval Matrix, someone at New York has read the book.

NUSSBAUM Ideally, yes. I’m talking to you because I began the thing. But I’ve switched jobs now, I’m not the head of Culture now. Sternbergh isn’t editing it, either, it’s been passed on. But even if it was a very silly book, you should at least take a look through it. That was essentially the premise. Some things are about news items. Those don’t have the same necessity in terms of . . . I feel like I’m being so crazily over-analytical! Of course it is a charticle.

ROBERTS A charticle? There’ve been many charticles in the history of journalism.

NUSSBAUM Of course it is a visual device. It’s supposed to be entertaining.

ROBERTS I think it’s wonderful. Not because it’s entertaining, although it is, but because it’s enlightening. It’s opening up a world. It does it so well. Let’s take Entertainment Weekly. If they give something an A, I’m going to look into it. If they give a book an A I’m going to check out that book. But they take two pages to give one book an A. The Approval Matrix can give something an A or A+ five times in one page.

NUSSBAUM This is the transcendent beauty of the reductive. We can chart something in this pseudo-scientific way. It does have some kind of …

ROBERTS Pseudo-scientific? I don’t know about that. I think it’s scientific.

NUSSBAUM Just in the sense that it’s so absurdly hyper-specific that it’s unreal. 

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 4)

NUSSBAUM Occasionally we’d throw something in that had nothing to do with culture. At one point this year the weather was really miserable. I just suggested putting overflowing sewers on one side and then hot soup on the other — or something like that. The main thing we got flack for was the highbrow/lowbrow aspect of it.

ROBERTS Why? What was the flack?

NUSSBAUM We got this objection from people who have a strong feeling about these cultural categories. About the art of the charticle. The strongest objection was essentially, to be super-academic about it, that we were reifying the categories of highbrow and lowbrow.

ROBERTS What does reify mean?

NUSSBAUM Instead of critiquing, or being playful with, or using but in a knowledgeable way, those categories, that we were solidifying them, and acting as if they were real and making them into solid objects.

ROBERTS I’m not grasping the criticism. Oh, ok, you’re doing that, so what?

NUSSBAUM Basically, that we were taking them at face value, or, even more cynically, that we were presenting them at face value even though we knew better. By setting up a chart like this, we were basically saying opera is highbrow and comics are lowbrow. When to me, part of the point of it was making visual those illusory categories. Effectively setting up a kind of stimulus for people to react to the way that we place things. You do end up saying to yourself, at least if you’re in-house and you’re debating these things — you do end having this weird conversation about: are the Oscars more highbrow or lowbrow than the Grammys and the Tonys? This kind of crazy way of determining things. Sternbergh once wrote something to the guy [Mohamed Ibrahim] who was doing Behind the Approval Matrix — we were so excited that someone was doing a blog about it — he wrote a note to him at one point describing our thinking on several of the items in it. Also, occasionally people would just come up to us and say, I don’t understand why is this in this category, it should be here! And then we would have an absurdly overanalytical conversation about our thinking. For good or bad there was actually a lot of conversation and real analysis about where to place things.

Interview directory.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 3)

ROBERTS To me one of the fascinating things about The Approval Matrix is not only that it works so well but also that it has this despicable/brilliant dimension. This is fascinating because they’re not opposites, obviously. But also because despicable is an unusual word to see in highbrow American journalism.

NUSSBAUM All credit to Adam Moss for people who like and dislike the word despicable. Who find it both brilliant and despicable.

ROBERTS I’m saying that people usually don’t pass moral judgment. Are you saying that despicable is just a synomym for idiotic or awful?

NUSSBAUM To me, what despicable does is it says there is something outrageous about this and not entirely serious about the judgment. Because, the truth is, to me the voice of The Matrix, much more than the rest of the Culture section, sounds like people mouthing off in a bar. When you get in one of those crazy High-Fidelity-like debates about something. Where you say, “Don’t you think that this is a tiny bit better than the other thing?” These two characters on a TV show, one of them is two notches better than the other one.  Somebody says: I just can’t abide anything from that genre, it’s completely despicable. It has the voice to me of people being, hopefully, witty blowhards. To me, despicable kind of refers to them.

ROBERTS An underreported category.

NUSSBAUM Yes, the witty blowhard! The thing signals—because you can’t judge things so literally, on a mathematical chart—it both displays our judgment about things and to me slightly undercuts it. Because part of the point of The Matrix is for people to argue about the placement of things. Or object to them. Because that’s what happens. If you hand it to somebody, nobody’s going to agree with everything. Often what they disagree with is not the literal placement of things but the placement of things in relationship to one another. For instance, wait a second, a Sondheim musical is more highbrow than this particular HBO drama. And then there’s this weird discussion: Why is that? What constitutes more highbrow? Or, often, my favorite thing: Early in The Matrix, one of the fun things to do was to create a something like a constellation. . . .

ROBERTS You mean, if you connect the dots, it makes a shape? Is that what you mean by constellation?

NUSSBAUM No, not a literal constellation like that. I mean a bunch of things that all cluster together and are all being judged in relation to one another. This was several years ago and we had a tiny cluster that was essentially Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Lindsey Lohan, these starlet types who had been caught in various scandals. They were all in lowbrow/despicable but they were in slightly different sections next to each other. Lindsay Lohan was slightly more highbrow than Nicole Richie and a little bit more brilliant. They were funny in relationship to one another. This was at the point when Sternbergh, a couple months into it, he started being the top editor. And his sensibility has been really important to it. He was overseeing it when there was an end-of-the-year matrix thing. There were a lot of Jude Law movies out that year. So it was Jude Law’s face right in the middle of The Matrix and then four of his movies were right around him, each of them in one of the quadrants. The bizarre thing is — they were weirdly accurate. I’m trying to remember what they were. The Closer was highbrow/despicable. God, what did he make that year? He had literally done four movies that you could kind of justify as being very close to one another but each crossing into a different category. I always enjoyed when we did things like that.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix. The Greatness of Behind the Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 2)

NUSSBAUM I remember during the first Matrix, there was this Uggs fever in New York. I put them on the slightly highbrow and slightly despicable side. A picture of an Ugg. It just said Ugg. A one-word thing.

ROBERTS Ugg spelled U-G-H?

NUSSBAUM It just said U-G-G-S. On the other side was some “brilliant” fashion thing. So we started pairing things. Initially, the illustrations were way too literal. They would just illustrate the thing we were talking about it. But I think The Matrix works better when there are some big and some small things, some visuals that are jokes themselves.

ROBERTS You said there were big things and small things. What do you mean by big and small?

NUSSBAUM Just visually. Sometimes there would be one big blown-up thing to add visual interest to it. We were constantly sending notes to the photo department saying, “if there’s a thing about something being slow, just show a snail.” Silly dopey things like that. Finding a visual that made its own joke, as opposed to simply being straightforwardly: We think this book is good, we think this TV show is bad. We wanted something that would kinda make it work together. And then of course there were debates about what constituted highbrow and lowbrow. The way we actually created the Matrix was, it was mostly the people who worked in culture — it was myself, Chris Bonanos, and, once we hired Adam Sternbergh, he was very involved, and he really helped sharpen the voice. Because he used to be a comedian and he was incredibly funny at coming up with these compressed one-liner ways of saying things. At the time, I was top-editing it, and then later, he took that on, and now there are other people doing it: Emma and Ben. I would send out a big mass email, trying to get stuff from all of the different people who did different areas, classical music, art, etc. But the truth is, it was just a few people contributing initially. People would send in their jokes or their elements. They would send us something that was highbrow/despicable. And sometimes, more specifically, it would say “highbrow/despicable but very close to the brilliant/despicable line”, describing where it should go on the Matrix. Then I would top-edit the jokes. And often at the end of the day, when we were closing the thing, the three of us would gather in Bonanos’ office and we all just would hash it out and try to sharpen or improve some of the jokes in the way that you do. We would do it collaboratively and try to get it to work. Then I would send it by Adam Moss and he would add or sharpen things further. It was often an incredible crunch because it was such a visually-complicated thing to lay out. And very last-minute. Because they would be trying to get a photo of something odd or difficult.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix. The Greatness of Behind the Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 1)

New York magazine’s Approval Matrix is my favorite magazine feature. I asked Emily Nussbaum, an editor at New York, how it came to be.

ROBERTS When did you come up with this? What happened in the beginning?

NUSSBAUM I’d been hired soon after Adam Moss came on board as Editor-in-Chief and my job was essentially to oversee the redesign of the culture section. It was a collaborative process with editors like Chris Bonanos and writers including Boris Kachka and Logan Hill. I wanted to open with something more substantive — an essay on a cultural matter or a profile — follow with reviews and fun devices. and then close with something really visual, ideally that combined different genres. We rejected a variety of things before we managed to come up with something. Actually, the idea [for The Approval Matrix] came off a piece I saw in Wired magazine. Which was a kind of Matrix-y sort of chart, a one-off thing. The two directions, one of them went geek to cool, the other went nerd to wonk. It didn’t have any visuals and it didn’t have any jokes. It was all of these different people. It had Joss Whedon and Joss Whedon was nerd/cool. Names of different technology people, a little bit of pop culture. It was funny, it was hard to understand in its own way, which I think is true of The Approval Matrix as well — but that was part of the appeal. So I brought it in and showed it to Adam. We were talking about it and I suggested we use it as a back-page round-up, a visual catch-all for stuff from theatre to television to books . . . Commentary on little news items in culture, events, people, a whole range of things. That was the basic concept. Then I had suggested that it go highbrow/lowbrow and something like good/bad or great/terrible. Adam said we should make the extent of the continuum longer than that. So I said “brilliant” and he said “despicable” — which in the long run was one of the more controversial aspects of The Matrix! Every once in a while, I’ll come across someone who says, “How can you call something despicable?” The larger philosophy of the section was to combine access — talking to creators — with judgment and authority. So the Matrix was about making judgments but also being playful and random, by comparing totally different things to each other. The extremeness of brilliant/despicable was supposed to be part of that. And then there’s the highbrow/lowbrow thing, which can also be controversial. It’s both something that we’re literally doing and something we’re being satirical about. For me personally, one of things that I thought was appealing about it — not to be, as I’m already being, incredibly overanalytical — but one of the things that I wanted for the section as a whole, was to say the obvious but true thing that you can have something that’s lowbrow that’s absolutely fantastic or something that people think of as mass-y, like comics books or whatever, that’s incredible, and some opera that’s actually incredibly dull; it’s just that they operate on different parts of the spectrum. So the idea was that putting those things together was essentially saying what really matters is the quality of them, not whether people consider them an elite taste or whether people consider them a mass taste. But obviously it’s also supposed to be something fun, geeky and mathematical. There was an initial concern that it might be hard to understand. Just because it’s a graph, and people found it a little confusing. So, anyway, we drew up a prototype of the Matrix. The designers did a great job. Then there was a gradual move toward launching the Culture section. And we launched The Matrix. It didn’t change that much from the time that we put it out. What changed was the developmental process of figuring out which jokes work and what works best in terms of combining visuals and text.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix. The Greatness of Behind the Approval Matrix.

Magazine Article of the Year

The year isn’t half over, but this brilliant profile — by Lauren Collins in The New Yorker, about a photo-retoucher you’ve never heard of — gets my vote.

I mentioned the Dove ad campaign that proudly featured lumpier-than-usual “real women” in their undergarments. It turned out that it was a Dangin job. “Do you know how much retouching was on that?” he [Dangin] asked. “But it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.”