Narrative, a great online literary magazine, has a new issue out featuring a new story by Rick Bass and a classic by Frank Conroy. You can sign up for a free “subscription” to get access to the above stories as well as everything in their archives.
Back in 2003, I decided to start reading the fiction in The New Yorker consistently. Up until that point, I’d read the weekly fiction offering only if it happened to be something by a writer I particularly liked.
Part of my motivation had to do with my own ambitions as a fiction writer; another part had to do with my high school teaching job, which included a course in Reading and Writing Fiction. I thought maybe, by studying closely what the magazine was publishing, I’d get a better sense of just why my own stories were getting unceremoniously rejected everywhere I sent them (with the minor exception of a brief but kind note scribbled at the bottom of a form rejection from McSweeney’s.) If not, at least I’d maybe come away with some good stories to teach in class.
In the first few months of the project, I encountered some great pieces of fiction: Tobias Wolff’s “Class Picture” (an excerpt from his novel Old School), Maile Meloy’s “Red From Green,” and Lara Vapnyar’s “Love Lessons, Mondays, 8 a.m.” And I found that, having preemptively committed myself to reading each story, I sat down with a helpful patience, an openness to the experience and to the writer’s art.
The summer of that first year, I went back to an old issue I’d kept tucked away on a shelf—the one dated June 21 & 28, 1999. This issue was designed by rock-star book designer Chip Kidd. (Incidentally, it’s the only issue in the magazine’s history whose pages have artwork that bleeds to the edges.) The cover features an illustration of Chris Ware’s character Jimmy Corrigan on a beach, looking out at the sea. Scrolled down the page are twenty first sentences—from stories written by the twenty authors chosen to represent what editor Bill Buford, in his introductory comment, called “the twenty best young fiction writers in America today… the obvious names and the not-so-obvious, those who are only just now crossing a threshold of literary recognition and those who have been at home in it for some time.”
I’d dipped into this issue when it first came out. I had liked the Sherman Alexie piece and the David Foster Wallace one, but set the magazine aside after being unmoved by a couple of the others. Now, though, I dug back in and found more to like—a tense and mysterious story by Chang-Rae Lee, a wicked little one by Antonya Nelson, and soberly masterful stories by Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri. I found that the issue included an excerpt from Tony Earley’s gentle, pitch-perfect Jim the Boy, a novel which I’d read and loved.
Over the next seven years, I continued to read the New Yorker fiction fairly regularly. Some years I read more or less everything, while other years I took in only about half of the stories. I began to catalog my reactions in a spreadsheet. I fell in love with Alice Munro and George Saunders. I made up enough bonus-reading quizzes on stories I liked that I was able to offer one per day to my Reading and Writing Fiction students. I sat down and formulated my own criteria for evaluating fiction. I branched out into other sources of fiction, subscribing to smaller magazines like Epoch, The Gettysburg Review, and the Virginia Quarterly Review.
I came to recognize, though, that reading magazine fiction is a crapshoot. I think that’s why many New Yorker readers rarely read this part of the magazine. When you read a piece of nonfiction, you know what you’re getting into, and you know you’ll come away from the experience with something tangible—some information or perspective on the world. And you can stop midway through and still have something to take with you. Fiction doesn’t work that way, at least for me. It’s like sex—uncomfortable if abandoned midway through. The rewards of fiction—the ecstatic transport when you’re pulled into the world of a story, given a new window into human experience—can be greater than those of nonfiction, but you can also finish a story angry that the writer has just wasted 45 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.
Given the risks involved in reading a piece of fiction, it helps to have someone whose taste you trust to limit the pool. Larry Dark became that type of guide for me in the O. Henry Prize collections from 1997 to 2002, which include dozens of stories that blew me away. The New Yorker fiction editors serve the same purpose. Though I don’t dispute that stories are published in smaller magazines that I would like better than a healthy percentage of the stories published in The New Yorker, I simply don’t have time to read all those little magazines. The New Yorker’s batting average is high enough—and it publishes enough heavy-hitters—that it’s as good a section as any to stand in if you hope to catch a home run.
As the literary critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith has argued, there’s an unavoidable contingency to literary valuation—an arbitrariness on both a personal and a society-wide level. Yet we naturally make such judgments. We have to do so, simply to avoid being drowned by the deluge of written material that swamps us. Our literary judgments also help us define ourselves and our culture. Who am I? What do I like, and why? What vision of the world do I share? And who are we? What do we value? What stories do we want to hear about ourselves, what will our culture admit into its awareness?
So that’s the context in which I’m approaching this week’s New Yorker, in which the fiction editors offer, eleven years later, a new group of 20 writers, all under 40 years of age, as the future of fiction in America. It’s an effort to shape a literary culture. And it’s an effort by people whose taste I generally trust.
Overall, though, the new list doesn’t immediately excite me, I must say. ZZ Packer and Wells Tower have written debut collections of stories that I greatly admire, and several of the others have written stories that I thought were good. But, to return to the sexual metaphor of reading fiction, with some of the other writers on the list I’ve had one-night stands and never hooked up again. Others, sad to say, have fallen victim to episodes of literary coitus interruptus.
The fact is, this past year I’ve gotten a bit impatient with New Yorker fiction. Busy with other reading projects, I’ve slipped back into my old habits—reading only stories whose authors particularly grabbed my interest.
But—and this is another danger of magazine fiction—it’s all too easy to misjudge a writer harshly simply on the basis of one story. Like the 1999 issue, this one, I hope, will redirect my attention to worthy writers whom I may have unfairly written off.
Despite the periodic disappointments of reading fiction in magazines, there’s a unique magic to the experience. There’s the gift of a new story by one of your favorite writers. There’s the joy of beginning a story by a writer you’ve never read and suddenly realizing that you’re encountering something great. It’s like being struck by lightning, set suddenly afire with pleasure. No other reading experience can turn a chance hour into sheer delight in quite this way.
Say what you will, The New Yorker is one of our culture’s most stalwart curators of this type of literary experience. For that reason, its editors’ vision of the future of fiction is worth considering. It’s my hope that, like the 1999 issue, the 2010 version will include some surprising treats that open up new readerly enthusiasms for me.
Bonus Link: A Speculative 20 Under 40, from 40 Years Ago
A lengthy article in the Financial Times takes on America’s squeamishness with that most perplexing of punctuations, the semi-colon. Personally, I’m a big semi-colon fan (if one can be said to be a fan of a particular piece of punctuation), but Michael Kinsley, for example, is more cautious:”I use semicolons and I never really enforced a hard-and-fast rule,” Kinsley responded recently by e-mail from the West Coast, where he has been running The Los Angeles Times’ opinion pages for the past year.”But if abuse is going to be common,” he continued, “it’s simpler and safer to have a flat-out rule. It’s like drug regulation. Drugs are banned sometimes because a minority of users will have negative side effects, or because taking them correctly is complicated, although many people could get it right and would find them helpful. Actually, I’m opposed to that kind of thinking re drugs, but I am OK with it regarding punctuation. Punctuation can’t save your life.”
Yesterday in a crowded elevator, I watched a man punch furiously at the door-close button, trying to guard his territory from further invasion. And I thought back to the April 21 New Yorker, in which Nick Paumgarten dropped this bombshell:In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power. It’s a little like prayer. Elevator design is rooted in deception.For me, this was a Lewinski-sized revelation. Granted, Paumgarten phrases it as a kind of aside (much as Lawrence Wright broke the news in the January 21 issue that he’s been the subject of FBI wiretapping.) Still, I expected this news to spread rapidly – and to lead to a sharp decline in door-close-button pushing. Of course, my assumption that hundreds of thousands of Americans share my enthusiasm for Nick Paumgarten’s writing about just about anything appears, in retrospect, to have been misguided. I’ll be curious to see whether The Millions, with its vast readership among elevator riders, can finish what Mr. Paumgarten started. The Door-Close Button Doesn’t Work – pass it on!
In the Washington Post, Meghan O’Rourke reviews one of the more talked about literary biographies in recent memory, Mockingbird by Charles Shields. In fact, I’m surprised that it took so long for the first serious biography of Harper Lee to emerge, since she is a figure that has long inspired curiosity among readers. One of the big questions the biography tries to answer is why she has never written another novel. The Post characterizes Shields’ conclusion thusly: Shields makes a convincing case that Lee, a standoffish, stubborn woman invested in precision, became too “overwhelmed” by the success of her first novel to finish any of her subsequent efforts… For Lee, he observes, writing was always about capturing the everyday nuances of Southern small-town life she knew so well — and, in her own way, loved; when she became famous, her relationship to that world was permanently altered.That certainly rings true to me.The biography has also prompted critics to revisit To Kill a Mockingbird, as Thomas Mallon did in the New Yorker back in May. He took the opportunity to present a somewhat contrarian view of Mockingbird, essentially calling the widely read novel over-rated.In the New York Times Garrison Keillor used his review to celebrate Lee and to pardon her sin of not giving us more books to read.Ahead of her is a deluge of success, a potful of money and some sort of vindication in the eyes of Monroeville. Truman will disintegrate and die at 59 and she will persist. The lady looks around at a room full of books, closes the door, and drives off with her sister to an early supper at Dave’s Catfish Cabin, a plate of fish and hush puppies and a glass of tea. Everybody at Dave’s knows who she is and nobody asks her made-up questions about writing or fame or how she explains the long run her novel has enjoyed. She is apparently in good humor and enjoying her food and not planning to go on Oprah or Charlie Rose. And so there, dear reader, you will just have to leave her.Though she has been labelled a one-hit wonder, Shields’ biography, and the discussion it has prompted, prove that she has inspired much more fascination than that label would imply.
Ian Frazier’s piece in last week’s New Yorker is one of the oddest, funniest essays I’ve read in a long time. I laughed to myself as I read it the other day while sitting on the steps of the Art Institute in downtown Chicago (following an edifying meetup with fellow book bloggers Deep and Sam). The essay, “Pensees D’Automne,” is about a grown man’s passion for stomping acorns in the fall, and it contains many asides about things like health insurance and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Frazier, who has long written odd and funny things like this, has a new book out this week called Gone to New York: Adventures in the City. The book collects thirty years of Frazier’s journalism about New York. From a review in the Sun-Times:The non-linear way Frazier’s mind works is a delight to follow on the page. And don’t let the emphasis on New York City fool you. Frazier is one of us. In the introduction to Gone to New York, Jamaica Kincaid gets it right when she calls her pal “the authentic American,” whose work “is meant to form an arc, an arc that has not yet begun its curve.”Kincaid and Frazier are also involved in another recently released book, this year’s edition of The Best American Travel Writing. Kincaid is the editor this year and Frazier is joined as a contributor by luminaries like John McPhee, William T. Vollmann, and William Least-Heat Moon.
In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, the novelist Nicholson Baker offers a charming encomium to Wikipedia. Baker knows whereof he speaks – he reveals that he’s been a prolific Wikipedia contributor. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, we at The Millions were able to chase down an archive of all of Baker’s Wikipedia activity, and we humbly submit that it’s a fascinating window into one writer’s mind: Duck Man, hydraulic fluid, the “Sankebetsu brown bear incident”…. Perhaps equally impressive is that Baker has resisted the temptation to tinker with the Wikipedia entry about himself.