Friday, December 21, 2007

The New Yorker Winter Fiction Issue

I always heave these fiction issues out of the mailbox with a deep sigh; they ought to excite me, as the once did, back in the day, but instead they just make me weary. Maybe it's because I know I'm not in them. I don't think so, though--I think that I prefer normal New Yorkers--they're more likely to take you by surprise. The fiction issues, on the other hand, always seem to give you something you're guaranteed to like, which means I'm guaranteed not to.

Jhumpa Lahiri's story, "Year's End," is unbelievably long, and it will surprise no one to learn that it's about love and family, set against a backdrop of New-World / Old-World tension. I have nothing against Lahiri, her writing is fluid and clear, but like a lot of contemporary literary fiction that people actually pay money for, it spends a hell of a long time saying absolutely obvious things. The narrator, a fully Americanized Indian college student, recalls a nurse speaking to him during his mother's final illness. "This is the worst part," the nurse says, referring to the days of waiting for death. "I realized that Mrs. Gharibian had been right," the narrator admits, "there had been nothing worse than waiting for it to come, that the void that followed was easier to bear than the solid weight of those days."

Didn't Tom Petty say all there was to say about this, back in 1981? Do we really need such detailed elaboration upon facts that every human being on earth already knows? To be fair, there is more to the story than this small sentiment, but not nearly enough. I kept asking myself, What Would Alice Munro Do? (Perhaps we should print up some W6 tee shirts bearing this slogan.) I had a good idea of what, and I wanted it real, real bad--it could have made this story a knockout. But Lahiri let me down. Instead, she ends the story with somebody burying photographs in the sand. Cue the strings.

Lore Segal's story, "The Arbus Factor," is slight, and hinges on a zinger--the smug upper-middle-class couple whose restuarant conversation we have been listening to for a page and a half...turn out to be OLD! Good God, we've been tricked! The woman goes into the ladies' room and looks in the mirror, and some kind of crone looks back! And here I thought we were reading about middle-aged boring rich people. And even Junot Diaz's "Alma" doesn't do it for me--I generally find it hard to fault Junot, and this piece crackles with the same energy as all his other stuff. But it's about a guy who falls for a Dominican girl with a nice ass and then he cheats on her and she dumps him. It ain't bad, but he's written it already.

And "Beginners," Tess Gallagher's retro-Carverian reconstruction, well--I couldn't get through it. Lish's edit is so, so, so, so much better. Don't get me wrong: at the end of his life, the more discursive writer inside Carver came into his own. Carver knew it--a couple of the stories he collected in Where I'm Calling From are in fact pre-Lish versions, and he knew at the time when he was right, and when Lish was right. (Case in point: "A Small, Good Thing." The long version is the right one.) And his final story, "Errand," was in my opinion his best story, and is one of my favorite stories, period. But Lish was way right about "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," and I find this version painful to read. Like the Lahiri, it's needlessly elaborated; like the Diaz, it's a lesser work by a master of the form.

Maybe it's the weather, but I feel a terrible drear hanging over this issue. Every story's about the same damn stuff--love, marriage, boyfriends, girlfriends. They aren't dead topics, for sure, but can we have maybe one weird story? Just one that conforms to nothing whatsoever?

Here's a list of topics, then--all of you, go write these and send them to The New Yorker. Quick, before they fill the summer fiction issue. Pick one at random and get working:

1) An astronaut on a voyage to Mars ends up someplace entirely unexpected.
2) A day in the life of a five-year-old mind reader.
3) The zoo employees go on strike.
4) Some townspeople are protesting the building of a new bridge, and one goes missing.
5) A woman loses the mayoral election by five votes.
6) A breakfast cereal designer runs out of ideas.
7) A solider in Iraq goes AWOL and is taken in by a cadre of disillusioned reporters.
8) A man tries to commit suicide by walking into the sea, but he can't get it to work.
9) An agricultural scientist is angry at the college where he works because they claimed ownership of his many potato hybrids, and so he plans revenge.
10) An adolescent girl, discovering she is adopted, decides to start a rock band.

Good luck! If they accept your story, I get ten percent.

15 comments:

zoe said...

I'll take five of those shirts.

jrlennon said...

Ha! I've made several W6 shirt designs actually, but have not yet tried silkscreening any. One of these days...maybe for our one-year anniversary.

5 Red Pandas said...

I'm so glad that you've said all these things about the fiction issue because I was thinking some of the exact same things. When I got mine in the mail I think I did actually sigh when I checked out the table of contents.

You're right about the Diaz. He has written this story before. Cheating might be the big conflict in Diaz's mind, but it's nothing new, and nothing terribly interesting either. I think part of the problem for me is that the voice Diaz writes in just isn't fresh for me because it sounds like a more literate version of my male students, and the boys I grew up with who ended up hanging out on the corner on Saturday night. People in Washington Heights would read the story and go, AND? WHAT? Tell me something new!

I was equally annoyed by the Lahiri because I was thinking about how careful everything she writes is. All the characters in her stories are solidly middle class, and quiet.

I used to buy the New Yorker for the fiction, but now I prefer the non-fiction most of the time because I feel like I'm reading the same stories by the same authors over and over again. That is so disappointing to me.

Mrs. A. said...

I am here via tiv.

When I read your take on the New Yorker fiction I sighed with relief. Thank God I am not the only one. Certainly, subjects can never be exhausted in the world of fiction, but why is it that much of the fiction out there today evokes the same familiar feelings even before I get through the first page? I may not know the specific ending but I can totally predict how I'm going to feel once I get there.

If I get there.

I would love to come upon stories that I reread over and over -- often in the same sitting because they are so excellent.

This hasn't happened to me since 1999.

I'm almost afraid to go out and get my copy of The Best American Fiction 2007.

Oh, and I'm considering the story about the 5 year-old mindreader. I have a five year-old and I think I could possibly pull it off.

Mrs. A

jrlennon said...

Mrs. A, what was it that you read in 1999 that was so great?

Mrs. A. said...

I actually don't have a year for the piece that first came to mind, but it was in a short story collection (The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories). The story is called, "Sea Oak," by George Saunders and it first appeared in the New Yorker -- but I can't locate when. I may have just made "1999" up because I thought I saw it when I was looking for other work by him. I could totally be off on the dates. My apologies.

Anyway, I love that story.

The anthology itself is decent; Christine Schutt's "You Drive" and William Gay's, "The Paperhangar," are 2 other stories I liked. Or at least had moments of surprise or unpredictability in.

Also, Lahiri had a story in there but I couldn't tell you what it was about. I only know that because I scanned the back cover and her name popped out.

jrlennon said...

I love "Sea Oak"! I invited George to read at Wells College back in 2000 or 2001, when I was teaching there, and at the time it was a women's college. He apparently didn't know this, because he'd only brought "Sea Oak" to read, and when we were walking across campus to the main building where the event would take place, the penny suddenly dropped and he looked around and suddenly said, "Wait--is this a women's college?!?"

Needless to say everybody loved it, especially when the dead grandmother is screaming "Show your cock!" as decomposed bits of flesh are falling off her. Classic!

rmellis said...

OMG that is one of my favorite anecdotes, and I had forgotten all about it.

Anonymous said...

Here is what I find confusing about the whole Carver/Lish debate. Suppose you read "Beginners" without ever having read "What We Talk About." Wouldn't you say "Beginners" was a great story? I would. Yes, Lish's editing made WWTA into an even better story, but it's not as if unedited Carver is all crap. So some of what we read from Carver (or any other author) is highly edited and some isn't. Sometimes the editing made it better and sometimes it didn't. The story that is sitting in our hands, whatever the provenance, is what is real and what matters.

jrlennon said...

I would say that the pre-Lish version is a good story, not a great one. There are a lot of things that are made explicit in the original that are hidden in the shorter version--but you can still feel their presence. In this particular case, shorter is better, in my view.

In the case of "A Small, Good Thing," Lish removed a whole major element from the story--the scene with the baker at the end. In my opinion, this is a great loss--in that story, Carver really was risking sentimentality, and Lish removed all that, making it less moving, in my opinion, and more conventional.

Anonymous said...

jrl, that is my point. Some editorial changes make a work better and some don't. That is true if we are talking about a great editor such as Lish and could even apply to somebody like me "editing" the work of a great writer. Don't we all think we could have tightened up Hemingway a little? Maybe improved the clarity of James?

This archeological approach to Carver reminds me of people who want to see the preliminary sketches that an artist did before the completed painting. I can understand how that can be interesting (albeit in a kind of reductive way). But at the end of the day, the painting hanging on the wall is what we see and remember and criticize and praise.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, sorry, I didn't mean to seem to be disagreeing--I was only in disagreement about how good that unedited story is, or isn't.

My experiences with editors have been largely positive--even when they are wrong, good editors are often wrong in a way that points toward the right answer--which the writer must determine, in the end.

I guess what bothers me about "Beginners" is that Carver explicitly chose the Lish'd version for his selected stories, late in his life. The fact that he included some Lish-edited stories, and jettisoned others, makes one think that, in the end, he had a strong idea of where Lish had served him well, and where he hadn't. Ultimately, you need to trust the writer (unless you're Max Brod)--and I feel that publishing this story is a small violation of the writer's trust.

That said, Tess Gallagher probably has good reason to believe Carver would have wanted this stuff brought out...but personally, I don't think it serves him especially well. Those letters are fascinating and moving, though.

miette49 said...

You know, with that Lishless version of the Carver story, the greater problem might be its position following those endless pages of sniveling epistolary pleas from Carver to Lish, which were heartbreaking, yes, but which left the experience of actually reading the Lishless piece tasting not unlike sour twice-regurgitated and sunbaked rooster's milk.

And for the first time in years I'd decided to give a NYer fiction issue an honest shot, so was disappointed to discover much the same as you, except I couldn't even drum up the mettle for Lahiri after all the rest of it.

An aside: I was in a bookstore the other day and stumbled across a collection I bought, with my inner monologue adding the disclaimer that the author in question is "interesting despite being in the New Yorker stable."

AliciaABeale said...

Plot seems to be a dirty word over at the New Yorker

jrlennon said...

Plot is a dirty word in a lot of places! I am a sucker for it, though. It's hardly necessary and is sometimes a distraction (ie., as in Lydia Davis, who doesn't appear to need it at all)...but there's nothing like a good crazy contrivance every now and then to get the blood pumping.