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Criticism, Fiction, Publishing, The Writer's Life

What’s That Story Doing in The New Yorker?

I don’t care much for the fiction in The New Yorker, although I often read it to see what the literary elites (a potential audience of mine, perhaps by the 23rd century) prefer.

The fiction editors usually seem more concerned with who wrote the story, rather than its quality. Case in point, a 1936 short story written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, titled “Thank You for the Light,” previously unpublished, found in a recent audit of his papers, and published in the August 6 issue.

I suspect TNY has edited the story, since it fits perfectly onto one page. As far its literary merit, my opinion is that this is approximately a second draft, and that Fitzgerald may have intended to work on it further, or to abandon it. The story has a certain sketchiness to me, as though Fitzgerald wasn’t done tinkering, wasn’t quite sure about the theme.

So what’s it doing in The New Yorker, that pinnacle (or so some writers believe) of short story fame and fortune?

Obviously TNY’s primary goal is to sell magazines, so by publishing stories only by well-established authors whose presence in their pages serves as a form of advertising. They are essentially “brand name” authors who make many readers feel comfortable about the content. A check of recent short stories yields pieces by Alice Munro, Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, and other best-selling writers.

I’m curious as to others’ opinions of the fiction in The New Yorker. Are you wowed by their stories, or find them safe and unchallenging? Which publication, if not TNY, do you turn to when you want to read a great short story?


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


33 thoughts on “What’s That Story Doing in The New Yorker?

  1. Hi. When I want to read a great short story, I don’t go for a magazine at all, I tend to dig out one of our collection of “The Best Short Stories of 19–” or “The Best Short Stories of 20–.” We have quite a collection of these, put together by responsible editors, many of whom are writers themselves. And when I have totally exhausted all of the stories there, I have other collections of short story anthologies which I will consult. This doesn’t really answer your question, because you are canvassing our opinions about magazines. But again, it does answer your question: these days, I can’t afford magazine subscriptions, nor do I have the time to sit and browse endlessly in a library through them. Hence, my answer. I hope it’s of some use, anyway.

    Posted by shadowoperator | August 25, 2012, 1:16 PM
    • I have piles of the NYer, the Sun, and Tin House that have taken permanent residence in my home. Friends with subscriptions bring them over but the only time I touch them is with a duster. Like Shadowoperator, I do sometimes read something from one of the “Best of” books or I pick up a favorite author and re-read.

      Posted by girl in the hat | August 25, 2012, 3:51 PM
      • One of the nice things about being BR editor is that publishers send me books all the time–probably 2-3 a week. Few are by well-known authors. Most are written by lesser-knowns or new writers. It’s a great way to discover good novels and short story collections. This week’s pimp on the home page features one such collection of stories by George Singleton.

        Posted by jpon | August 25, 2012, 7:15 PM
    • I know what you mean about subscriptions. Most lit journals are like $20-$30 for a year, but that’s only 2 issues. I think a lot of journal publishers are going to have to find a more economical publishing model, whether it be online (which some have already gone to) or slimmer issues. And I temporarily forgot about BASS. That’s my first choice for good short stories as well. Thanks for the reminder.

      Posted by jpon | August 25, 2012, 7:11 PM
  2. P.S. As to reading online, I sometimes read online when I am referred to a story by someone like you, whom I’m following, but no one magazine has my allegiance, especially because at some point sometimes the money subscription issue crops up, and in other cases because I have to prioritize and simply can’t follow everything. So I let other people guide me to things to read. I did see the F. Scott Fitzgerald story, but I dislike Fitzgerald in general except for “The Great Gatsby,” and found the spareness of the story intriguing. It seemed lacking in the usual self-indulgence of a Fitzgerald text.

    Posted by shadowoperator | August 25, 2012, 1:22 PM
  3. Like Shadowoperator, I don’t read too many magazines for fiction. Not only the cost of so many subscriptions, online or physical (there’re plenty of magazines I’d love to read–and I like TNY’s cartoons–I really do; and trying to find a “generic” calendar for them–sorry, I digress…), but there’s just so many seconds in a day! I get magazines for info and entertainment, and do try to read what I get cover to cover, but again, the “seconds” thing, and working a day job, writing fiction, living life elsewhere than from behind a computer—we all know the drill. :-] I do sometimes read online material I find or someone points me to. Also do reread anthologies I already have on the bookshelves. :-\

    Posted by fpdorchak | August 25, 2012, 1:46 PM
    • Yes, the subscription cost of most journals could be what’s killing the field more than apathy (then again, maybe not). And I know what you mean about time constraints. That’s why I like to travel. A good cross-country flight means I can read most or all of a book (once the annoying announcements finally stop, that is).

      Posted by jpon | August 25, 2012, 7:18 PM
  4. For good short story reading, I too tend to gravitate to the big annual short story collections or the occasional themed collections. I used to love Story Magazine. Also fun to prowl used book shops to find a 1948 anthology, or something like it. Best Short Stories of 20whatever has been a bit spotty recently but I always buy it. A new series, Short Story America, Volumes 1 and 2 is very good too. (Yeah, okay, shameless, blatant self promotion there…I’m in Volume 2.)
    As far as TNY and Fitzgerald, I think the story qualifies purely on historical grounds.

    Posted by Jon Zech | August 25, 2012, 2:12 PM
    • And kudos to SSA for the incredible amount of work they are putting into reviving interest in the short story. If half the lit journals out there worked as hard (or if all worked half as hard, or something like that), readership wouldn’t be the problem it is.

      Posted by jpon | August 25, 2012, 7:21 PM
      • Tim Johnston, at Editor at SSA is a horse! Beautiful anthology, a very active Face Book page promoting members and the upcoming SSA Festival in South Carolina, which, in addition to readings and panels, will see the birth of Short Story Writer’s Association. Can’t wait to attend that one!

        Posted by Jon Zech | August 25, 2012, 11:39 PM
  5. Story was my favorite, too, Jon Zech. I love VQR, Glimmer Train, Hunger Mountain, and numerous e-zines. For the best nonfiction it’s hard to beat Brevity Magazine. I could go on and on, but I’m working on a story for the New Yorker. Kidding, of course. :-)

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | August 25, 2012, 4:05 PM
    • I tend to rotate my subscriptions each year to both spread the wealth and familiarize myself with different journals and authors. Right now my fave is Cincinnati Review. Interesting you should mention Brevity. It’s one of the best of the nonfiction journals, and it’s free online. The editor, Dinty Moore (yes, he also invented beef stew :-) also edited the The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, which has just been released here: http://www.rosemetalpress.com/News/news.html

      Posted by jpon | August 25, 2012, 7:27 PM
      • Joe, if you keep crediting Dinty with canned beef stew, people will start believing you ;-)

        Posted by Jon Zech | August 25, 2012, 11:33 PM
      • I met Dinty in Oxford, Mississippi, at the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writer’s Conference. He’s hilarious and a great guy. Off to read your Rose Pedal link. Thanks, Joe.

        Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | August 26, 2012, 5:52 AM
  6. I read the Fitzgerald piece, too, and found it sketchy. Actually, my first reaction was that I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that Fitzgerald didn’t even write it. I do like some New Yorker stories, especially those by George Saunders. I really enjoyed “Al Roosten,” “Victory Lap,” and “Escape from Spiderhead,” all of which were published within the last three years. Jim Gavin’s “Costello” was also pretty good and a rare instance where I saw a debut in the New Yorker as opposed to seeing all the same old names I usually see.

    Also, it’s worth noting that one reason we see so many of the same authors in the pages of the New Yorker is that many of them have signed right-of-first refusal deals with the magazine, so the New Yorker gets to see their stuff first, and since their names usually sell magazines, the New Yorker hardly ever refuses.

    Posted by Marc Schuster | August 25, 2012, 5:49 PM
    • It would have been interesting to know some background on the Fitzgerald story–where he was, what he intended to do with it, or even if, as you said, someone else penned it. It was probably just a couple of sheets of paper found among his files with no other reference.

      And I did not know about the first rights deal TNY has with several authors. Explains a lot. Thanks for the info.

      Posted by jpon | August 25, 2012, 7:31 PM
  7. Yeah, I can’t get into much of what TNY publishes for fic. Too many middle-aged affairs [stifles a yawn]. A nicely wrought sentence or two, but the story doesn’t grab you by the balls, know what I’m sayin’? When I do read short fic, I tend to pick up a one-author collection — like Sherman Alexie, say — or a well-edited themed antho, like Dark Faith.

    Posted by akhoffman | August 25, 2012, 10:04 PM
    • I was considering including what I really thought about New Yorker fiction, but decided to be nice. You’ve only scratched the surface of what I dislike about most of their short stories…

      Posted by jpon | August 26, 2012, 1:12 AM
  8. I’ve stopped reading them, so I guess that’s my answer.

    Posted by Stefon Mears | August 25, 2012, 11:51 PM
    • Yeah, I understand completely. I find NYker stories incredibly pretentious. Maybe I’ll blog about that in the future.

      Posted by jpon | August 26, 2012, 1:14 AM
  9. Joe, If the New York Times article about the resurrection of Fitzgerald’s story is correct, The New Yorker originally rejected this story, which means that Fitzgerald had (presumably) considered it finished. The article by Charles McGrath is here: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/31/a-fantastic-fitzgerald-story-resurrected-in-the-new-yorker/

    Posted by Grier Jewell | August 26, 2012, 12:32 AM
    • Ah, mystery solved! Thanks Grier. Everyone should take a look. And I love the little unspoken dig by one NY literary behemoth at another.

      Posted by jpon | August 26, 2012, 1:15 AM
  10. You already know I’m not a fan of TNY fiction, so I won’t bore with more of my blather about that. I do like The Missouri Review, and there are times I like Ploughshares, like their latest edition of nonfiction edited by Patricia Hampl.

    When I see a particularly strange choice for TNY fiction, I can’t help wondering about the truckloads of fiction they have to choose from —- don’t we all, writers, want to be published in TNY?! —- and be even more disappointed. Of the thousands of stories, this is “it?” (I feel sad just typing that)

    Posted by Teri | August 26, 2012, 6:27 PM
    • Well, I’d take publication in TNY if they offered it, but I’m not holding my breath. But see Marc Schuster’s and Grier Jewell’s comments for how things really work at TNY. Hardly worth submitting to them after reading those.

      Posted by jpon | August 27, 2012, 12:17 AM
      • Thanks — those were enlightening comments. I would guess that, even amongst the 1st refusal stories, they have much to choose from, and it also makes me wonder if they choose things that are about to show up in published collections. Hmmm…. Why is this reminding me of politics in Washington DC? That more than the work, it’s who you know and favors owed (to agents and writers and publishers). The club.

        Posted by Teri | August 27, 2012, 2:54 PM
      • Teri, you have no idea. Despite the image the writing biz likes to portray that what gets published is based on talent and imagination, I have found it to be as good-ol-boy as any other. Last year I castigated George McFetridge for his attempt to expose rampant celeb worship and downright cronyism in lit mags. But he was essentially right. It wouldn’t be so bad if the guilty journals, agents and publishers just admitted it, instead of perpetuating the farce that they’re constantly on the lookout for new talent.

        Posted by jpon | August 27, 2012, 3:14 PM
  11. Great point. I get the New Yorker on kindle, and I do not generally read the fiction, because it often looks very uninteresting. I read Murakami and Saunders when they appear, because I love their work, as well as Alexie, and other than that, not so much. I tend to take a look at authors with non-English sounding names because I’m hoping for a new and exciting discovery. sigh.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | August 26, 2012, 7:52 PM
    • I suspect TNY fiction is dedicated to appeasing its core subscribers, the people who are often personified in the short stories–educated, liberal, self-referential sophisticates. After all, they’re the ones buying the magazine more than any other group!

      Posted by jpon | August 27, 2012, 12:14 AM
  12. I made it through about a paragraph of the “Thank You for the Light” before losing patience with the story. And Fitzgerald’s work usually grips me at the first sentence and holds me through the last.

    Of course, every literary magazine I’ve read from front to cover has “suffered” from inconsistency. (I would be lying if I said I believed my tastes were universal and objective.) Whenever I buy Glimmer Train or Ploughshares, I’m always left scratching my head at what I perceive as the great gap in quality between stories – that one captures me while another feels like a written cure for insomnia. Mind you, even the dull reads are well crafted.

    Posted by Maria G. | August 26, 2012, 7:57 PM
    • Yes, I’ve noticed that too in the journals I read. Sometimes I read one story that’s fantastic, and the next story is that same-old mom/dad-dying-of-cancer-and-so-I-learn-something-about-myself trope.

      Posted by jpon | August 27, 2012, 12:09 AM
  13. TNY usually publishes work from established authors, because this is what the editor chooses for reasons that have already been mentioned; it’s the way the game is played. However, once in a great while, a relatively unknown writer will get published. Fellow scribes, keep at it.

    Posted by nadiaibrashi | August 29, 2012, 3:19 AM
  14. I got my TNY in the mail today, Joe. Fiction by T.C. Boyle. It’s a good thing, because he surely needs the work. (geez)

    In other news, I finally came across a book where the main character’s name doesn’t show up until the second page! ORDINARY PEOPLE. So there, writing doctor!!!

    Posted by Teri | August 31, 2012, 8:36 PM
    • Ha! (on both counts). And Ordinary People is no back shelf indie book. My faith in good writing may be restored yet.

      Posted by jpon | August 31, 2012, 9:12 PM

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