Category Archives: Shirley Jackson

New Yorker Magazine; Fiction; Keywording

You’re reading a novel. “What’s it about?” somebody asks. What do you say?

The question grates; there’s no good answer for it, no easy way to address it. Book reviewers who are trained to avoid all but the briefest sketch of plot summary know that talking about the storyline is a poor way to register enthusiasm about a book. (“Well, there’s this couple, and they have three kids, and it’s 1986, and they’re unhappy because….”) Shifting gears and talking about themes and ideas instead doesn’t improve matters—done wrong (and it often is, in conversation), it comes off as highfalutin. (“Well, it’s about this couple, but it’s really about how globalization, particularly when it comes to personal technology….”) Maybe it’s best to just answer the question with a grunt of setting and characters. (“It’s about an unhappy couple. In rural Oregon.”)

I imagine this struggle going on among the world’s librarians and metadata experts whenever I look at the Library of Congress cataloging information for a work of fiction. For instance, here’s the complete listing for an acclaimed 2006 novel celebrated for its verve and wit and sprawl:

1. Young women—Fiction.

Here’s one for an older novel, a National Book Award winner by one of American literature’s signature 20th century authors:

1. Americans–Mexico–Fiction. 2. Failure (Psychology)–Fiction. 3. Chicago (Ill.)–Fiction. 4. Depression–Fiction. 5. Young men–Fiction. 6. Mexico–Fiction.

And, back to the present again, a relatively recent Pulitzer Prize winner:

1. Greek Americans–Fiction. 2. Detroit (Mich.)–Fiction. 3. City and town life–Fiction. 4. Suburban life–Fiction.

If you keep up with fiction at all, you can probably take a good guess at the titles of the last two books. (No need to prolong the mystery: In order, they’re Marisha Pessl‘s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Saul Bellow‘s The Adventures of Augie March, and Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex.) But few people would discuss what those novels are about in the Library of Congress’ terms. Indeed, the information for Middlesex seems to avoid the book’s most relevant plot point (Hermaphroditism–Fiction.).

All of which is a long way of saying for the past month I’ve been amused and baffled by the metadata for short fiction on the New Yorker‘s website. For about a month, I’ve been logging examples at my Tumblr, and the ongoing effort to summarize fiction with streams of keywords feels at once charming and pointless, like a child trying to capture moonlight in a jar. New stories on the website are keyworded with an entertaining profligacy, as in the case of the Jonathan Lethem story that inspired me to start logging keywords in the first place:

Pornography, Clerks, Stores, Threesomes, Sex, Videos, New York City, Critics, Reviewers, Transsexuals, Sex Machines, Vomit

This kind of labor goes on constantly in editorial hives today, though it often goes undiscussed—editors are logging, tagging, keywording, catagorizing, metadata-ing. The Great God CMS must be pleased. It is tedious but essential work: Because there is no telling how articles—sorry, “content”—will be used in the years to come, those words are the necessary toeholds for databases in the future. And because nobody knows what information we’ll need years, centuries from now, the more keywording the better. The New Yorker has done its bit to make sure that anybody researching the role of sex machines, or vomit, in the first decade of the Tea Party era will be able to reckon with Jonathan Lethem’s short story “The Porn Critic.”

Older stories are keyworded much more parsimoniously—perhaps this is because because the responsible party is concerned only with finding the essence of a story, but more likely because this work is being done in a hurry. Even so, if you studied English in high school, you know this story:

Lots; Mob Violence; Small Towns; Stoning

You probably know this one too:

Adolescence; Bathing Suits; New England; Supermarkets

Those scattered terms can be enough to let you know what a story is. But it’s not enough to say what it’s about, not really, at least partly because emotional states don’t get keyworded at the New Yorker. There’s nothing in the metadata for Vladimir Nabokov‘s “Symbols and Signs” (“Insane; Birthdays; Children; Parents; Russia, Russians; Gifts: New York City; Immigrants”) that would get at its tone of emotional devastation, the despair in its line about “neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners.” The three keywords for Alice Munro‘s “A Wilderness Station” (“Canada; Letters; Murder”) are almost comically insufficient at summarizing a story about guilt, accusation, and suppression that stretches across decades.

So be it. If fiction could be summarized in a series of nouns it would stop being fiction; its abstractions render abstracts meaningless, or at least beside the point. Still, I was disappointed to see how shabbily James Thurber has been treated on this front by the keepers of the New Yorker archives. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” for instance, is entirely bereft of relevant keywords. (Just “The New Yorker, magazine, subscription”—when in doubt, pitch a subscription, apparently.) If you want to know what “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is about, you’re just going to have to read it—which, in a perfect world, is just as it should be. But how much has the story’s lack of keywords diminished its chances of being discovered and read?

Links: That’ll Do

Dan Chaon: “We both know that the cliché of the Midwest is that we are all corn-fed, really nice people, but you read any police blotter in any small town, and you know that’s not true (laughs). My mother was someone who was the first big storyteller in my life, and her fascination was always with morbid or crazy things that happened to people she was related to or people she knew about — you know, somebody having a heart attack and falling into a pig pen and being eaten alive by the pigs.”

Various Jonathan Lethem-related film projects are floating around; most recently, David Cronenberg may direct Lethem’s 1997 novel, As She Climbed Across the Table.

Considering James Hynes‘ stellar new novel, Next, as a retort to Reality Hunger.

The best underappreciated Chicago novel.

How motherhood fed Shirley Jackson‘s fiction.

Do critics need to be tougher? (And does my phrasing the link in the form of a question reflect the urge to be compassionate and nonconfrontational that Jeffrey R. Di Leo derides?)

How John Updike revised. The multimedia glimpse into multiple drafts of the opening of Rabbit at Rest is particularly interesting. (Last year I took a look at how Updike tweaked some of the stories that appeared his final collection, My Father’s Tears.)

A letter Nicholson Baker wrote to Updike in 1985, under the “oddly peaceful emotional umbrella” of one of his stories.

Henry Roth biographer Steven Kellman responds in Bookforum (reg req’d) to Joshua Cohen’s criticism of An American Type in Harper’s.

The Italian “journalist” who invented a host of interviews with Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Gore Vidal, and many others has confessed.

Wendell Berry has pulled his papers from the University of Kentucky to protest the school’s affiliation with the coal industry.

Aimee Bender‘s influences, from Raymond Carver to L. Frank Baum to The Piano.

Blogging Ray Bradbury.

Susan Straight on her surprise at how eagerly her students took to Winesburg, Ohio. (Straight also puts in a good word for Alex Espinoza‘s fine 2007 novel, Still Water Saints.) (via)

Thanks to “bungling bureaucrats in Washington, DC,” Annie Proulx couldn’t give a reading in Moscow.

If you’re in Germany after Thanksgiving, there’s a sizable conference on the work of Richard Powers going on. (via)

“[Philip] Roth assumed the persona of my friend’s whiny Jewish mother while masturbating my friend’s black umbrella. In a kvetchy falsetto, Roth scolded my friend for being a bad son.”

The Library of America: Too Frisky?

Writing at Newsweek‘s Web site, Malcolm Jones rants that the Library of America has become a “publishing venture increasingly dependent on the idea that great American writers just can’t die fast enough.” His piece is a variation of the complaint that the Criterion Collection gets when it hastily canonizes recent movies like The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou or Che, but in this case Jones’ evidence for the Library’s lapses is remarkably thin. He’s largely unhappy with a new collection of Shirley Jackson, whom he dismisses as being “mostly famous for one short story.” Is that a problem with Jackson, though, or with what kinds of writers gain notoriety? And if this is a truly a case where “financial concerns go to war with esthetics,” as Jones writes, publishing a collection of Jackson hardly seems like a way to chase big bucks. After all, remember, she’s mostly famous for one short story.

That’s not the only case where Jones seems uncertain about what he’s agitating against. He cites a Dawn Powell collection as both an interesting choice and an example of the Library’s haste, and recent collections by John Cheever, John Ashbery, and Raymond Carver are proof that the “LOA wasn’t going to wait any longer for time’s verdict.” Ashbery is in his 80s and Carver and Cheever died more than two decades ago, so how long must one’s body be moldering in the ground before it’s OK to collect their work in a prestige edition?

Actually, you needn’t die at all, so long as you’re Philip Roth. Given that Jones registers no loud complaints about the Library’s Roth collections but sees little value in its H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick books, it’s safe to say that what’s going on here is that Jones simply has a constricted view of what makes for a canon. But then, so does the Library of America: Besides the Jackson book, its 2010 list includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, John Marshall, Stephen Foster, and a collection of theater writing. If that’s the LOA getting impatient for time’s verdict, a little more impatience would actually be a virtue.