New Yorker Fiction: An Explanation

Mr. Birnbaum has noted here and on his blog that, in the great New Yorker fiction debate, Jim Harrison’s “Father Daughter” has been overlooked. Now that I’ve finally read the story, with its existential themes and its subtle use of details and language, I’m inclined to agree.

Why was it forgotten? Well, speaking for myself, my stack of New Yorkers is half-read, with the articles perused in an very idiosynchratic manner. I read everything after the fiction section and the whole of Talk of the Town. And then, time permitting, I launch into all the articles or, alternately, the ones I have time to read. This system allows me to leaf through the offerings several times and gives me several opportunities to read it all. Plus, it’s a great way to cure a hangover.

But more often than not, I don’t give the New Yorker‘s fiction a chance, unless a “familiar author” has written a story or it’s a special fiction issue (in which case, I read everything). As previously noted, it has a lot to do with the New Yorker‘s emphasis on bourgeois concerns, utterly foreign or overly niggling problems to drive narrative, about as relevant to the average person’s life as Cheez Whiz is to the gouda connoisseur. In fact, it was something of a shock to read Jim Harrison’s story, with its scope extending across race, class and generation. Because that’s the kind of thing I’d expect somewhere else.

So, yes, I plead guilty. But, as I noted before, I rely on other magazines for my short fiction. Even though this is entirely unfair to Jim Harrison. But then it’s also possible to make a case for enthusiasm: What reader wouldn’t swoon at a new offering from Z.Z. Packer or T.C. Boyle?

I suspect that the real perpetrator here is the New Yorker itself. If the New Yorker were to offer two or three stories per issue (as they did back in the day), then the emphasis would be on fiction, as opposed to the singular literary superstar who, through talent, pluck and East Coast connections, managed to score a week under the eiderdown. When I look at the fiction section, I get the uncomfortable sense that peacocks somewhere are extending their feathers. To me, that’s not what fiction should be about, even though that’s the way the publishing industry works.

[NEWSFLASH: This just in. Jim Harrison has tragic results for bookish romantics.]

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  1. I have exactly the same feeling toward New Yorker fiction, Ed — I know it’s probably good, but I’m rarely eager to read it. Funnily enough, I know I started the Harrison but somehow didn’t get into it. Based on Birnbaum’s and your reaction, I guess I better go back.

  2. It has ever been the case with The New Yorker. They’ve always published the same kind of fiction, have always preferred the “big names.” The only real exceptions to the first statement have been Donald Barthelme and Boyle. (For publishing Barthelme they should always have our gratitude.) I don’t think there’s much point in urging them to change. They won’t.

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