Monday, December 22, 2008

New Yorker Fiction 2008

For the past six years, I've been reading the fiction in the New Yorker with a varying degree of faithfulness. Altogether I've read about 75% of the stories in these years. This year I only got to about 50%. 

When I read each story, I rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. Here are the criteria I've developed for evaluating fiction. Obviously these criteria are highly subjective, but I think that in my own way I weigh each of them as I think about how much I liked a particular story.

Ambition: Does the story attempt something moving, funny, innovative—and deeply so?

Execution: Are the sentences thrilling? Does the story compel me to keep going?

Seduction: Does the story draw me in, enrapture me, make me feel that I am in the world it has created?

Resolution: Does the ending hold up with the rest of the story? Does it cast an interesting and revealing light on what's come before?

Resonance: Does the story linger in my memory? Does it change the way I look at life? Does it gather meaning with time and re-reading?

Here are my favorite stories from 2008, with my ratings in parentheses.

Some Women, by Alice Munro—a teenage girl observes a household's tangled relationships (10)

The Bell Ringer, by John Burnside—a Scottish woman and her sister-in-law deal with unhappy marriages (9)

Deep-Holes, by Alice Munro—a nearly lost and later mostly lost son (9)

The Fat Man's Race, by Louise Erdrich—Grandma Ignatia's tall tale (9)

Leopard, by Wells Tower—home from school with a scary stepdad (9)

Ghosts, by Edwidge Danticat—a young man harrowingly tastes the life of gang members in a Haitian slum (9)

The Gangsters, by Colson Whitehead—bourgie black boys shoot BB guns on summer vacation (9)

Wakefield, by E. L. Doctorow—a modern-day version of Hawthorne's tale (8)

Free Radicals, by Alice Munro—a woman creates a fiction to save her life (8)

The Lie, by T. Coraghessan Boyle—a man lies to avoid work and gets caught in a series of deceptions (8)


rfrankly said...

As someone who reads much less of the New Yorker than you, I don't come to criticize you but to think aloud about an apparent pattern in your reading. I notice that most of the stories you've rated highly were written by well-known hotshots: Erdrich, Doctorow, Boyle, Munro, etc. I imagine that if a person has limited time, she or he will more ikely choose to read an author whose work she or he has admired. What interests me is that as writers sending in our work, we might take a dyspeptic look at the choices the editors make, feeling that it's somehow gutless of them to prefer the stories of established writers, whom we might dismiss as bankable. But as readers, we husband our time by making choices that fit with the perhaps conservative impulses of the editors. True?

Of course, maybe I'm wrong in my assumption. Maybe you read without reference to literary reputation but found yourself preferring the work of well-reputed writers. Maybe, at least in the case of the NYer's chioces that there is a high correspondence between reputation and talent..

framiko said...

In the case of the New Yorker, almost everyone they publish is established to some degree; either they've got at least one book out already or they're about to have one come out. It's hard for me to imagine that the New Yorker ever publishes a story that some unknown writer just sends in.

Who does publish such a story? For several years I had subscriptions to smaller journals--Epoch, The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares (not that small, I guess). I read some old issues of the Missouri Review. Looking at the contributors' bios in those, I got the sense that everyone there had published lots of stuff elsewhere, even books. I think it might be that there are just a lot of writers out there, and a limited number of publications.

I found some good stuff in some of those journals, but over time I felt exhausted by them. The chances of coming across something extraordinary seemed slimmer than it did while reading the New Yorker.

The New Yorker does draw from a fairly consistent pool of fiction writers. Over time, I've gotten to know these names, and to know whom I like and whom I don't. I skip stories that don't seem worth my time, but I feel more comfortable doing so than I did when I read the smaller journals. I have more of a sense that I know what I'm missing.

But I also have a sense that something amazing could come up on any given week. In general, the New Yorker's editors' taste is really good. Their heavyweights—Munro, Trevor, Boyle, Doyle, Erdrich, and others—are heavyweights for a reason: they strike out sometimes, but their batting averages remain high over long careers. And the magazine does introduce new writers sometimes, and I usually try to give their stuff a chance. A guy named Daniyal Mueenuddin had some good stuff in the last couple years, and one of my favorite stories this year is by Wells Tower, whose first book is coming out in March.

The preponderance of big names in my list of favorites, though, probably has more to do with the preponderance of big names in the magazine's fiction offerings.