In October and November a little fox took several naps on our neighbor's shed. Yesterday, another (same?) fox made its appearance in our backyard. I took these shots through three windows actually, so, that in concert with the fox's movements, the shots aren't the greatest in the world, but I wanted to share them anyway.
Items That Won't Recycle
_These things just keep arriving at our doors, don’t they? Toothbrushes. Certainly, one can recycle them by using them like Goldie Hawn did in Private Benjamin to clean the finer edges of one’s toilet. But then where do they go?
This month’s other winner? The skin of plastic that so often covers a recyclable plastic bottle. Surely this skin isn’t recyclable? It has no number from one to seven on it.
Others that came through my door? Bubble wrap, which is reusable, but what happens when all the bubbles have been popped? The plastic wrap my Brita filter comes in? All those refrigerator magnets ads that everyone from your doctor to your realtor sends you? Each time I think of our land fills, I imagine them to be like cemeteries that have outgrown their original acreage, and every adjoining space is full. Where will all this non-recyclable material go?
_My New Yorker Project
_ For twenty years I’ve subscribed to The New Yorker, and, on many occasions I’ve read an issue from cover to cover—everything from the opening pages of town happenings and editorial insights to the very end full of film reviews and the cartoon contest. I’ve even drooled over the ads, wishing I were flawlessly young once again, able to wear with ease the latest in clothing, eyewear, and jewelry. Yes, I often devour everything except the fiction. As one who writes fiction, I finally have to ask myself why I omit that from my reading. What is it about a New Yorker story that makes me shun its very pages? Is the story, at times, too long? Is a particular story really that weak? Or am I simply jealous that my entries have not been accepted? I decide that, to be fair, I must read EVERY story from 2011, all forty-nine (one is a play), and do a close reading of each. Then, and only then, shall I be able to make a judgment—for 2011, anyway. Of course, I have a more selfish reason for pursuing such a project. As one who has had several over-the-transom submissions rejected, I am anxious to uncover the apparent secrets of placing one’s story in the magazine. What elements make a story so perfect, so alluring, that TheNew Yorker would have no choice but to snatch it up?
I immediately devise a worksheet that I fill out for each story. From these I come up with the following figures. The average New Yorker story for 2011 is approximately 9,200 words long (from 2,000 to 16,000 words). [Rather than count each word, I do so for half a column and estimate each page, and so I may be off somewhat.] Most New Yorker story writers for 2011 are male, sixty-seven percent, in fact, while females comprise the complementary thirty-three percent (on par with recent years). The average writer is fifty-nine years of age. [I do not calculate the age of the writer published posthumously; Eugene O’Neill would now be over 120. I think it doubly unfair for a dead writer to be published in TheNew Yorker when there exist so many living (and deserving) writers clamoring to find their way into its pages.] Four of the writers are so young or crafty at avoiding Google’s long arm that their ages cannot be easily documented.
If such a thing can possibly be important, I determine that sixty-two percent of the protagonists/central characters are male, thirty-eight percent, female—setting up an interesting correlation with male/female authors (67%/33%). Ninety-five percent of the protagonists/central characters are apparently heterosexual and five percent apparently gay/lesbian (not quite living up to the ten percent figure of the general population, tsk, tsk). Sixty-three percent are apparently Caucasian, twenty-nine percent “minority” or foreign, and eight percent Jewish. One story seems to be set in the 1910s, one in the 1930s, seven in the 1950s, two in the 1970s and 1980s each, four in the 1990s, seventeen in the recent aughts, four in the last two years, and as many as eleven from an undetermined time period. Any number of the stories are set in the United States: two in Florida, one in Connecticut, one in New Jersey, two in California, one in North Carolina, two in Arizona, one each in New Mexico, Montana, and Colorado. Others take place in Cleveland, Ohio and Boston, Massachusetts—and six are placed (fewer than one would think) in the boroughs of New York City. Two stories are set in Israel, one in Cairo, four in Canada, three in London, one in Tokyo, one in Russia, one in Bristol, England, two in India, particularly Calcutta, one each in Switzerland, South Korea, and Argentina. Sixty-three percent of the stories take place in urban or suburban settings, while thirty-five percent happen in rural or pastoral settings. One happens mostly aboard a ship.
It seems that I come late to this New Yorker fiction watch. Frank Kovarik, since 2003, has kept a running list of statistics concerning the writers of short fiction in the magazine. One of the more interesting lists is that of repeat authors. As of 2009, Alice Munro had published twelve; Tessa Hadley and William Trevor, 10; T. Coraghessan Boyle, 8; George Saunders, Jonathan Lethem, Louise Erdrich, John Updike, Roddy Doyle, and Haruki Murakami, 7; Antonya Nelson and Thomas McGuane, 6; Tobias Wolff, Charles D’Ambrosio, Edward P. Jones, Roberto Bolaño, and Lara Vapnyar, 5.
With regard to language, eighty-four percent of the writers seem to use English in a more or less traditional manner. I’m talking about sentences that move elegantly from one to the next, aided with a fine vocabulary and an impeccable sense of word choice—with little experimentation or stretching of the language. Two percent seem to use experimental or nonstandard English: those who would stretch the language, pull it in the direction the author wishes, at times using diction indicative of a particular subculture or ethnic group yet done so without depicting stereotypes. And fourteen percent have rather a mixed usage of traditional and non-traditional. Thirty-seven percent of the writers employ the first person point of view, while a strong sixty-three percent use the third person, the long-accepted mode for storytelling in our culture. Likewise, ninety percent use the past tense to relate their stories, and ten percent, the present tense.
The writers as a whole depict the following themes: affirmation of life (through playfulness); aging; the evanescent yet timeless nature of art; childhood adventures/coming of age; the desolation and superficial nature of contemporary life; divorce/separation; family; fatalism; forbearance; freedom; friendship; homelessness; the holocaust; human oddities; the immigrant’s plight; immortality; journeys; love/loss of love, loss of life, loss of a parent; the inscrutability of meaning; isolation of motherhood; search for the spiritual life; self-knowledge; self-worth; surviving youth; trust; the vengeance of a woman scorned; and “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
A number of things impress me as I read The New Yorker stories from 2011. A New Yorker story is definitely accessible. There are NO quirky stories that require one to read it several times or have a copy of the OED open. Even writers like George Saunders, who can provide tough going (for me) at times, writes stories that are scrutable from beginning to end. Does the editor deliberately select stories that only the average schmo from the suburbs of Connecticut to the salty spray of San Francisco might understand? If so, is it the same standard the magazine applies to its non-fiction articles? Most of these are certainly accessible, but, by virtue of length alone, don’t seem as easily digested as their short stories.
I learn that a New Yorker story must strike the right chord of emotional distance, one of urbanity, and yet, at times, wonder—never venturing into sentimentality or extreme (or close) emotion. Almost as if you (the reader) aren’t there. And I am not the first to make this observation. The late John Gardner says in his 1983 work On Becoming a Novelist: “The New Yorker . . . has from the beginning been . . . a perfect magazine for selling expensive clothes and fine china, and its fiction editors, probably without knowing they do it, regularly duck from strong emotion or strong, masculine characters, preferring the refined and tentative.” [Italics, mine.]
I learn that if these writers are worth their salt at all, it is perfectly acceptable to have an unnamed narrator.
I learn that it is perfectly acceptable to include the posthumous writings of men and women—eliminating yet another spot where a living writer could have had a story published in TheNew Yorker.
I learn that, in an effort to be worldly and cosmopolitan, it is acceptable to include a number of translations. Like musical transcriptions, however, translations seldom fall easily on the ear. Something is lost, to reference an easy cliché. A piece written for pipe organ seldom works when transcribed for full orchestra, and vice-versa is even truer. Stories translated from another language, no matter how competent the translator, read coldly at times, as if indeed the story has been forced into the likes of Google Translator. In the words of my Dutch cousin when I use the translator to write her (we usually communicate in English): my Dutch is pretty bad but she understands me anyway. Yes, in spite of the magazine’s translation, I understand the story anyway. But that is all. I don’t seem to warm to the stories as I do with those written in English. Is it solely my problem or is there a difficulty with the process? Is the practice noble enough to continue?
As with any discussion of this nature, I develop certain categories: stories I like best; good stories that make up the middle of my bell curve; and stories I don’t care for (and why). I’ve made a list of each.
My Favorites From 2011
January 3, 2011, Steven Millhauser, “Getting Closer”: In somewhat of a prose poem, Millhauser describes a boy’s entire approach—in slow motion—to life as he approaches the banks of the Houstatonic River to jump in and join his sister. At the end there exists a break in which concrete language concerned with the physical surroundings shifts to a well-earned dip into the abstract: the “getting closer” to the river is a metaphor for his own passage through time, the passage of all his loved ones, a closer-ness to death. “. . . ending is everywhere. It’s right there in the beginning. Under the shining skin of the world, everything’s dead and gone” (61).
January 10, 2011, Louise Erdrich, “The Years of My Birth”: A twin girl is rejected by her birth mother on a 1950s Chippewa reservation but is then adopted by a different family. She later has the opportunity to save her twin brother’s life by giving him a kidney. There exists so much that Erdrich tells in so little space, the picayune matters that people focus on: assuming a child is retarded because she is misshapen at birth; how one mother can reject, another accept; how one twin can always be aware of her doppelgänger but not he of her (not in a positive way). Their lives are a metaphor for the paths we as individuals can take. We can accept or reject. Love or hate. Nourish or starve. Our twin Linda Wishkob chooses to accept, to love even when others reject or hate her. Why? That is the question one is left with at the end of the story. These abrupt literary endings are tough to take at times, but how else could Erdrich conclude this story?
April 4, 2011, Ramona Ausubel, “Atria”: Hazel becomes pregnant by way of a rape (I believe) and imagines the baby is an atria (among other animals). This story is uniquely simple and yet vibrant with complexities. Ausubel takes an all-too-familiar story for young American girls and tells a different tale. Hazel is duly rebellious, but life punishes her for it. As the baby develops inside her, she imagines it to be a variety of animals. Even as she views the actual baby, she ultimately sees it as a baby seal. One believes she’s about to drown it with a mop full of soapy water (accidentally), but the baby seal “coughs” and one realizes it now lives. Hazel offers her breast to the baby, and, like the infamous scene from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, it is a profoundly simple act that needs no explication. Ausubel is a talented young writer who will go far. Or not.
May 2, 2011, Sam Lypsyte, “Deniers”: This is a long story, covering many years in which Mandy loses her mother to an affair she has with a man representing a company that wishes to build a service station down the block. Drugs. Ballet. AA. Significant stories, it seems, have significant impetus, in this case the holocaust, a subject that never loses its resonance as it echoes throughout and over the generations like radio waves. It seems to trump, out-trump, all significant stories. I’m serious. Mandy’s father’s tragedy, his denial of it, in fact, continues the resonance throughout Mandy’s life. The more he denies, the louder the message. Mandy can’t perhaps feel the heat of the ovens directly, but she does sense their evil effects like ash floating down to rest on her arms. Reading this story with intense interest, I am not disappointed: each section washes back and forth across the life of this family like chapters of a novel. Witty. Dark. Witty and dark.
May 16, 2011, Michael Ondaatje, “The Cat’s Table”: A young boy travels from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to London on the Oronsay, a ship with 600 passengers, and encounters a number of people who influence his life. Sensory detail (even if tone is a bit distant) draws the reader in from the very first paragraph. The young boy, at the beginning of the tale, is heavily impressionable, has a crush on an older girl he knows from school, becomes aware of certain treacheries taking place among the adults on board—and emerges a bit smarter by the end of the voyage. Ondaatje is a writer who creates airtight, yet layered, multifaceted stories that unfold naturally—as if he just now decided to hold forth. Yet, this story is like a novel in terms of its number of characters and their inevitable interrelatedness. The cat’s table, indeed: a story full of people located far from the influence of those sitting at the captain’s table.
June 6, 2011, Tessa Hadley, “Clever Girl”: A girl moves with her mother and stepfather to suburban Bristol, England, and there she discovers her own worth. Trees are a simple metaphor for a complex reality. “. . . how they both existed and did not exist” (67). And yet the metaphor does not scream at you. The story exists away and apart from the metaphor. Lovely, how the physics problem at the end of the story unfolds for the girl, as an accident—the result of spilled coffee. An epiphany occurs. She knows she is clever.
June 13 & 20, 2011, George Saunders, “Home”: A young man returns from war and is at odds with his family and society but in unusual ways. A great anti-war story for our time—isn’t it? With Saunders I never know for sure. “Thanks for your service” seems like dark satire, words that are so sincere yet through overuse lose their original earnestness. The repetition of the sentence, litany-like, cheapens its meaning with each utterance—contributes to the darkness, demonstrates how superficial people are concerning those who have been to war. Mikey is one of those who has been away. He has a definite feeling of not being appreciated. Is that because he’s been involved in some kind of Mi Lai atrocity? Saunders withholds more than he releases—always making the reader guess. And yet not. All is out in plain sight. All you have to do is see it. Stupid. (I am referring to myself.)
June 13 & 20, 2011, Jeffrey Eugenides, “Asleep in the Lord”: A young man travels to India to volunteer in Mother Teresa’s hospital, and there he seeks religious meaning. This story will be selected blindly for the Best American Short Stories series. I’m sure of it. Tone is everything. Distance. Not as in withdrawal, but distance as in emotional stance. The writer is merely reporting, is not participating in Mitchell’s epiphanies. Religion is a touchy subject to broach in fiction, but Eugenides carries it off—the reader is asking the same questions as Mitchell, and receiving essentially the same answer. We know. We don’t know. We’ve all been in that place where we could aid someone in great pain and walk instead out into the sunshine to catch a boat, plane, taxi to some place far away, where we might pray the Jesus prayer—a considerably easier task.
June 13 & 20, 2011, Lauren Groff, “Above and Below”: A young woman is kicked out of graduate school and joins the ranks of the homeless in Florida—a lovely but harsh story. It wanders like the life of someone who is homeless, rambling from a tiny bit of comfort to the next. At first, the reader wonders why the nameless protagonist doesn’t just get a job (as she ultimately does, rather by accident). She has an education, after all. But that is also the point the author makes. The woman is so terribly seized by an inertia derived from losing her dreams that having an education seems irrelevant. She becomes paralyzed, cannot change her circumstances. She’s seen life from above and below.
July 11 & 18, 2011, Ruth Prawer Jhabrala, “Aphrodisiac”: This is a tale of the long life of a man who returns to India from England (after receiving his education) to live in the large home of his family. I love how Jhabrala is able to span a life-time in 7,000 words. I love how she uses “small” things as metaphor: the stinking heads of animals to represent the stink of an ancient and rotting India. Naima, too, is an agent of that old India, ugly as she is, luring Kishen (not sexually) back to India again and again—literally tearing up his return ticket to England and with it all its treasured civilities. Even to the end, he is under her spell, as they decide who, of the two, will rip up his airline ticket to London. He is paralyzed by a life he both loves and deplores.
August 1, 2011, Justin Torres, “Reverting To a Wild State”: This is the back-story of two lovers (told in sections III, II, I, and 0). I love how Torres numbers the present section with a “III,” further back, “II,” etc. until one reaches “0”. At “0” the reader encounters a flashback of how Sal and Nigel begin. It’s the way one should think of chronology. Zero is the beginning, after all. I love the seemingly disparate parts, yet in the end (or beginning), one sees the white kitten that is to become the fat, deaf cat noted in the beginning (or the end)—a symbol of the couple’s tattered, deafened, ten-year relationship. Any number of gay (and straight) couples break up in a few years, but probably far more stay together—like this couple—too frightened or unimaginative to do anything else.
August 29, 2011, David Means, “El Morro”: A man and woman meander through the Southwest United States. I love the dreaminess of this story as it drifts from one narrative to another—creating one cumulative narrative. I love the metaphor of the long-range attack, whether it be the hawk (with his eyes closed) or the friendly missile that kills one of the character’s brother in Iraq. A great depth of knowledge and feeling imbues this story—not just the usual sympathy one feels for Native Americans—but depth in the young white woman, the native women rejected in the end. All have a deep dark sad story to reveal.
September 26, 2011, Callan Wink, “Dog Run Moon”: A young man “liberates” a dog from a painful captivity, and the owner comes after both. This is very mature work for a twenty-four year-old writer. I love the pacing, the structure, how Wink carefully feeds us one bit of the story at a time, a flashback when he needs to tell us something. I love his grasp of the physical world, how the story is deeply rooted in the environment. I love how each word follows the other as if there is no other possible way to relate the narrative. I love how a world that can break into violence at any minute remains calm. I love Wink’s metaphors, particularly the one about the frozen river: the secret life beneath its surface. He delivers a quiet, non-violent ending filled with longing. Another young writer that will go far. Or not.
October 31, 2011, George Saunders, “Tenth of December”: A man attempts to commit suicide, but at the same time has the opportunity to save a young boy. This is perhaps the most emotional story by Saunders I’ve ever read. Yet, of course, he maintains absolute control over said emotion(s). Saunders may be the most mischievous writer I’ve ever read, as well. He so enjoys playing with the language. And yet it is never obscure, this playfulness. The reader follows him down each and every turn of the story.
December 19 & 26, 2011, Margaret Atwood, “Stone Mattress”: While on a trip to the Arctic, an older woman recognizes a man who ruined her life in high school, and she sets out to murder him—an act that the reader is only too happy to see her accomplish. As in much of her writing, Atwood’s story appeals to a dark place in the psyche and asks the reader to accompany her—and why not? It’s only fantasy. All people dream of offing someone who has bitterly wronged them in high school, college, early in their careers before they’ve hardened to the world’s ways. And then with age people soften. But not Verna. Verna carries a grudge to her dying day, and who can blame her? “Bob” takes her virtue, ruins her and plans to take her again as an older woman! So what choice has she but to heave a large rock against his head and put him to bed on a stone mattress (or until he is discovered by someone on the next Arctic field trip)? Yes, to the reader it’s satisfying that Verna gets away with it—so far—and if she doesn’t get away with it, would she care? In prison, Verna would be satisfied that she has avenged her own honor—to her dying day she would be satisfied beyond measure.
The Middle of the Pile
So many of these stories could have wound up on the previous list, but I wanted to limit those to no more than fifteen, so, as with any competition, someone had to wind up here.
January 24, 2011, Hisham Mattar, “Naima”: Elegant prose.
January 31, 2100, Alice Munro, “Axis”: This is a simple story in some ways, but like the Frontenac Axis existing beneath the earth, it has a long history that exists largely under the surface, as well. I love Ms. Munro’s writing. Her stories are gems, absolutely perfect in every way. Perhaps that is the feature that “bothers” me about them, if that is the right term. She is in such great control that there are contingencies for even the hardest to believe incident—as if saying, “I dare you to find the flaw in this story.” Sometimes, it seems, also, that the territory she is covering is too large for a short story. Why am I so hard on her? I don’t know. Such criticism comes from my gut, is all I can say.
February 7, 2011, Tessa Hadley, “Honor”: Stella recalls the death of a male cousin, how it unfolds among all her weird relatives.
February 14 & 21, 2011, Mary Gaitskill, “The Other Place”: Episodic story of a man who early on becomes aware of how his sexual desire is tied to the wish to murder a young woman. In the end, you’re so relieved when, through nearly killing one, the old sexuality of his youth suddenly dissolves away.
February 28, 2011, Said Sayfralezadeh, “Paranoia”: Multi-layered story of Dean and his friendship with an illegal alien from Chile, one that only a recent immigrant would know well enough to share in this manner.
March 21, 2011, Ben Marcus, “Rollingwood”: Mather is a “stud” with weekend “custody” of his one and a half year-old son, whose mother (with actual custody) disappears for more than a week and then acts as if she’s done nothing wrong upon return. Mather is a weenie of a character you despise for not standing up to his ex, for not loving the boy enough, for not having a substantive job that merits a real desk, for working in such a bleak urban setting he doesn’t even know (or care) that he has been fired. And yet, you like him, too, because on occasion, you’ve been a weenie, too. Definitely one of those “refined and tentative” male characters that John Gardner speaks of. Still. Today.
April 11, 2011, Keith Ridgway, “Goo Book”: A man who robs people and drives for a hoodlum is cornered by police to spy on their behalf.
April 25, 2011, Thomas McGuane, “The Good Samaritan”: Szabo injures his shoulder and hires Barney, a temp, to fill in on his “ranch.” Barney insinuates himself into Szabo’s life and winds up stealing not only an Russell painting worth $1,000,000, but stealing a loved one from him, as well.
May 9, 2011, Donald Antrim, “He Knew”: Stephen and his wife Alice, drugged, amble all around NYC for a few hours. I enjoy the time I spend reading the story but have trouble sensing its significance.
May 23, 2011, Ron Rash, “The Trusty”: A prison trusty meets a young woman and together they plan an escape from rural North Carolina to Ashville, but one of them betrays the trust one places with the other.
May 30, 2011, Kate Walbert, “M & M World”: A New Yorker story is subtle, nuanced, almost effortless to write, it would seem, like this one. Walbert weaves seamlessly through time with her two daughters, and ex-husband, to portray the utter isolation that contemporary motherhood can, at times, saddle one with.
June 27, 2011, Alice Munro, “Gravel”: Winding back and forth through time, this is a story of a young girl who drowns in a gravel pit, as told by a younger sister who witnesses the event. As always, with Munro, a satisfying read. And perfect; it’s perfect.
July 4, 2011, Julian Barnes, “Homage To Hemingway”: A writer and professor of creative writing tells three stories of his career, based on the triptych-like structure of Hemingway’s “Homage to Switzerland.” “He tried to write it all down, simply and honestly, with clean moral lines. But, still, nobody wanted to publish it” (66). Ah, that is the rub.
August 8, 2011, Ben Marcus, “What Have You Done”: Man travels to Cleveland alone for a family reunion. Love how Marcus hits all the right notes of the reunion without striking the chord too hard.
September 5, 2011, Haruki Murakami, “Town of Cats”: A young man visits father in another town, seeking also to find out why his mother leaves when he is a boy.
September 12, 2011, Yi Mun-Yol, “An Anonymous Island”: A young woman goes to a village to teach and is confronted by an “imbecile” with whom she eventually has sex. Compared to American writers (who are criticized for it), Murakami seems to tell too much, things that the reader can see for herself.
October 3, 2011, Thomas McGuane, “The House On Sand Creek”: A man and wife take jobs in an isolated town in the West, and the wife abruptly leaves for eastern Europe, only to return with a baby whose skin is darker than her husband’s. This may be perhaps one of the least original stories of the year (given the multi-cultured nature of contemporary society), but McGuane’s characterization is lovely, nevertheless.
October 24, 2011, Caitlin Horrocks, “Sun City”: A granddaughter travels to Arizona to close out the estate of her grandmother and suspects her grandmother, too, is gay. Well crafted, complex, unfolding like petals of a rose. Second of two gay characters for the year 2011. [Two, two out of 49 stories!]
November 7, 2011, Tessa Hadley, “The Stain”: Marina works as a nurse and housekeeper for an old man, and he becomes overly attached to her. There is too much easily written narrative, not enough dialogue.
November 14, 2011, Steven Millhauser, “Miracle Polish”: A man buys a bottle of miracle polish, and when he shines a mirror he sees the contents of the mirror more clearly. At the end, after his marriage has been destroyed by the effects of such honesty, the man awaits the frumpy old man to return and sell him another bottle of miracle polish. But some events are singular, will never be repeated. One senses this is just such an event.
November 21, 2011, Sam Lypsyte, “The Climber Room”: Lypsyte is an excellent writer. But the end is jolting—Tovah’s diatribe, where she finally unloads (in the presence of all people, Randy Goat) her feminist polemic. It doesn’t seem to work.
November 28, 2011, Alice Munro, “Leaving Maverly”: Munro makes sly reference to the magazine: “She used to live for her magazines, which were all serious and thought-provoking but with witty cartoons she laughed at. Even the ads for fur and jewels had made her laugh, and he hoped still, that they would revive her” (68).
December 12, 2011, Nathan Englander, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”: The holocaust’s fires continue to nibble at the heels of its survivors’ descendants. Guilt is handled in new ways: moving to Israel, drinking heavily, smoking your son’s dope. The two men whose tattooed numbers are so close together in sequence could care less about the significance. [These two have to have been young children in the early 1940s, because most survivors are now dead from a fairly seasoned old age.]
The Stories of 2011 That I Least Liked and Why
January 17, 2011, Amos Oz, “The King of Norway”: Zvi Provisor’s only social intercourse is to read and announce bad news to the kibbutz where he lives. He briefly forms a relationship with Luna Blank, but when she literally touches him, he breaks off seeing her. My main complaint with this story is its POV, which is ostensibly in first person (one or two pronouns tell me so), but largely it is related in the third person—establishing what, a grander than usual sort of omniscience, like Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter? Is it worthy of such elevation?
March 7, 2011, David Foster Wallace, “Backbone”: A boy, in an effort to kiss every square inch of his body, goes too far and injures his back. The story is interesting, and I can see why the late Wallace has so many followers, but there exists an emotional distance that I find disconcerting.
March 14, 2011, Robert Coover, “Going For a Beer”: A man goes out for a beer and lives an entire life, and the story ends with said man having his beer in the same game room bar where the story begins. It is difficult for me to feel anything on behalf of the character. Perhaps I don’t know enough about him.
March 28, 2011, Haruki Murakami, “U.F.O. in Kushiro”: A 1995 earthquake causes Komura’s wife to divorce him. As a distraction he delivers a package to a remote part of Japan. I don’t care for the fact that this story has been previously published in 2001 and that the magazine, following the recent earthquakes in Japan, pulls it out like a precious diamond, once again acing out a more contemporary story/writer, to satisfy some need to be topical.
April 18, 2011, Ludmilla Petrushevskya, “A Withered Branch”: A writer-hitchhiker travels throughout eastern Europe. The emotional climax of the story seems to occur when an entirely different woman loses her whole family to an apartment fire. What seems to me like a rather truncated and underdeveloped story must be a fully nuanced one to the Russian reader.
July 25, 2011, Robert Coover, “Matinée”: This story is a fantasy of a man and a woman who go to the cinema to live out their lives—a tour de force of a sort but one whose virtuosity leaves the reader cold with the machinations of its fanciness-smanciness.
August 15 & 22, 2011, Yosef Hayim Yerulshami, “Gilgul”: A man returns to a seer in Tel Aviv to unravel the mysteries of his life. There seems to exist flaws in pacing, development of the characters.
September 19, 2011, Ann Beattie, “Starlight”: This story is an imaginative recreation of the Nixons’ post-Watergate life. What draws Beattie to these banal people? They seem, in many ways, the least human of all such lionized couples. Each recognizable element of the Nixons’ story is like hearing the pings of xylophone keys—even, expected, and dull.
October 10, 2011, David Long, “Oubliette”: A mother who treats a daughter poorly later dies of Huntington’s disease. “Nathalie would begin the never-ending task of not forgetting her mother” (119). Hm.
October 17, 2011, Eugene O’Neill, “Exorcism”: In this one-act play (that excludes yet another contemporary and LIVING writer), a young man who tries to kill himself is saved, and it changes his view of life. Why does the magazine include such a great man’s juvenilia? There is nothing wrong with the play—it is fascinating—but why give valuable space that might be used for a living writer to a 123 year-old ghost, who magnificently wrote plays far more noteworthy than this one?
December 5, 2011, César Aira, “The Musical Brain”: When the narrator is a child, his family visits the Musical Brain, but the story is much more complex and convoluted to write about in one sentence. Aira’s method of “writing forward” instead of revising (c.f. Wikipedia) may instead be a form of deus ex machina. And laziness, perhaps. Who, of us, after all, likes to revise? What a bore.
As one might think, there is no one quality that makes a story a sure thing to be published in The New Yorker. But I will recap the qualities I believe don’t hurt. The New Yorker story must be accessible. You must be able to follow it through to the end and understand (on a concrete level, at least) what is happening. Questions of deeper significance may arise, but because the magazine must appeal to a certain level of urbanity and taste, such questions may be easily answered. Or not. Deft characterization wins out over overplotted or quirky stories. The universal is derived from the specific.
The magazine is guilty of a certain conservatism—one that is reflected in the publishing world at large. That is to say that commercial publishers aren’t much interested in taking chances with the avant-garde, because it isn’t likely to pay for itself—a truism that has long been . . . true. Book publishers are now so controlled by tight budgets that they must select only sure-fire winners, those that appeal to the broadest of audiences, blah blah blah. We’ve been listening to a verse of that same song for over thirty years. And The New Yorker, at times, is just as guilty, it seems, of selecting sure things from traditional writers, who seem capable of cranking out one gem after another. Will our great grandchildren be reading these in their AP English classes as fine examples of early twenty-first century literature? Or will most of them fall to the bottom of a rather large slush pile? I’d certainly like to be around to find out.
I believe The New Yorker should return to the practice of introducing perhaps as many as six younger (or unknown) writers each year in the summer Fiction Issue. If you limit great writers like Alice Munro and T.C. Boyle to one story a year and do not include work from the dead, there would be room then to publish these younger writers. So there.
Will I read all forty-eight or forty-nine stories in 2012? I don’t know. I certainly could. I began my little project early in November, and I was able to complete it by New Year’s Day. I guess it’s a question of desire. While I fully appreciate each story I read—how hard it is to produce a story that illuminates the human condition from all positions on the globe and is yet personal enough to draw any reader in for up to an hour—I think I’d rather roam the stacks found in cyberspace and use my time reading something else.
Will I continue to submit my stories to the magazine? If I think my story is urbane enough, worldly enough, universal enough, and yet one that is easily scrutinized and appreciated, I believe I shall. Yes, I shall submit via their handy online submission manager my gem of a story. And, as usual, I’ll go on writing as I wait for their long-awaited decision.
Richard Jespers is a writer living in Lubbock, Texas, USA.
See my profile at Author Central: