Typical Tales

The creator of the litblog Years of BASS is preparing to read The Best American Short Stories 1981, which that year was guest-edited by Hortense Calisher. The collection includes 20 stories, a whopping nine of which were originally published in the New Yorker—a lopsidedness so pronounced that Calisher was moved to address it in her introduction:

Perhaps this is a good place to talk about the “typical” New Yorker short story, since the proportion of my inclusions from that magazine will give pain to some. There is no typical one, really, but I can describe what people think it is: a story of suburbia or other middle-class to “upper” milieu, which exists to record the delicate observation of the small fauna, terrors, and fatuities of a domestic existence, sometimes leveled in with a larger terror—a death, say, or a mortal disease—so that we may respond to the seamlessness of life, and of the recorder’s style. To move on casually from these stories, as we often do, is a guilt, since they are as often, if subduedly, about the guilt of moving on. Muted response is the virtue. Never break out.

From there, Calisher proceeds to deny the existence of this magical, melancholy creature, but it’s a notion that gets around. Searching on the term “typical New Yorker short story” (or “typical New Yorker story”) offers a range of opinions and complaints:

“The typical New Yorker short story provides a good example of the writer who possesses craftsmanship without insight. These stories are not works of art; they are studies, exercises, etudes, ubungen—yet occasionally they manage to approach art through sheer competence of technique, as though insight were created by skill.” —Critic David Daiches, circa 1946

“You know, the absolutely typical New Yorker short story—which is a mood piece where you have 12 people at a cocktail party, and you go to the cocktail party with them, and at the end of the story you know that some of them don’t get along with the others, and that is about all.” —Novelist and poet Diana O’Hehir in the Washington Post, 1984

[David] Leavitt‘s work adds to the typical New Yorker short story of understated upper middle-class suburban life the theme of homosexuality, a theme that has always been implicit in this subgenre. —GLBTQ.com online encyclopedia

[T]wo stories, by Seamus Deane and Lorrie Moore, respectively, are also the only two not set in the usual New Yorker short-story stomping ground of New York—or that acceptable surrogate New York, London. —Keith Philipps, The Onion

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
: I’ve had some of my stories rejected by the New Yorker before one was finally accepted. Actually, I didn’t really like many of the stories I read [in the magazine], but then I started reading more and found some things I did like. But, of course, I wanted to be published in it, and it was really nice. Because “Cell One” is a story I especially liked, and one that took so long to write, I felt, I don’t know, a sense of satisfaction.

Interviewer: And they pay well!

CA: Yes, they do, but even if they didn’t, it has so much prestige. The second story [“The Headstrong Historian”] I did not think was at all New Yorker material, so when my agent said she’d sent it there, I thought, why?

Interviewer: Maybe it’s not a typical New Yorker story, so you’re part of what’s changing their landscape.

Interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kenyon Review. 2009

This concern about the typicality of New Yorker short stories has a way of bringing out the inner sabremetrician in some, looking for trend lines in authors’ gender, country of origin, and so on. But this search for the typical short story has apparently been a source of amusement for the magazine’s keepers. In a 1994 story about life inside the New Yorker‘s fiction department, Roger Angell recalls an exchange with a reader:

“Are you looking for the typical New Yorker story?” someone else asks. “Sure lady,” I want to answer back. “The one that’s exactly like Borges and Brodkey and Edna O’Brien and John O’Hara and Susan Minot and Eudora Welty and Niccolo Tucci and Isaac Singer. That’s the one, except with more Keillor and Nabokov in it. Whenever we find one of those, we snap it right up.”

Sturdily middle-class, troubled but not too deeply, suburban but urban as well, waspily making the rounds of the cocktail parties—when people talk about the typical New Yorker story, they may in fact be indulging a fantasy about the typical New Yorker reader.

8 responses to “Typical Tales

  1. Harvey Freedenberg

    If there’s a “typical” New Yorker story these days it’s an excerpt from an upcoming novel by a major writer. Too often (at least in this subscriber’s judgment), those excerpts don’t really work as short stories (other than being relatively short).

    • I was thinking about riffing on that exact point, but I felt it would’ve pulled me in a direction that I didn’t really have time to scribble about. Anyway, you’re right: There’s a big difference between “short story” and “4,000-word novel excerpt that more or less hangs together as a standalone piece.” Even if I like such an excerpt, I’d prefer to read it in its intended context, so the piece is never really satisfying in itself.

  2. Though somewhat OT, there’s an excellent blog about short stories I’d like to recommend:

    http://may-on-the-short-story.blogspot.com/

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  4. I don’t know… I’ve been reading the New Yorker since I was in high school, and I adore it — the reviews, the articles, the talk of the town. But I hate the fiction, and I always have. So I don’t think my dislike has anything to do with prejudice against the New Yorker audience or anything, since I am a member of that tribe.

    It’s hard for me to put my finger on, but even when my favorite writers have something published in the New Yorker, I almost invariably hate it. I do feel there is a sort of consistent blandness to the stories they choose — an general opposition to anything happening, so that one can’t help walking away feeling as vaguely dissatisfied as the characters themselves.

    But yes, I agree, it’s hard to define.

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  6. From what I could tell back when I used to read The New Yorker stories more regularly, there was an almost iron-clad rule for inclusion: Your story either had to involve death in some form or another, or infidelity (either mental or practical). I think if anyone ever tried to verify this theory scientifically by tallying up those themes, you’d find that over 90% of the stories in the past several years meet one of the two conditions.

    Of course, there’s a tendency among literary writers and magazine editors alike to feel a story that doesn’t include one or the other isn’t going to be dramatic or important enough. Kind of a shame.

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