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The ethos, as such, of New Yorker fiction

Thursday 3/28/23

Last nigh I watched a 1969 short that was quite a faithful adaptation of Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery." I don't think much of the story, which is commonly cited as the best American short story ever written. There's little to it. It's a parable. You don't care at all about the characters. They are stock stand-ins for the message of the parable.

That, to me, is very one-note. A story can be a parable and also have characters one cares about. The story is 3700 words long. I think about it from time to time, because if this is what people think is some amazing story--which I think is more a case of a low bar and there being little that is truly amazing--then people who don't know my work aren't going to know what the fuck to do with themselves when they see the stories I write.

Much better, anyway, is Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. You care about Eleanor. When she wanted to, Jackson could write. A lot of the time, though, she was a kind of surface-sketcher. Slight. Skilled. But still slight. You wanted more, in part because you knew she had more to give. Hill House is a perfect example. It's not surface. She went for something fuller and she got it. I don't mean because it was longer--I mean fuller. But I also suspect that Jackson needed length for depth.

The New Yorker originally published "The Lottery," which makes sense. New Yorker stories, to date, are all surface. They have no depth. Nor does anyone care deeply about any of them. They're meant to be all surface-level for a limited, upper class audience that is actually very bourgeoisie, insecure, and would be defined by bad taste, but that audience doesn't even really have any taste one way or the other; it's an ambivalent audience that is invested in other things than what a thing actually is--that is to say, what they want that thing to signify about them. A possessions-over-experiences kind of person who doesn't want their hair ruffled when they read a story. Not even read a story. Look at a story. Know that a certain kind of story is in the magazine on their coffee table. It's more about that knowledge--which means everything is as it should be in their safe little worlds away from the real world--than reading the story and getting anything from it. Not everyone. As always: If I'm talking about you, you know I am. And if I'm not, you should be able to figure that out, too.

New Yorker stories themselves reflect these attitudes. They mean nothing. They have no value. You could read some of them in the past, though, and it was not always a total waste of the time it took to do so. You can read "The Lottery." It's a limited experience, but it's not a pointless one. All of the stories are now pointless and time spent on any of them is always time wasted. They don't even offer the limited experience--instead, they exist to represent the coin of the realm, the appurtenances, the lingua franca, a kind of succession of passwords, of the talentless, bigoted, hyper-connected blue-blooded publishing industry, the signage of the sect signifying who is a member and who is not. That's all. That's really what--all--they're for, insofar as they're for anything.

But it's a big problem, though, isn't it, when you're told that this is the best there is, and it all sucks. You're left with no one reading--not for real--and no one who is trying to write well, to create works of value and significance, with everything that goes with that; the dedication, the energy, the time, the devotion, the vision.

Then you have the people running the show. Insecure, unintelligent people who expect to have their asses kissed constantly, or else they'll be on the edge of a breakdown, because you're talking about people who are that arrogant and that unstable. The system is based on kissing the asses of emperors in no clothes, and pretending that you're coming up with a mouthful of pants. These are people who have had everything in life handed to them, and view reality as an enemy. There is no one who cares less in the world--you cannot overstate this--about how good a piece of writing is or isn't, except in a case where that work towers in quality and originality over everything that they officially put forward, and then they will resent the person who created it as much as they are capable of hating anything or anyone.

They've erected a dysfunctional world, where they rule, and everything exists to be in service to their whims, their hubris, their pettiness, their invented grudges, their extreme prejudices. There is no child as spoiled as these people are spoiled, and demand to be spoiled. Any variation from what they want, their vaguest whim, means banishment. That doesn't just mean conduct in terms of kissing their asses; it means not being the kind of person they are. It means being smarter than they are. It means being legitimate in ways that they know they are not.

In order for them to rule, people must not know how they really are and why everything in that world happens insofar as what is visible from the outside. Ironically, then, true interest has to be killed off. Readers must be killed off. Like I said above, even for people who read New Yorker fiction, it's not about reading New Yorker fiction. It's about other things. It's about knowing a preferred system and way of life remains in place, which is a comfort for a person who is themselves largely just gilt.

Again, it's not everyone, and it's not even everyone's fault who is this way--I should say, who has become this way. The environment has helped set that up. People become what is around them. Usually. You can lose yourself as the formidable, caring reader you once were, because publishing offers you so little, and you've been looking at the likes of a New Yorker for too long. No story there is being chosen for publication because anyone thought it was amazing. That's not what this is about. It's not what The New Yorker is about. It's the last thing that people like David Remnick, Deborah Treisman, David Wallace, and Willing Davidson are about.

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