The New Yorker’s fiction is terrible.

The New Yorker’s fiction is terrible.*

There, I said it.

Every week it’s another story about uninteresting, unhappy people becoming more unhappy still. There is little to no action; virtually nothing happens. Often it’s well-written, in the sense that there are nice turns of phrases, and the characters are explored in a way that gives them depth and personality. But it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

These stories are always about presumably-white, upper-middle-class, modern-day Americans. “Regular people,” to speak broadly. And being a regular person, I don’t want to read about me. I want to read about people other than me because I’m pretty well familiar with me at this point. But worse still it’s about the specific miseries of regular people, about how cruel and beastly it is to be among the wealthiest people on the planet.

I was just lying in bed, preparing to go to sleep, when I thought I’d read Joshua Ferris’ “The Dinner Party,” the fiction article in the current issue (August 11). Now, I want to say upfront that I don’t fault Ferris for this article. By that I mean that it’s the basic fare of The New Yorker’s fiction section, so clearly this guy is doing something right, if we may presume that being published in the nation’s leading literary magazine is the definition of “doing something right” in the world of fiction. The piece started off well. He describes the playful, slightly wicked banter between a married couple as they prepare dinner for visiting friends. There are some nice observations (i.e. vegetables “bright and doomed”). But then the friends don’t show up. Hours later, the husband is dispatched to the friends’ house. He finds that the couple is having a big party. He’s informed by the wife that they were deliberately not invited, that the couple hates them, and that nobody likes them. The husband, angry, goes home, only to find that his wife has decided to leave him. The End.

So, what, I’m supposed to go to sleep now? With the idea planted in my mind that my friends hate me, they’re throwing parties behind my back, because I’m such a miserable SOB?

This is what happens every time I read a New Yorker fiction article. Sad people get sadder. Lonely people get lonelier. People I don’t care about become miserable, and that’s supposed to do what for me?

Who is it that likes this stuff? Who provided the marching orders that fiction must now be this dreck? Isn’t there an entire world of people out there who are very different from me, who have done things in life that I haven’t, who lived in the millennia past or will live in the millennia ahead, who have seen things and felt things and lived lives that I haven’t? Where are they? Where are their stories?

I’m giving up on The New Yorker’s fiction. And now I’m going to sleep. Right after a unicorn chaser of Nancy Franklin’s review of “Burn Notice.”

* With the exception of everything by T.C. Boyle (i.e. “Thirteen Hundred Rats“), and frequently the work of John Updike and Alice Munroe.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

14 replies on “The New Yorker’s fiction is terrible.”

  1. Yay! There’s someone else out there who loves the New Yorker as a magazine but can’t stand most of its fiction!

    I thought I was alone in the world, mentally defective in some way and unable to “get it,” sad and getting sadder, a loser getting loserer….

    (Oh, woe is me, I think I’ll go put on some Morrissey.)

  2. I just forwarded this entry to my old roommate, who I had numerous debates with regarding the merit of the New Yorker’s fiction section. In a way, this reminds me of your recent hipster entry; much like there is a hollowness in their “movement,” the stories presented tend to be terribly unoriginal plots that serve only as a vehicle for clever writing.

    The main problem, I guess, is that I prioritize them the opposite way.

  3. Thank you for saying it. I’ll readily admit that I read it for the comics more than anything else now-a-days.

    Out of curiosity do you find that VQR fares much better in this regard? Fiction that deflates is quite common (and I believe a symptom of post-modern philosophy, but that is another matter) but I sense that VQR has more spirited writing.

  4. I think that the great bulk of fiction in VQR is better w/r/t this criterion. I don’t always love all of it, but I do think that our offerings almost always avoid this particular malaise. (Though I must call up that I do not work in an editorial capacity for VQR, and I’m speaking here only for my own tastes, not for VQR’s.) Our current issue features one story about the 1258 sack of Bahdad by Hulagu Khan, another about a girl who is from India but is entirely of Wyoming, and a third about the relationship between the two wives of a Muslim Uzbek man. Every story is about people whose life experiences are very interesting to me because they’re so unlike mine, and yet we still share commonalities in our existence.

  5. I won’t disagree with your assessment that the majority of New Yorker fiction describes the tribulations of middle-class white couples. And the fiction stories that I tend to enjoy in The New Yorker are usually the ones that fall outside of that. And yes, generally speaking, I find that the Fiction is usually the least-great part of the magazine (except those rare occasions where they try to write about underground music, which is just embarassing.)

    However, here are two worthwhile exceptions from recent memory that I hope might change your mind about the potential quality New Yorker fiction:

    Jonathan Lethem’s “The King of Sentences,” which more than anything functions as a parody of the type of stories you describe, and which also features a TON of spectacular sentances (because Lethem is that good of a writer):

    and David Foster Wallace’s “Good People,” which is very clearly self-consciously a story written by a privileged intellectual about working class young people, but which somehow either avoids or confronts all of the problems with that scenario, resulting in a really excellent story that is also somehow universally relatable and worthwhile:

    They’ve also published some great stories by Haruki Murakami over the years, and a lot of classic Lorrie Moore stuff back in the day, and then there’s one Zadie Smith story in particular that I enjoyed, although I don’t seem to be able to find it anywhere in their archive.

    Now, on to a much more important matter: Why does the worst Caption Contest entry always win? Especially when one of the runners-up usually produces best cartoon in that week’s issue?

  6. Waldo, I agree that the New Yorker fiction has been awful of late, but I totally disagree with your choices for exceptions to the rule. Not only did I find the Joshua Ferris story to be the best story TNY has published in months (minus the ending, which was weak), but also the T.C. Boyle stories, ESPECIALLY “Thirteen Hundred Rats,” habe been major disappointments for me. Even the Alice Munro story recently I found to be way below par. My blog readers–I critique the TNY story each week and invite others to join in–have mostly agreed with these assessments.

  7. Interesting! (I can’t actually recall which Munroe story appeared most recently, so I can’t speak to that one.) Do you not share my interest in reading about people with life experiences quite different than your own, or is that you can enjoy good writing more or less regardless of the narrative arc or topic?

  8. The Alice Munro story they recently published was Deep-holes, which had some fine moments, but ultimately left me cold. I definitely do like reading the stories where life experiences are different from my own–which is why I did like the Chimamanda Adichie story and also the Yiyun Li story. Admittedly, the Ferris story doesn’t fit in that category, but the dialogue was superb and unlike, say, the Boyle story, it did have a narrative arc that worked. Basically I don’t care much about topic, as long as it is handled in a fresh way, with good writing. And most of the time I want that arc, though not always . . .

  9. Geez, you turn 30 and suddenly it’s all with the “literature is dead” and the “kids these days” posts. Isn’t it a little early yet to turn into a crotchety old man? ;)

    (btw, John Updike is a cousin of mine, and I’m glad to see he’s escaped your wrath :) )

  10. I’ve liked the New Yorker for the cartoons since childhood, and I subscribed after reading Sy Hersh and Hendrik Hertzberg online, but I’ve always found the fiction pointless and dull. There may be some good stuff in there, but to find it I’d have to wade through all the rest. I don’t get to read as much fiction as I’d like these days, and wasting it reading New Yorker fiction would be like eating baked potato chips to keep to your diet instead of just having the occasional slice of cake.

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