Last Words

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A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?

My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.

I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.

Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.

I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?

These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.

Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.

But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?

Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”

If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.

Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.

It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?

The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.

There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.

In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.

(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)

Her Story Next to His: Beloved and The Odyssey

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In the era of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain, it is puzzling that more attention has not been paid to the extensive parallels to The Odyssey in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The most celebrated novel by America’s most recent Nobel laureate, Beloved has itself been turned into a feature film, in addition to being heavily scrutinized by the academy. Yet little has been written about how Beloved makes use of Homer’s epic poem—more sneakily than Joyce does in Ulysses or the Coen brothers do in O Brother, but arguably more profoundly than other texts that have received more notice for doing so.

Perhaps the interpretive omission can be attributed to the apparent absence, in Beloved, of a central Odysseus figure—a journeying hero in the mold of Ulysses Everett McGill, W. P. Inman, or even Leopold Bloom. Nevertheless, from its opening chapter Morrison’s novel makes clear that its story ought to be placed next to Homer’s. Like the Odyssey, Beloved begins in a haunted house. Penelope and Telemachus are haunted by parasitic suitors who lay waste their home in jealous pursuit of the woman of the house, who languishes in torment up in her chambers. Sethe and Denver’s house, similarly, is tormented by a jealous ghost driven by a parasitic desire for Sethe. Sethe has been cut off from her community and eventually falls into a despair as deep if not deeper than Penelope’s. Denver, like Telemachus, lives a lonely existence in this troubled household, waiting with uncertain hope for the return of a father she has never met and who may in fact be dead. Both works begin in media res—after the father’s mother (Anticleia in the Odyssey, Baby Suggs in Beloved) has already died of grief—and, in fact, chronologically near the end of the period of time that their stories will cover.

So is Halle Suggs the Odysseus of Beloved—a father and hero who, unlike Odysseus, never returns home? Or is it one of the other “Sweet Home Men,” Paul D, who shows up at 124 Bluestone Road in the first chapter of Beloved? Like Odysseus, Paul D enters a troubled home and does battle with the troubling forces. “God damn it! Hush up! … Leave the place alone! Get the hell out!” he yells, engaging in his own slaughter in the hall as he smashes the ghost into retreat with a table. Like Odysseus reuniting with his long-lost wife after dispatching the suitors, Paul D goes to bed with Sethe (who has a chokecherry tree of scars on her back instead of Penelope’s olive-tree-rooted bed) after winning the battle with the ghost of 124.

Unlike Odysseus, however, Paul D has indeed won only a battle, not the war. The suitors troop down to the underworld, apparently never to trouble Odysseus and his family again, but in Beloved the ghost is back, in stronger form, just a few chapters later. Paul D himself is not quite sure that he is Odysseus—whether he adequately fills out the form of heroic manhood embodied by other Sweet Home men like Halle or Sixo. “Now there was a man,” Paul D reflects post-coitally next to Sethe, thinking of Sixo; “Himself lying in the bed … didn’t compare.” Shattered by his own Odyssean wanderings and trials, Paul D lacks the arrogant self-assurance (and, one might add, the ready supernatural assistance of Athena) that underlies Odysseus’ “spirit tempered to endure” (all Odyssey quotations are from Robert Fagles’s 1996 translation). Paul D compares himself constantly and invidiously to Halle and Sixo: “[I]t was always clear to Paul D that those two were men whether Garner said so or not. It troubled him that, concerning his own manhood, he could not satisfy himself on that point.”

If readers have often failed to see Paul D as a version of Odysseus, that may be because Paul D himself fails to do so.

As in Homer, the suitors cannot be vanquished without the maturation and heroism of Telemachus, so in Beloved a crucial turn occurs when Denver takes action. Nearly the same age as Telemachus and, like him, on the cusp of adulthood but stunted in an artificially prolonged childhood, Denver must leave home in order to bring about a change. Just as Telemachus, guided by Athena, must leave the confines of Ithaca to seek the assistance of Nestor and Menelaus, so Denver, guided by the spirit of Baby Suggs, holy, must “leave the yard; step off the edge of the world, leave the two behind and go ask somebody for help.”

Telemachus visits his father’s old war comrades; Denver visits the people of Cincinnati who used to know her grandmother and mother before the catastrophe that Stamp Paid refers to as “the Misery.” During their travels, both Telemachus and Denver are recognized by their resemblance to their forebears. Helen notes of Telemachus, “To the life he’s like the son of the great Odysseus, ”and Lady Jones quickly asks Denver, “You Baby Suggs’ kin, ain’t you?”

For both characters, the journeys and the encounters lead not only to an improvement in their home lives but also to personal maturity. Telemachus tells his mother, upon his return, “the boy you knew is gone.” He is right, as we see when he demonstrates the ability to string his father’s bow (as well as the self-restraint to avoid doing so, for the good of their plan). For Denver, too, her trip outside the yard “inaugurate[s] her life in the world as a woman.” Her increasing connections with her community give her a new sense of “a self to look out for and preserve,” and ultimately she emerges as an independent and motivated young woman, holding down a job, planning to attend Oberlin College, and even catching the eyes of young men.

The community that Denver reconnects with brings about the final slaughter in the hall at 124 Bluestone Road. A group of women, convinced “that rescue was in order,” triumphs in the climactic confrontation with the ghost. They come together in song that takes them back to the powerful spiritual services Baby Suggs used to give in the Clearing, and their music is “a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees,” and powerful enough to drive away the malevolent spirit of Beloved.

One must remember that Odysseus does not rout the suitors alone, either—the assistance of his son, his swineherd, his cowherd, and of course Athena, is essential. In any case, what this African American community needs, the novel suggests, is not a solitary hero driven by vengeance, but cooperation driven by empathy and love.

Does that mean that this is an Odyssey that has no need of an Odysseus? No. In fact, after the defeat of Beloved, Paul D re-emerges as a necessary and worthy male hero. The penultimate chapter of the novel recapitulates Paul D’s Odyssean struggles to escape the South: “In five tries he had not had one permanent success. Every one of his escapes … had been frustrated…. he never stayed uncaught.” Of whose travels is this long and winding road reminiscent if not Odysseus’? “Now his coming is the reverse of his going,” and Paul D makes his way back to 124 and the woman he was interrupted in the midst of forging a loving relationship with. As Athena tells Zeus, “the exile must return!”

Paul D’s return saves Sethe’s life. He finds her exhausted and hopeless on Baby Suggs’ deathbed, nearly dead of grief like Anticleia, and promises her a new life as he takes her hand in his: “Sethe … me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Yet Paul D needs Sethe as much as she needs him. Sethe redeems Paul D’s past humiliations because she was there for some of them, tenderly looking away from him “so he did not have to feel the shame of being collared like a beast. Only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood like that.” Sethe, Paul D discovers, has the power to restore his sense of manhood, even heroism. In other words, she gives him the possibility of being the Odysseus that he himself doubted he could be.

As a result, Paul D “wants to put his story next to hers,” a notion that directly parallels the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope, when “the royal couple, once they’d reveled in all/the longed-for joys of love, reveled in each other’s stories.” The potential strength of a conjugal relationship such as this one is confirmed for Paul D by his memory of Sixo’s remarks about his own mate, the Thirty-Mile Woman: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” Sixo’s paean to sexual love recalls Odysseus’ own paean to marriage:

No finer, greater gift in the world than that…

when man and woman possess their home, two minds,

two hearts that work as one. Despair to their enemies,

a joy to all their friends. Their own best claim to glory.

Another possible reason that the extensive parallels between the Odyssey and Beloved have gone mostly unremarked is that the novel’s richness allows multiple interpretive frames to be placed usefully over the text. Beloved certainly does not wear its Odyssey on its sleeve as brazenly as do O Brother or Ulysses, and, perhaps unlike those works, it can be read insightfully without reference to Homer. On the other hand, the connections between the Odyssey and Beloved in no way diminish Morrison’s novel. Instead, the similarities and differences between the works accomplish something important. By making Beloved a reworking of the Odyssey, Toni Morrison puts her story next to Homer’s—placing the lives and struggles of African Americans past and present into an epic context. She places these experiences alongside a story that is central to Western civilization, thereby asserting their own worthiness and importance in that tradition.

New Yorker Fiction By the Numbers

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Several years ago I started cataloging the fiction published in The New Yorker in a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet began merely as a way to keep track of what I’d read, but I soon became curious about what the spreadsheet’s data-sorting capabilities could reveal. I added details like the gender of the authors, their nationality, and the number of times they’d been published in the magazine.

I began reading New Yorker fiction fastidiously in 2003, the spreadsheet’s original first year of data. But this year I went back and added in 2001 and 2002 as well, bringing this year’s spreadsheet to a full ten years. If you’d like to tinker with it yourself, you can find it here.

To me, the most notable thing about this year’s crop of fiction is how American it was. Of the 54 stories the magazine published, 36 were written by Americans. That’s around 66 percent, significantly higher than the overall ten-year average of 53 percent. Much of this increase stems from the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” project, in which they selected twenty writers to represent the future of American fiction. That project in itself indicates a key part of the magazine’s ambition: to cultivate and shape an American literary culture.

The New Yorker is uniquely positioned to do so. No other magazine in the country (or even in the world, I would venture) publishes as many stories for a readership as large as The New Yorker’s. Back when reading short fiction was a more widely popular form of entertainment, there were multiple mass-audience venues for writers to publish in. Now, essentially, there’s the New Yorker and there’s everyone else—a few monthlies like Harper’s, and then the ever-burgeoning market of university-affiliated and independent literary magazines whose comparatively small readership does not deter the hopeful from filling their slush piles.

It’s tempting to see these smaller magazines as a sort of farm system and the New Yorker as the big leagues, but of course there are great writers who have never been published in the magazine, and there are plenty of New Yorker stories that fail to move me at all.

It’s hard work to make a story come alive, to show the reader a new world, or put the reader convincingly into the mind of a disturbing character, or make the reader care about a moment of moral choice, or simply observe human beings with great perceptiveness. The people who devote their lives to the creation of such things need encouragement and support. On a very practical level, the New Yorker helps cultivate an American literary culture by offering a kind of brass ring for writers to dream of grabbing. Of course, it also pays good money for stories.

The New Yorker’s support has, for example helped to sustain the career of Alice Munro, a fantastically good writer whose entire output has, essentially, been in the short story form, which typically does not provide great financial remuneration. Here’s what Munro herself said about the magazine:
Selling to The New Yorker made the whole business of being a short-story writer valid in a way, because I still had these recurring fits of I must give this up and write a novel. And then, afterward, I didn’t have as many of them, I didn’t have the same urgency, I didn’t any longer think of myself as a writer who had halted at some, you know, intermediate stage of development. And I became content with doing stories.
he magazine’s showcasing of short fiction helps support the genre itself and, for me at least, increases the pleasures of that genre. I find that I enjoy an Alice Munro story (or one by George Saunders or Steven Millhauser or Louise Erdrich) more when it stands alone in a magazine, framed like a work of art in a museum, instead of collected in a book with ten or twelve others, or even, sometimes, as part of a novel.

Looking at the stats, one might gripe about the recurrence of certain names. There are certain writers that I could do with less of, but over a ten-year period it’s hard to complain about getting to read seventeen Alice Munro stories, twelve by T. Coraghessan Boyle, or nine by George Saunders.

Each year, the New Yorker presents its readers with a gigantic anthology of fiction, dribbled out at the rate of about one story a week. Many subscribers, I suspect, read little of that anthology. Others read it religiously. For a few years I read the entire thing; lately I’ve been getting to about half of it. In any case, my spreadsheet offers something like a table of contents to that ongoing and often quite rewarding anthology which, like all anthologies, represents a vision of literary history and a statement of literary value.

With ten years of data compiled, we can get some hard info on the New Yorker’s tendencies when publishing fiction.

The first thing we always look at is if the New Yorker is bringing new writers into the mix or sticking with its old standbys.  The “20 Under 40” project this year helped skew things toward newer names this year. Still, Just 10 writers account for 114 (or 22%) of the 514 stories to appear over the last ten years. Just 28 writers account for 215 (or 42%) of the stories. The New Yorker is sometimes criticized for featuring the same writers again and again, but it appears to be getting better on this front. The 28 “standbys” noted above and listed below accounted for only 13 of the 54 stories published in 2009 (or 24%). On the flip side of this argument, 17 writers appeared in the New Yorker for the first time in 2010 (at least since 2001).

Of the 514 stories in the New Yorker from 2001 through 2010, 184 or 35.8% were penned by women. 2010 was 37% female.

As noted above, New Yorker fiction artificially skewed American in 2010, but overall over the last ten years, 54% of the sories in the magazine have been penned by Americans. Coming in second are the Brits at 43 stories and in third the Irish at 34 stories.

Returning to the frequency question, below are all the writers who have appeared in the New Yorker at least five times over the last ten years. These are the superstars of New Yorker fiction (stars indicate the number of stories, if any, they had in the New Yorker in 2010.):


Alice Munro*


William Trevor


T. Coraghessan Boyle*
Haruki Murakami


John Updike
Tessa Hadley*


Louise Erdrich*


George Saunders*
Roddy Doyle*


Roberto Bolaño**


Jonathan Lethem
Annie Proulx
Antonya Nelson
E. L. Doctorow**


Aleksandar Hemon
Charles D’Ambrosio
David Means**
Julian Barnes
Thomas McGuane


Ann Beattie
Jhumpa Lahiri
Edward P. Jones
Jonathan Franzen*
Lara Vapnyar
Joyce Carol Oates*
Marisa Silver
Tobias Wolff
Yiyun Li*

Strange Flowers and Gubbinals: On Teaching and Pain

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Emily Moore, the protagonist of Andre Dubus’s 1996 short story “Dancing After Hours,” is a bartender and waitress who used to be an English teacher. As an English teacher myself, I find her reasons for leaving teaching terrifying in their precision and familiarity:
She had stopped teaching because of pain: she had gone with passion to high school students, year after year, and there was always one student, or even five, who wanted to feel the poem or story or novel, and see more clearly because of it. But Emily’s passion dissolved in the other students. They were young and robust, and although she knew their apathy was, above all, a sign of their being confined by classrooms and adolescence, it still felt like apathy. It made Emily feel isolated and futile… In her last three years she realized she was becoming scornful and bitter…
What teacher has not felt this pain—the pain of the audible yawn from the kid in the back row just as you launch into the lesson you worked on for an hour and a half—or worse, the lesson you spent only ten minutes preparing and are now feeling vulnerable about? This is not acute pain, not the pain of discovering that a student has craftily plagiarized an essay for your class, or reading a mean-spirited comment on a course evaluation, or being insulted to your face. This is the low-grade fever, the chronic hypertension of teaching, the apathy, dismissiveness, and dehumanization I suspect are part of most teachers’ everyday lives.

A former teacher at the school where I teach loved Dickens above all other writers but never taught his work to his students. He didn’t want to put what he loved in front of them, fearing what they would do to it, or to his perception of it.

His fear was not a frivolous one. It does something to your love of a book to be yoked to it in front of a class of adolescents. To hear it casually mocked in the minutes before class begins. To have to defend it from annual rounds of nitpicking complaint from students whose own favorite texts—you just know—are shoddy pieces of hack work next to the art you’re giving them the chance to encounter. Most of all, perhaps, it does something to your love of a book to be forced to acknowledge the brute fact that this beautiful creation that has moved you to tears on multiple occasions will routinely fail to have that effect—or, seemingly, any effect—on a good twenty, fifty, seventy-five percent of your students, to whom that beautiful creation, born of toil and insight and bitter, sacred experience, is merely “boring” or “weird.”

When made, like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, to experience this same deflation over and over and over again, you are tempted to give in, give up, to stop teaching that book. Or, worse, to stop loving it—in effect, to say to the students, “Have it your way.”

The poet Wallace Stevens was by day an insurance company executive, not a teacher. But his short, rather elliptical poem “Gubbinal” (1931) seems to express this sentiment of surrender to those who lack imagination:
That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

That tuft of jungle feathers,
That animal eye,
Is just what you say.

That savage of fire,
That seed,
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
and the people are sad.
Over and over in this poem, mystery and possibility are written off and dissolve into the mundane. “That strange flower,” “that tuft of jungle feathers,” “that animal eye,” “that savage of fire,” “that seed”—images of beauty, growth, danger, and potential—get undercut by flippant reductiveness—“Have it your way.” No wonder that “The world is ugly,/And the people are sad.”

A gubbinal, according to a footnote in the Norton Anthology where I first encountered this poem, is a contemptuous name for a country bumpkin. In Dubus’s story, Emily’s scorn and bitterness are directed at the years’ worth of gubbinals—unimaginative, apathetic rubes—she has encountered in her classes. These are the students for whom discussion of literature equals “reading stuff into the book,” for whom interpretation means only “finding hidden meanings”—probably not put there intentionally by the writer and thus ridiculous and meaningless. The gubbinal, we might say, is ultimately someone who has no faith in meaning. Or, to put it more precisely, the gubbinal has no faith that meaning can be mysterious, dangerous, beautiful, or multifaceted in its possibilities. That poem, that story, that novel, that scene when Romeo and Juliet first meet, when Odysseus as a young man suffers the wound whose scar will identify him decades later—far from being “strange flowers” that might be studied, enjoyed—are “just what they say.”

Never mind that determining “just what they say” requires an act of interpretation that might yield differing results for different people. The gubbinal believes that the text is dead, its meaning static or, just as likely, non-existent. And the world at large, to the gubbinal, is much the same—boring, its parameters reducible to a series of clichés whose interest pales in comparison to that of most video games.

Emily, confined in claustrophobic classrooms full of gubbinals, says “Have it your way,” and quits: “She did not want to teach again, or work with teenagers, or have to talk about the books she read. But she knew that pain had defeated her.” Her world is ugly, and she is sad. She has looked into the faces of so many people who, to quote an even more famous Stevens poem, “are not going/To dream of baboons and periwinkles,” that she no longer wants to do much dreaming of her own.

I myself feel Emily’s dilemma with some regularity—the temptation to become scornful and bitter in reaction to students’ lack of imagination, faith in the class enterprise, and basic interest in what I am trying to get them to think about. Admittedly, I have not always resisted this temptation.

It seems to me, however, that the way out here is to realize how Emily herself is a gubbinal—and I am as well when I succumb to scornful bitterness that reduces the students in front of me to two-dimensions; when I forget that each and every human being is both a “strange flower” and a “seed,” full of more mystery and possibility, harder to read, more complex than any poem, story, or novel.

A few years as a teacher show you how reductive and faithless it is to write off students and the work you have done with them. Students come back to visit and remember moments from your class that you no longer recall but which have become an indelible part of their experience of the world. Much more goes on in any given class than we as teachers are capable of perceiving. Sometimes what we miss would only dismay us more, but not always. That quiet kid who looks pissed off and never says a word—in his silence he may have just tucked away something from your class discussion that he’ll still be thinking about thirty years from now. Even the kid who mocks the book you love—part of his soul may love that book as well. Think of all the times in your life you have said one thing but felt, maybe inchoately, nascently, the opposite. We often don’t know ourselves—how can we think that we know the truth about our students?

The truth is that we are all gubbinals, and the world we know is a world we perceive partially, fallibly, and often pessimistically. We see an ugly world with sad people, and that’s what we get.

In Dubus’s story, Emily seems aware of the mental trap she is in, and aware also of the way out. She knows what she needs, and what we teachers need, too: “something ineffable that comes from outside and fills us; something that changes the way we see what we see; something that allows us to see what we don’t.”

Emily, the ex-teacher, finds that ineffable something by listening to music, talking with friends new and old, and dancing after hours in the bar where she works. If, unlike Emily, we remain teachers, we must learn to see in our work hope and possibilities that she did not—not only in the texts we teach and love, but in our colleagues and our students, strange flowers all.

Image: Cavendishia grandifolia via Orchigalore’s photostream

The Hardy Boys Need No Eulogy

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Danger on Vampire Trail. This was the first Hardy Boys book I ever read. I believe I was in second grade when my next-door neighbor and I each decided to read one of the blue-spined mysteries that sat on his older brother’s shelf. The books were remnants of the older brother’s grade-school reading, I suppose, which he had never bothered to remove from his walls and pile into boxes in the basement (or sell for a dime apiece at a garage sale, or foist off on Goodwill, or trade in for Tom Clancy novels at the used book store), being altogether too engrossed in programming his Atari 800 computer, and other important high school things that would certainly never involve the brothers Hardy. He had apparently never become terribly interested in Frank and Joe, even in his pre-Atari days; he had only five or six Hardy Boys books and—embarrassingly—a few assorted Bobbsey Twins adventures. I could never understand why he had these facile, yellow-spined things with unarresting titles like “Mystery at the Seaside” or “The Missing Pony.” In fact, I could not fathom who would be at all interested in the series, which seemed to be merely the Hardy Boys, Jr., a concept which had no place in the cosmos occupied by both the Hardy brothers and Nancy Drew. The Hardys were for boys, Nancy for girls; for whom were the Bobbseys meant? Preschoolers? Maybe. But unsurprisingly, the name of the “author” of this doomed series escapes my memory, while the names Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene come promptly to mind.

These authors’ names relate to an important benchmark in any Hardy or Drew fan’s reading life. It took me four years or so before I finally admitted to myself that neither Mr. Dixon nor Ms. Keene were real people, that in fact the eighty or so adventures of Bayport’s finest (eighty death-defying adventures crammed impossibly into Frank and Joe’s high school years) were not all written by the same person. The single-author theory seemed entirely plausible at first, when my experience with the Boys encompassed only a few books which, though somewhat dated, still contained copyright dates in the 1960s. Mr. Dixon, then, was an aging but still prolific man, who perhaps got up early every morning at his home on the east coast (yes, that seemed right—he should be able to look out at the ocean while orchestrating Frank and Joe’s escape from an elaborate death trap in Egypt, a locked magician’s box in Scotland, a tiger in India) to write five chapters or so. My faith began to crumble, however, as I checked out older editions of the books from my grade school resource room, editions with yellowing paper, which lacked the familiar blue spines and were bound instead in beige covers with brown lettering and, on the front cover, an iconic silhouette of two Hardy Boy-ish figures crouching with flashlights, a sad substitute for the exciting, customized illustrations that graced the newer editions. These editions contained even more outdated language than the blue-spines, using passé terms for African Americans that seemed to place the stories in the 1930s. Indeed, a glance at the copyright page confirmed this estimation.

The single-F. W. Dixon theory was seeming less likely. Even if he had begun writing the mysteries at the age of 20, the secretive (there was never an “about the author” at the end of the books) Dixon would still be in his seventies, much too old to be writing at the rate at which the Hardy novels were churned out. Finally, I came to the uneasy conclusion that there may have once been a real Dixon in the ’20s or ’30s, but he had since passed away, and his series had been edited, updated, and continued by a panel of ghostwriters at Simon & Schuster (I threw out theories which included a single ghostwriter or a Franklin Jr. carrying on his father’s tradition) who used the pseudonym for any number of reasons: to preserve the continuity of the series for youngsters who would be wary of a Hardy Boys tale told by Brian Reynolds or Suresh Desai, or to ensure that all Hardy Boys books would be shelved together in both library and bookstore, rather than scattered about by zealous alphabetizers.

With this decision (this all took place long before the current era in which one can merely Google Dixon’s name and learn that he was never anything but a pseudonym) I passed into a more mature appreciation of the series. I recognized that I was in some way being deceived, but I accepted the deception, as the theater-goer accepts the deception that what he or she sees on stage is real; I knew that there was no wizened Hardy patriarch writing the books somewhere on a misty coast; I knew they were most likely written by some guy in a suit and tie in a cubicle in a glass office tower, or maybe by a team of such people, brainstorming about where the next book should be set, about what should be stolen or who should be kidnapped. I knew this, but it didn’t really matter, and I didn’t think about it too often, aside from the occasional reverie about what it would be like to write Hardy Boys novels myself (and never getting credit for it). It might not be that bad as a career. Though creativity would be somewhat stifled by the formulas that must be employed in writing the books, it would still be rewarding to see my own episodes sitting in a line with all of the others (I could look at a shelf in the bookstore and say, “I wrote numbers 27, 45, and 78”) and think that maybe at least one of them was the personal favorite of some avid young Hardy reader.

I must say, however, that Danger on Vampire Trail would not be included in my list of personal favorites. I remember nearly nothing of the book, except that it involved vampire bats (though these were not central to the plot; in fact, I think I remember feeling vaguely exploited by Mr. Dixon, who obviously chose an exotic title to invite readership of a book which was in actuality not at all fantastic) and a camping area full of recreational vehicles. This seemed to be the trend among the first set of Hardy Boys novels: exciting titles, intriguing cover art, the promise of an exotic location and the threat of death (clearly an idle threat: I do not recall anyone dying in those blue-spined Hardy adventures, not even villains; though the Hardys may be locked in a trunk in the basement of a burning building, their survival is never in doubt, no matter how many chapters end with “We’re trapped!”)—all designed to lure readers to rather boring, outdated stories probably written several decades earlier (though with this disclaimer on the copyright page: “In this new story, based on the original of the same title, Mr. Dixon has incorporated the most up-to-date methods used by police and private detectives.” But what did that mean? Perhaps a few glaring anachronisms eliminated, or an added chapter in which Frank and Joe dust for fingerprints or reconstruct a suspect’s face using their very own police sketch kit).

To be fair, the trend does not really start until around the tenth installment of the first set of Hardy books. Witness some titles from those first ten: The Tower Treasure, The House on the Cliff, The Shore Road Mystery, The Secret of the Caves. Nothing to falsely arouse a youngster here. These early titles matter-of-factly relate what the story is about; they are not advertisements.

This matter-of-factness disappears with the tenth Hardy mystery. It assails the potential purchaser with the irresistible question of What Happened at Midnight. Like a science fiction novel that propels the reader through 600 closely-printed pages by the promise of a spectacular revelation at the end, #10 impels the reader to purchase or borrow the book to find out what indeed happened at the witching hour. And thus began the titillating tease of the blue-spines. I myself was taken in by #11, While the Clock Ticked, and by its terrifying cover, which depicted the teenaged detectives bound and gagged in a dimly-lit room, straining frantically, sweaty-faced, looking wide-eyed at an insane, white-haired man—presumably their captor—emerging from a secret room behind a grandfather clock. The book was not carried in my local B. Dalton; I ordered it, and my anticipation was almost unbearable the day the store called to tell me it had arrived. Though I finished the book in two days, the normal period required to polish off those unfailingly 170-page-long volumes, it left me disappointed. The details of the story escape me, but the routine was all too familiar: the brothers track down a criminal in Bayport, are placed by the criminal in an unnecessarily elaborate death-trap, but they manage to escape in Chapter XX, just in time for an amusing epilogue and a look ahead to their next case, conveniently plugged like so: “The boys laughed, and gazed up at the huge clock. Silently, they wondered when another case might come their way. Sooner than they expected, they were to find out, when Frank and Joe spotted strange footprints under the window.”

Though I must have read 30 or 40 of the original blue-spined books, not one retains a bright spot in my memory. F. W. Dixon tried his best to innovate and add new elements to the tales. He sent his protagonists to exotic ports-of-call—war-torn Central America in The Mark on the Door, Scotland in The Secret Agent on Flight 101, India in The Bombay Boomerang, Africa in The Mysterious Caravan, and the depths of the Yucatan in The Jungle Pyramid. But no matter where the Hardy siblings traveled, I found their adventures invariably lackluster. Though they may have engaged a pre-teenage boy in the late 1960s or early ’70s, they were hopelessly insufficient to leave me any permanent pleasant memories. I would never stay up until one in the morning reading The Mysterious Caravan.

Happily, however, the executives at Simon & Schuster must have realized the dwindling audience for F. W. Dixon’s original series, and with #59 the Hardy Boys entered a new era. The last of the fifties—Night of the Werewolf—launched the brothers onto a more exciting trajectory. The post-58 bunch, written in the late 1970s and early ’80s, satisfied my desire for a more contemporary thrill, and I soon devoured the entire set. The covers presented Frank and Joe in modern coiffure and wardrobe, though they continued to change their features after each adventure (perhaps to avoid recognition by paroled crooks from past episodes): in #63 the boys appear as trim, intellectual sweater-wearers, while in #64 they wear tight short-sleeved shirts, are shaggy-headed with a hint of hair on their slightly exposed chests; still stranger, in #77 they seem to be neat yuppies out on a company picnic (though an out-of-place tiger growls menacingly from a rock behind them). Perhaps Simon & Schuster hoped to appeal to a wide range of white males and changed the Hardys’ appearances to approximate those of their readers. (I myself had a more definite resemblance: the first name of the elder Hardy sibling.)

Despite the variability of the boys’ appearance, their adventures became consistently entertaining. I still fondly recall such gems as Mystery of Smugglers Cove (#64), which took the Hardys into the backwaters of the Everglades after being wrongly accused of stealing a valuable painting. In the seventy-third Hardy adventure, strange happenings at a local Bayport theater combine with a plot to hold the president of the United States for a Billion Dollar Ransom. Who could forget the snowy intrigue and danger of #78, plainly entitled Cave-In, with a cover depicting the brothers hanging perilously from a cable over a snowy Lake Tahoe slope, a Sno-Cat creeping menacingly towards them? The Four-Headed Dragon actually did keep me up until one in the morning, with its gripping tale of a mysterious mansion in the woods surrounding Bayport, of criminals bent on using a newly-developed laser gun to sever the Alaskan pipeline.

Unlike their predecessors, these new adventures always lived up to the thrills promised by their titles. The Demon’s Den delivered a devilish plot hidden in the placid Canadian timberlands—a diabolical scientist (see the terrifying illustration on page 190) bent on creating a race of supermen to compete in the Olympics for an unnamed eastern European country. These ubermensch, named “Alpha,” “Beta,” and “Omega,” allude to history and literature both: the eugenic schemes of Hitler and the fancies of Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. Clearly the ghostwriters at Simon & Schuster were getting more ambitious. Even titles like The Roaring River Mystery concealed, behind their bland covers, compelling tales of bank robberies and foul play on the white-water rapids of Maine.

But the zenith of the Hardy middle period (for we have not yet come to the final incarnation of the adventures, the sexy “Hardy Boys Casefiles”) came in my favorite of the books: Revenge of the Desert Phantom. Though abnormally brief—only 157 pages and 15 chapters—this book packed in all of the elements which later made the Casefiles so appealing: foreign countries (France, along with a fictional African nation called Zebwa), beautiful foreign heroines (Niki—the daughter of the assassinated leader of Zebwa), villains who had committed murder and were prepared to do it again (previous bad guys, though always vowing, “I’ll get you, Hardys,” never seemed quite serious about it), technology (the book puts the Hardys at the helm of an armored car, called the Rhino, which can also float), and Agatha Christie-like plot twists and surprises (the real assassin turns out to be Akutu, the leader of the loyalist forces). However, at the end of this book we can see the ridiculous direction in which the series is headed; from Chief Collig of the Bayport police the boys receive a van which they will soon equip with surveillance equipment and other gadgetry inappropriate even for the far-fetched Hardy series. The Hardys could never be the Scooby-Doo gang with its Mystery Machine, nor have a Hardymobile in which to pursue criminals. These developments surely offended other Hardy purists as much as they offended me; as the old series wandered off into outer space (literally; in #85, The Skyfire Puzzle, Frank and Joe man a space shuttle flight), a new beginning was clearly needed; the slate needed to be wiped clean.

Before revealing (to those unfamiliar with the first of the Hardy Boys Casefiles: Dead on Target) exactly whose slate was wiped clean, a brief note about the supporting cast of the Hardy adventures. First, the Hardy family: famous father Fenton, the brilliant but frequently absent detective-dad; slender and attractive Laura Hardy (whom one can imagine as an older but no less perky and vivacious Laura Petry from The Dick Van Dyke Show), hardy, hearty Hardy mom, undaunted by the many nights of sleeping alone while Fenton solves crimes in New York City; and lovable Aunt Gertrude, “a stern, angular woman,” Fenton’s spinster sister who often stays at the Hardy home. No matter what dangers the Hardys may encounter, they always have this warm trio to support and love them.

But the Hardys are no homebodies; they have plenty of chums. Perhaps their best friend is stout Chet Morton, a “roly-poly youth who preferred eating to danger,” but who often joins in their adventures and provides comic relief by dropping a bowl of batter on his head, sitting on a pin, or merely driving by in his memorable yellow jalopy. Frank and Joe are friends with the jocks as well (and find time between their many cases to play for Bayport High’s baseball team): lanky, rangy Biff Hooper, tackle on the Bayport High football team, whose heavy fists can always be counted on to assist the Hardys should their adversaries get physical. The Hardys’ diverse group of friends has room for “olive-skinned” Tony Prito, whose father owns a construction company and who himself owns a motorboat called the Napoli, and even for Phil Cohen, a quiet Jew, “dark-haired and slender,” who “enjoyed reading as much as sports.”

Finally, no discussion of the Hardys’ social lives can omit their steadies (though it must be difficult to have a maturing relationship when one’s age remains fixed at seventeen or eighteen, as do Joe and Frank’s, respectively). Fortunately, their girlfriends remain similarly stuck in time. Frank’s favorite date is the blonde, brown-eyed Callie Shaw, and Joe finds himself hopelessly devoted to the “vivacious, dark-haired” Iola Morton, slimmer sister of Chet. These girls appear in the early stages of an occasional Hardy adventure, just long enough to participate in a beach party or barbecue, perhaps make an insightful comment or two (blushing as they do so), but infrequently enough to imply anything more than chaste, healthy relationships with the opposite sex.

Nevertheless, powerful emotions are shared between the Hardys and their wholesomely attractive gals. The degree of that power is demonstrated, tragically, in the inaugural volume of the new, sleeker Hardy series. “Get out of my way, Frank!” Joe screams at his brother in the first line of Dead on Target as he hopelessly lunges towards the flaming wreckage of the Hardys’ yellow sedan, the explosion of which the brothers have just witnessed in the parking garage of their local mall. His suicidal struggle towards the burning car is a desperate attempt to save the life of Iola, with whom he had recently quarreled, and who had, with horrendous misfortune, retired to the sedan a few minutes before the explosion. As Callie notes later in the book: “I guess he really did love Iola, in spite of his wandering eye.” In any case, what a beginning for the new series! The violent death of a main character—in the first chapter no less—signaled a dramatic change of direction for Simon & Schuster’s teenage gumshoes. I remember the day after I purchased Dead on Target and Evil, Inc. (the second in the new series). It was April Fool’s Day, so when I told one of my fellow fifth-grade fans that the Hardys had been reincarnated, he refused to believe me and was put out that I would so cruelly toy with his emotions. He soon acknowledged the veracity of my claim, however, and came to love, as I did, the stylishly designed, compact Casefiles, with their titillating titles—Deathgame and Edge of Destruction were later examples—and stories that always made good on the titles’ promises. Under each title was an added bonus: an epigraph which wittily hinted at the thrills to come. “Revenge is always a personal matter,” noted the cover of Dead on Target. Other standouts: “A murder contract is always binding”; “Terror has many faces—all deadly”; “In the cult of the Rajah, death is a way of life.”

The Hardys had modernized, inside and out. Whereas a beach party was the hippest thing the Hardys and their friends could think to do in the past, they now listened to Led Zeppelin, hung out at diners until well past midnight, and traveled to locales more exotic and exciting than ever before. In trying to avenge Iola’s death, the brothers become involved with a secret government agency called the Network and end up battling international terrorism, represented by an Arab assassin named Al-Rousasa. In Evil, Inc. the brothers go undercover to bust an organized crime ring in France. After reading this pair of adventures, I feverishly anticipated the next installment—Cult of Crime—a excerpt from which had been included at the end of Casefile No. 2.

Cult of Crime. The very title spooked me, calling to mind images of Jonestown, of Satanists who kidnapped children and engaged in midnight acts of bestiality in storm drains. Even the cover of the book exceeded my expectations. Frank and Joe flee from a pack of torch-bearing cultists, one of whom fires a gun in their direction. I was so taken with the image that I even considered getting my hair cut like Joe’s.

The new Franklin W. Dixons (I imagine top management at Simon & Schuster laying off the old stale Dixon crew and bringing in a fresh batch of Franklins, recent graduates of Ivy League schools who were ready to pour their intelligence and energy into making the Casefiles the Hardy books they themselves never had as adolescents. However, S&S must have given the stale Franklin W.’s some severance work, because the middle series perpetuated into further idiocy; clearly all of the publisher’s real energy was thrown into the Casefiles.) were not taking their job that seriously, however. The relative realism of the third installment contrasts sharply with the science fiction of The Lazarus Plot (No. 4), in which the Hardys get their first hope that, impossibly, Iola Morton may still be alive. As it turns out, the Iola the brothers see is only a clone created by a laboratory staffed by “the most diabolical team of scientists ever assembled.” The book was good, though, and the college grads went on to turn out a series of classics, from Edge of Destruction, in which the Hardys traipse through the sewers of New York City to thwart an organized crime boss who threatens to unleash a deadly virus upon the Big Apple, to Hostages of Hate, in which a group of terrorists takes hostages, Callie Shaw among them, on an airplane in Washington, DC. Callie performs admirably under this immense strain and, while on television delivering the terrorists’ demands, sends Frank a secret message using the personal sign language the two have developed to talk to each other during class. Thus Frank, by watching Callie’s blinking patterns, receives messages like “Only two on plane,” and “Bomb real.” Apparently Callie is not the airhead she appeared to be at all those beach parties.

Sadly, the creativity of the new series did not last. After the unexpected dullness of The Borgia Dagger and its successor, No. 14, Too Many Traitors, I lost interest in the series. It is hard to say whether I simply outgrew it or the Ivy League Dixons had burned out. My parting with Frank and Joe was neither bitter nor regretful; we had been tight pals for several years; indeed, I was at least as faithful as Biff, Tony, Phil, or Chet—but we had now grown apart, and I was beginning to move in different circles, spending late nights with the Stephen King-Dean Koontz crowd. The Hardys, as always, moved to the beat of their own drum, however repetitive a pounding it may have been. Inertia kept the long line of Hardy adventures on the top level of my bookshelf until I finally packed them all in a box and packed the box down in the basement, exhumed only when I decided to eulogize the brothers here.

In truth, though, the Hardys need no eulogy; in a used book store I came across Casefile No. 101. I forget the title (it looked unsurprisingly banal), but even the cover was a bore: instead of a drawing which re-imagined Frank and Joe’s appearance and fashion sense, this one featured only a photograph of two 90210-looking males, supposedly the legendary boy-gumshoes, and an enthusiastic note encouraging us all to catch the new Hardy Boys television show. The Hardys and I have clearly parted ways, and while I’m tempted to re-read a few of the old Casefiles for nostalgic value, such a reunion would not be quite valuable enough to spend the time on, so our paths continue to diverge.

My path and that of my neighbor, I believe, first began to diverge as I read Danger on Vampire Trail. While I devoured Danger in a day or two, my reading partner and friend plodded along with his installment, and I don’t think Dave ever finished The Secret of the Lost Tunnel. As I moved ahead, purchasing some of the books, borrowing others from the library, above all reading them, Dave confided to me that he simply didn’t like reading. While I ordered Night of the Werewolf from the Scholastic book order form we were offered at school, Dave stuck to Choose Your Own Adventure books, Hot Dog and Dynamite magazines, and posters of action figures and cute pets. When I moved on to King, Koontz, and Co., Dave concentrated on computer games, reading only what was required for school. Whereas for Dave the Hardys were a passing, boring diversion, for me they became a habit. The Hardys were like training wheels, easy and enjoyable exercises that helped me develop the balance necessary for a lifetime of reading books. Though I probably would have been better off practicing on more classic childhood favorites—Robert Louis Stevenson, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, and so on—I turn to the third-to-last paragraph of Too Many Traitors, the last Hardy book I ever read, for reassurance:

“It’s okay,” Joe replied. “We met girls, we went swimming, we went boating, we saw a lot of scenery and sights. I’ve had enough vacationing for a lifetime.”

The Risks of Fiction: On The New Yorker Writers Under 40 List

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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

It’s All Right to Cry: Restoring Raymond Carver’s Voice

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Fans of Raymond Carver’s short fiction got a treat last year when the Library of America published the celebrated writer’s Collected Stories. Yet for some of his readers, the book cast a disquieting shadow over his career and work. Editors William Stull and Maureen Carroll included in this new volume a manuscript which they entitled Beginners, an alternate version of the 1981 Carver collection published by Knopf as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Nearly thirty years ago, Carver’s editor Gordon Lish cut this manuscript by some 55 percent, essentially against Carver’s wishes. Though WWTA went on to become a critical success and a watershed in Carver’s career, the extent of Lish’s influence on the book has raised questions about just who is responsible for Carver’s artistic success.

In that regard, the Library of America volume’s inclusion of the complete manuscript of Beginners, all seventeen stories, offers readers a chance to draw their own conclusions about who Carver was as a writer, and about the meaning and worth of these contested stories. What follows are my own conclusions.

1: Just Leave Well Enough Alone?
I do understand the feelings of those who, perhaps without having read Beginners, feel a certain weariness at the idea of it. On the way to a chess match today, I was talking with a student at the high school where I teach. In his English class, he’s reading Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. There’s been some confusion because a number of students purchased a different edition of the novel, one that includes scenes that Warren’s editors removed from the novel for its original publication. Only recently, decades after All the King’s Men has become a modern classic, have these additional scenes been spliced back in. In addition, Willie Stark, one of the central characters in the novel, has had his name changed to Willie Talos, Warren’s original name for him.

For Pete’s sake, I found myself thinking. Do we really need this? Wasn’t the novel great enough as it was? And long enough already? Can’t we just leave well enough alone? Willie Talos?

For those who fell in love with Carver’s work while reading WWTA, I can imagine a similar reaction to the publication of Beginners. There’s a feeling of having been baited-and-switched, perhaps. Or of having received an assignment to re-do work one had already completed. There’s an impulse to just throw up one’s hands and say, “It is what it is, and there’s no turning back time.” Or even to say that Lish was the one who made Carver great in the first place.

I understand these reactions. But having read both versions of this story collection in their entirety, my conclusion is that Beginners is vastly superior to WWTA, and indeed a work of art at least equal to Carver’s subsequent collection Cathedral. I don’t mean to be histrionic, but while reading the two versions side by side, I often felt that Lish’s treatment of Carver’s stories verged on the criminal. In a just world, Beginners would be published as a stand-alone volume to replace the shell that Lish made of it.

2: I See a Darkness
The conventional shorthand is that Lish’s versions are bracing and bleak, Carver’s verbose and sentimental. In actuality, however, many of the stories are more disturbing in their original form than in their eventual published form.

In the story “The Fling,” for instance, a father meets his adult son in an airport bar and makes a long confession about the affair that ended his marriage to the man’s mother. “I’ve got to tell this to somebody. I can’t keep it in any longer,” he tells his son. The son, who narrates the story, doesn’t want to listen, much less to forgive. The encounter ends in further estrangement between the two:

He hasn’t written, I haven’t heard from him since then. I’d write to him and see how he’s getting along, but I’m afraid I’ve lost his address. But, tell me, after all, what could he expect from someone like me?

It’s a story about the human need for reconciliation, the sacramental quality of confession and our inability, sometimes, to provide that for those who’ve hurt us. In the original version, the father’s guilt is compounded by the fact that his affair also led to the ghastly suicide of his mistress’s husband. In addition, he characterizes his first sexual encounter with this woman as a kind of rape. In comparison to the WWTA version of this story, entitled “Sacks,” this earlier version has an even darker view of the human capacity for evil—and concomitantly the father’s guilty desire for forgiveness takes on an even more profound resonance.

The most chilling example of the darkness in Carver’s vision, though, is the story “Tell the Women We’re Going,” which culminates in the rape and murder of a woman by one of the main characters. This story is one of the creepiest I’ve read in my life, right up there with Dan Chaon’s “Here’s a Little Something to Remember Me By.” It’s creepy largely because of the patience with which it builds to its horrifying climax. It follows a pair of high school chums who grow into adults with wives and children, then one Sunday afternoon leave their families to go for a drive in the countryside. They drink all afternoon and then head out toward Painted Rocks and the Naches River, encountering a pair of women on bicycles along the way. Their dealings with these women begin with flirtatious banter, then gradually gain menace, until one of the men is half-chasing (and then truly chasing) one of the women up an isolated rock. The violence is described in awful detail, but what makes it most awful is how understandable Carver makes it: we’re in the murderer’s head, seeing the steps that lead to his terrible acts.

At the same time, Carver also does a brilliant job of distinguishing between the two men, one of whom is reluctant to participate in the back-and-forth with the women, and who has parted from the other woman after nothing more than a brief conversation. At the end of the story, he comes upon the scene of the crime and is horrified by what he sees:

Bill felt himself shrinking, becoming thin and weightless. At the same time he had the sensation of standing against a heavy wind that was cuffing his ears. He wanted to break loose and run, but something was moving toward him. The shadows of the rocks as the shape came across them seemed to move with the shape and under it. The ground seemed to have shifted in the odd-angled light. He thought unreasonably of the two bicycles waiting at the bottom of the hill near the car, as though taking one away would change all this, make the girl stop happening to him in that moment he had topped the hill. But Jerry was standing now in front of him, slung loosely in his clothes as though the bones had gone out of him. Bill felt the awful closeness of their two bodies, less than an arm’s length between. Then the head came down on Bill’s shoulder. He raised his hand, and as if the distance now separating them deserved at least this, he began to pat, to stroke the other, while his own tears broke.

Following an incredibly intense narration of a brutal murder, this passage puts us into the experience of the murderer’s friend: the violent shift in his perspective on his old buddy; the surreal quality of coming face to face with this enormity; and, simultaneously, the recognition of the murderer’s humanity despite his new and unbridgeable differentness.

Compare all of that to Lish’s version of the ending (the pursuit, murder, and reaction, in their entirety):

Bill had just wanted to fuck. Or even to see them naked. On the other hand, it was okay with him if it didn’t work out.

He never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.

Lish has stripped the story’s ending of its narrative drive and emotional power and replaced them with a cheap jolt. Both stories are bleak, but only Carver’s version expands our understanding of the world by taking us viscerally into the abyss.

3: Less is Less
The radically truncated stories in WWTA cemented Carver’s identity as a minimalist in many people’s minds. Yet a comparison of the stories in Beginners with their counterparts in WWTA demonstrates how false that label is, and how impoverished the minimalist versions really are.

In one of his letters to Lish about the manuscript, Carver wrote the following:

I’m mortally afraid of taking out too much from the stories, of making them too thin, not enough connecting tissue to them.

His fears were well-founded. Lish took from these stories their rich sense of human possibility—their meaningfulness, to put it bluntly.

Lish altered the title of “Want to See Something?” to “I Could See the Smallest Things,” a telling change. For in Lish’s version, the narrator, an insomniac woman who walks out to her backyard in the middle of the night to find a troubled neighbor at war with slugs, comes away from the story with only the smallest changes in her perceptions about her life. She returns to her husband, hears him snoring, then says:

I don’t know. It made me think of those things that Sam Lawton was dumping powder on.

I thought for a minute of the world outside my house, and then I didn’t have any more thoughts except the thought that I had to hurry up and sleep.

In Carver’s version, the woman’s nocturnal sojourn has given her a new perspective on her life and her marriage. She returns to bed and is moved to talk to her husband about her love for him along with her fears about their relationship:

I felt we were going nowhere fast, and it was time to admit it, even though there was maybe no help for it.

Just so many words, you might think. But I felt better for having said them.

He’s still asleep during all of this, but she realizes that that doesn’t matter, and that, in fact, “he already knew everything I was saying, maybe better than I knew, and had for a long time.” The story is about a dark night of the soul, a revelation, a moment of intense awareness that leads to no apparent solution or change except for the profound internal change in the narrator. Lish’s version gives us only the faintest whisper of such a realization.

Many of these stories, as Carver notes in his letters to Lish, are also deeply connected with Carver’s recovery from alcoholism. “If It Please You,” for instance, is about a former drinker, James Packer, who has overcome his desire for booze by taking up needlework, something that another alcoholic recommends as a way to fill up the time formerly devoted to drinking. It’s an activity he finds satisfying. He also knits things that connect him to others’ lives—“caps and scarves and mittens for the grandchildren,” “two woolen ponchos which he and Edith wore when they walked on the beach,” and an afghan that he and his wife sleep under.

In the end of this story, James is full of bad feelings: anger at some “hippies” who cheated at bingo earlier that night; and fear about his wife, who may have uterine cancer. In Carver’s story, he tries to pray—to take solace in another activity endorsed by AA, which demands belief in a higher power. The story ends with a powerful meditation on prayer, and a real spiritual change for James:

He felt something stir inside him again, but it was not anger. He lay as if waiting. Then something left him and something else took its place. He found tears in his eyes. He began praying again, words and parts of speech piling up in a torrent in his mind. He went slower. He put the words together, one after the other, and prayed. This time he was able to include the girl and the hippie in his prayers. Let them have it, yes, drive vans and be arrogant and laugh and wear rings, even cheat if they wanted. Meanwhile, prayers were needed. They could use them too, even his, especially his, in fact. “If it please you,” he said in the new prayers for all of them, the living and the dead.

Lish appears to understand or sympathize with none of this. In his version, called “After the Denim,” there’s no prayer at all, and even the knitting is depicted only as an expression of lonely anger, the desperate act of a man on a shipwrecked boat (recalling a photograph James sees earlier in the story):

Holding the tiny needle to the light, James Packer stabbed at the eye with a length of blue silk thread. Then he set to work—stitch after stitch—making believe he was waving like the man on the keel.

4: It’s All Right to Cry
In his drastic cutting of Carver’s stories, Lish evinces a real discomfort with, or perhaps blindness to, the sacramental—moments of transcendent awareness, spiritual awakening, and yearning for reconciliation. His aesthetic is one of surfaces. Perhaps he’s aiming to make Carver’s stories more like Hemingway’s, with only the tip of the iceberg visible and the weight concealed. But mostly what he does is lop off the bulk of the berg, leaving just a floating ice cube.

He cuts out the moments that are most tender and beautiful. For example, in “Gazebo,” a story no less heartrending and sad in Carver’s version, a woman talks with her adulterous husband about a time when she believed that their marriage would last a lifetime:

I remember you were wearing cutoffs that day, and I remember standing there looking at the gazebo and thinking about those musicians when I happened to glance down at your bare legs. I thought to myself, I’ll love those legs even when they’re old and thin and the hair on them has turned white. I’ll love them even then, I thought, they’ll still be my legs. You know what I’m saying? Duane?

It’s a wonderful moment, and a sad one, a moment of palpable love and lost hopes. It’s the type of detail that sticks in your head, that you remember years after reading a story. Lish cuts it.

In “Beginners,” a contemporary version of Plato’s Symposium in which two couples sit around a table with gin and tonic and talk about love, Mel McGinnis tells a story that he thinks illustrates what real love is. In that story, an elderly husband and wife named Henry and Anna Gates are hit by a drunk driver and nearly die. Mel, a doctor, gets to know Henry as he and Anna recover in separate rooms, and Mel is moved by his account of their long marriage. The couple used to be snowed in alone all winter in their country home, and each night they would play records and dance together before falling asleep under piles of quilts. Henry, incapacitated in the hospital, is depressed because he’s separated from his wife. When they are finally reunited, though, the scene brings observers to tears:

She gave a little smile and her face lit up. Out came her hand from under the seat. It was bluish and bruised-looking. Henry took the hand in his hands. He held it and kissed it. Then he said, “Hello, Anna. How’s my babe? Remember me? Tears started down her cheeks. She nodded. “I’ve missed you,” he said. She kept nodding.

As I read this scene, I found myself crying, not only because of the beauty of the moment, but also out of a sadness that this scene was axed from the version of this story that most people know. In Lish’s version, Mel’s story culminates with the rather mundane observation that the husband’s “heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.”

This version of the story doesn’t bring us to tears, and maybe that’s how Lish intended it, fearing what he called Carver’s “creeping sentimentality.” But, of course, there’s a difference between sentiment and sentimentality. The point of Mel’s story is not that everyone does or should or can love each other as the Gateses do; Carver even leaves open the possibility that the story isn’t entirely true. But in this contemporary re-working of Plato, the story of Anna and Henry is a kind of idealized vision of love, one that beguiles and inspires the four people in the story, who have been hurt but live on to love again.

Carver himself was hurt by what Lish did to his stories, judging by the letters he wrote him. That hurt must have been complicated enormously by the critical success that the altered stories went on to attain. What’s inspiring, though, is how Carver held on to his own vision: the stories in his 1983 collection Cathedral hew to the model of those in Beginners, and include the story “A Small, Good Thing” essentially in the version originally prepared for Beginners.

In this story, a little boy named Scotty is struck by a car on the day of his own birthday party. He falls into a coma and, after several days in the hospital, dies. His mother had ordered a birthday cake for him a few days before the accident, and the baker who has made it begins calling with nasty messages because Scotty’s parents have not picked it up.

Lish amputates the second half of the story, which he titles “The Bath”: Scotty never dies, and the story ends ambiguously, with Scotty’s mother getting another phone call from the baker.

But in Carver’s version, after Scotty’s death his parents go to the shop and confront the baker. Though he is initially defensive, the baker is suddenly struck with shame. He apologizes and gives the grieving parents hot rolls to eat, telling them that “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.” The story ends with another sacramental moment, one of communion between these broken people:

“Here, smell this,” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. “It’s a heavy bread, but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.

It’s all right to come together in times of sadness, this story assures us. It’s all right to risk being sentimental by entering into the sacramental. It’s all right to cry. And it’s all right to write a story that might make someone cry, that might squeeze someone’s heart with horror or sadness, or with small, good things like eating, dancing, knitting, or prayer.

The subsequent evolution of Carver’s career makes it clear that he realized it was okay to write such stories. The publication of Beginners offers a lavish bounty of them.

Geometric Solids: Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd

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I first heard about Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd about twenty years ago, when I was in seventh or eighth grade. My classmates and I were all reading Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz, and our English teacher attempted to guide our reading choices to higher-brow material.”I think it’s great that you’re all reading so much,” she said. “But when you’re choosing books to read, try to read classics.” She mentioned, for example, that she had recently read Far From the Madding Crowd while recovering from surgery.I had no intention of abandoning King or Koontz, but I did check out a copy of Hardy’s novel from the public library. I tried to read it but didn’t get far. The first two paragraphs had enough unfamiliar vocabulary and tonal foreignness to repel me as a thirteen-year-old:When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the whole, one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people and the drunken section.It took me ten years to try another Hardy novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I read and loved after my first year as an English teacher myself. The pleasures afforded by Hardy’s fiction, I realized, require patience, a more mature appreciation of language, wider knowledge of the adult world, and a sense of the past. (Google is helpful, too, in deciphering Hardy’s obscure mythological and Biblical references.)This summer, as I picked up Far From the Madding Crowd for another go, I was better equipped to appreciate Hardy’s wryly delicate humor in passages like the following: “It may have been observed that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in. Some people look upon marriage as a short cut that way, but it has been known to fail.”Funny – and, indeed, as in Tess and The Return of the Native, in this novel Hardy concerns himself with love’s entanglements. Bathsheba Everdene, a young and imperious beauty, named for the woman who occasioned King David’s sinful plotting, finds herself involved not in a romantic triangle, but a romantic quadrilateral, as three men vie for her affections. Their names, like hers, are evocative of their identities: Oak, the solid shepherd; Boldwood, the increasingly audacious farmer; and the Troy, the scoundrel as fallen as the citadel that is his namesake.There’s a reason that the romantic triangle is such a commonly-used fictional device: it has a geometric elegance, a pointedness that keeps a story moving. The romantic quadrilateral is harder to make work. Hardy does it well enough that 135 years later people are still reading the book. Compared to later works like Tess and Native, though, this one – the earliest of Hardy’s best – known novels – is a bit of a disappointment.For one thing, it lacks a narrative center. This romantic quadrilateral is nothing so neat as a square or a rectangle. It’s more ungainly – an irregular trapezoid, perhaps. It’s difficult work to set up three suitors in a reasonably rounded way, and while Hardy’s developing one, the other two tend to fade to the background. In the end, the male characters come perilously close to being as wooden as their names or, in Troy’s case, a bit too starkly villainous.At times the plot’s contrivances seem arbitrary, meant to force the narrative (originally published serially in a magazine) in its intended direction without especial regard for plausibility: Oak lies down in an apparently abandoned wagon, whose owners return and just so happen to be heading to Bathsheba’s farm; Troy nearly drowns and, believed dead, runs off to America to join the circus for a convenient span of time, returning just when his presence will cause the most upheaval.Bathsheba herself, vain, proud, described by one of the men who marries her as “this haughty goddess, dashing piece of womanhood, Juno-wife of mine,” seems to be a rough draft for Eustacia Vye, the more famous heroine of Hardy’s Return of the Native. Eustacia (a favorite of Holden Caulfield’s, you may recall) is, in Hardy’s description, “the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well,” he writes, for “she had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman.” In comparison to Eustacia, Bathsheba is too kind, too mortal, and less vivid.In other ways, too, Madding seems a rough draft of Native, which arranges its characters not in a triangle or quadrilateral, but in overlapping Venn diagrams of desire. In both novels, some characters come to tragic ends, some are seared by their experiences but survive, chastened but wiser. Return of the Native was published in 1878, four years after Far From the Madding Crowd, and in most ways it’s a better book. It has a sharper sense of place; a more forceful narrative arc; more emotionally weighty and realistic plot turns; and, despite a rather tedious beginning in which backstory is provided by the gossip of eccentric country folk, less of such stock characters, whose humorousness has not aged well.I guess you could say that my eighth grade teacher gave me a bad recommendation. After all these years, finally reading this novel was a bit anticlimactic. But in the larger sense, she was right: King and Koontz may have been fine for my adolescence, but ultimately they were bridges to more ambitious reading projects. My teacher’s offhanded remark about Hardy stuck with me, giving me a sense of the rewarding places to which those bridges might lead. Though I might have skipped this particular novel without much of a loss, Hardy’s best work is definitely worth the journey.