Thursday, January 8, 2009

The New Yorker: I Just Don't Get It

Anyone involved in writing knows that The New Yorker is the Holy Grail of publishing credits. So lofty is this publication that they limit even the best-known names in writing to just two appearances per year between their sophisticated covers and contributions from their pages always fill several slots in the TOCs of prize anthologies like Best American Short Stories.

Every couple of years when I'm offered the industry discount for an annual subscription, I read the short fiction published each month, and each month the stories fade from my memory with the final line, which, more often than not, leaves the story in a state of suspended animation. I used to think it was me and that, like their cartoons that are usually 
over(?) my head, there was something in these stories, and especially the endings, I was missing. Then I posted threads in a couple of writers forums and found out I wasn't alone.

What I find the most frustrating about these stories is that many include what I, as an editor, consider very amateur mistakes, things I'm guessing The New Yorker would never let pass if submitted by an unknown. Main characters are often flat, boring, and dare I say, cliche––like the professor having an affair with a student. Superfluous characters or plot lines have not been removed, and the endings, as I've noted above, imply some "moment of enlightenment" but read more like the writer ran out of ideas or reached the maximum word count. 

Now I know this sounds crazy, but with a few exceptions I sometimes get the feeling that well-known authors, knowing  the name on the page is enough for automatic publication, don't even try that hard with their New Yorker submissions, while the editors, having long ago decided only a handful of folks read this stuff anyway, rubber stamp them for publication. Writers turn out their requisite two stories per  year, put the generous check they receive toward the rent, and then wait to see what prize anthologies they make it into.

There are exceptions. It could be chalked up to taste, but Joyce Carol Oates and Sherman Alexie are two writers who come to my mind quickly as always striving for their best even when I may not actually care for the piece. Both of these writers also enjoy experimenting with new genres even when it leads to failure. Still, I would say with very few exceptions, regarding fiction, The New Yorker appears to have settled for mediocrity with a famous name.

What rankles is that despite this, The New Yorker remains at the top of the heap. I sometimes envision something like The Producers going on behind the scenes, where the editors keep hoping if they publish enough crap, readers will beg them to get out of the fiction business all together, but, instead, the stories they publish are regularly hailed as the best of the best. Alternately, I wait for someone with a name that counts in the industry to stand up and proclaim that the emperor has no clothes.

Until then, all I can say is, I don't get it.

2 comments:

susan said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head here--and it's not just The New Yorker that subscribes to this practice.

Kathryn Magendie said...

You and me both, Nan. I call some of them the "running into a brick wall" endings. I'll turn the page - where's the rest? Oh, that was it; that was the ending. It's almost as if it's an inside joke with the writer going "teeheehee...let's see if the publish THIS one!..." sort of thumbing their nose at the editors of the lofty mags. *shrug*

Then, as you say, sometimes a story will be breathtaking...

I just read New Stories from the South, Best American Short Stories, and Best American Essays and found the same thing. Of course, whomever the editor is makes a difference. I've enjoyed some "issues" of these publications more than others.

An intelligent post as usual (and I'm following you! *smiling*)

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