Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Birth of “The New Yorker Story”

[ed. See also: The covers of the New Yorker magazine.]

The fifties were a key decade in the evolution of American magazine fiction. Earlier in the century, there had been a large stable of magazines to which writers like Katherine Anne Porter and F. Scott Fitzgerald could make a fine living by selling short stories. Later in the century, The New Yorker was preeminent; placing a story in its pages was the grail of budding writers, the ultimate validation. By the end of the century, the magazine essentially had the commercial market for short fiction to itself.

It was also in the fifties that “the New Yorker story” emerged, quite suddenly, as a distinct literary genus. What made a story New Yorker was its carefully wrought, many-comma’d prose; its long passages of physical description, the precision and the sobriety of which created a kind of negative emotional space, a suggestion of feeling without the naming of it; its well-educated white characters, who could be found experiencing the melancholies of affluence, the doldrums of suburban marriage, or the thrill or the desolation of adultery; and, above all, its signature style of ending, which was either elegantly oblique or frustratingly coy, depending on your taste. Outside the offices of The New Yorker, its fiction editors were rumored to routinely delete the final paragraph of any story accepted for publication.

The heyday of “the New Yorker story” coincided so neatly with the tenure of William Shawn, who succeeded Harold Ross as editor in 1952 and presided until 1987, that it might instead be called “the Shawn story.” The one story from the Ross era in this volume, Roald Dahl’s “Taste,” is written in an older and more conventional register. Its setting—the dinner party of a parvenu stockbroker—is still recognizable and relevant today, but its high-concept premise and its O. Henry ending hark back to the decades when magazine fiction supplied the sort of popular entertainment now considered television’s province. The fifties put an end to that, and “the New Yorker story,” with its emphasis on sentence craft and its rejection of neatly tied-up endings, can be understood, in part, as a retreat from the pressure of commercial TV, a retrenchment in provinces beyond the reach of visual media.

In the fifties, and for a long time afterward, The New Yorker didn’t identify its fiction as fiction. The author’s name appeared only at the end, in small capital letters, the same way the magazine’s journalists and critics were credited. What began, perhaps, as an affectation of Harold Ross’s became an emblem of the magazine’s definition of itself: the writing literally came first, the author’s ego-bearing name last. Although fiction in those days was usually given pride of place at the front of the magazine (rather than being secreted near the back, as is the case today), the number of short stories varied from issue to issue, which left it to the reader to determine whether the text in front of her was fiction or nonfiction. The respect the magazine thereby accorded fiction writers—the implication that what mattered about a piece was its sentence-by-sentence excellence, not its genre, not the weight of its subject matter—was part of what made The New Yorker the place every young American story writer dreamed of being published.

“The New Yorker story” was a stereotype, of course, and inevitably an unfair one—Shawn ran dozens of shtetl stories by I. B. Singer and Irish country stories by Frank O’Connor, and he devoted most of one issue to the experimental novel Snow White, by Donald Barthelme, who at the time was not well known. But it was “the New Yorker story,” as it developed in the fifties, that became the model for aspiring writers, because it seemed to be the key to getting into the magazine, and by the seventies the model was so dominant that it generated mockery and backlash. Too many stories about mopey suburbanites. Too many well-off white people. A surfeit of descriptions, a paucity of action. Too much privileging of prose for the sake of prose, too little openness to rougher energies. And those endings? A style repeated too often devolves into a tic. After Shawn retired and the magazine’s fiction section became more of a free-for-all, more multivalent and multiethnic, the “New Yorker story” began to look like a form in well-deserved retirement—a relic of an era when subscribers had still had the patience and the time, in New Canaan, in Armonk, on a beach in the Hamptons, to read slow-moving stories in which nothing much happened at the end.

by Jonathan Franzen, The New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Adrian Tomine