Why has the New Yorker, a 70-year-old American institution with a long-standing commitment to exhibiting the work of the country's finest and most influential writers, taken to publishing a special fiction issue? During the reigns of the magazine's three previous editors - the legendary Harold Ross and William Shawn in the first six decades, followed by the impeccably tasteful Robert Gottlieb - nearly every issue of the New Yorker was a fiction issue. The stories in it weren't always first-rate, but a decent number of them were, and they appeared with a comfortable regularity. Now, since the coronation in 1992 of Tina Brown as the magazine's fourth editor, the publication of fiction has been perfunctory, generally falling into three categories: it is salacious, it is deadly dull, or it is written by Martin Amis. In very few of these cases is it ever either memorable or particularly good.
While the New Yorker's "special" fiction edition - which premiered in the June 27-July 4, 1994 issue - may seem at first glance to be a genuine attempt to celebrate the genre, in fact it's an expression of faithlessness in the power of fiction itself. The message it sends is one of condescension: You can have your short story issue here once or twice a year, it says, but from now on fiction in the magazine's regular issues is going to be a condiment rather than the main course. This is a rather sorry trend in the life of current American letters. But if we take a look at the most recent fiction issue, for the weeks of Dec. 25, 1995 and Jan. 1, 1996, we may find the situation worse than it first appears.
There are 150 pages and 15 selections in this edition of the New Yorker. Within that framework we are given four works of fiction, 30 pages, one of which is a single-page jot of juvenilia by a 17-year-old Arthur Miller dating from about 1932, which is, as we are told, a precursory sketch for his play "Death of a Salesman." Exactly three new stories, then, are what this fiction issue of one of the last remaining general-interest literary magazines has to offer from the teeming ocean of current American imaginative writing.
The best of the three, "Beautiful Grade" by Lorrie Moore, takes place on New Year's Eve. Like that holiday, it is sad, occasionally amusing and instantly - and often mercifully - forgettable. The story is mostly about its own witty party dialogue ("[Y]ou look very - tennisy." "You mean the whole kindness-of-strangers thing?") and zingy observations (salads that, "with their knobs of cheese, jutting chives, and little folios of frisee, resemble small Easter hats"; a man's face with "the green-brown shrapnel of his dried acne cysts, like lentils buried under the skin"). What plot there is involves Max, a divorced law professor whose affair with a much younger student named Debbie is, like the old year, winding down. At the very least, "Beautiful Grade" can boast of being an approximation of the ideal New Yorker story: sophisticated, witty, stylish, moderately intellectual. It may not reach any deep conclusions - the best it can do is this: "Life's a quick and busy embrace, and everywhere in it people are equally lacking and well-meaning and nuts" - but it moves along smartly and leaves a reader feeling mildly entertained.
A twee little tale
If only one could say the same about Jay McInerney's "Philomena," a truly shabby exercise by a still-young writer who is already proving to be a pathetic impersonation of himself. A twee little tale about a 32-year-old Manhattan hipster whose girlfriend, a model, has left him, it begins: "The name of the party is the Party You Have Been to Six Hundred Times Already."
This may remind you of "Bright Lights, Big City," Mr. McInerney's best-selling first novel, and it's supposed to. It's the Story You Have Read Six Hundred Times Already, except that nothing works here: humor fails, pathos fails. ("If only he were allowed to fall in love with his sister, maybe they could save each other." Oh, brother.) That Mr. McInerney would attempt to resurrect this kind of outdated 1980s party-circuit fiction is an embarrassment. Surely there are voices out there with a fresher point of view, voices that would never insult readers by daring them to engage with a moping smarty-pants whose gorgeous model has dumped him.
About the final story, "How to Date a Brown Girl" by Junot Diaz, there is barely anything to say. It is three pages long, it offers a few dating tips from the point of view of a Latino boy, and it has next to no literary value. What the publication of this story is, quite transparently, is a patronizing bit of affirmative action from the magazine's editors: we've had the old guy, the chick, and the white guy, they are telling us; now say hello to the charming little Hispanic writer.
Rounding out the issue are a few biographical pieces: a dull, self-important reminiscence by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz; an informative portrait of Salman Rushdie before the fatwa, by Ian Hamilton; a slight, sweet series of memories by Paul Auster; and a graceful, very moving essay about an 82-year-old poet named Virginia Hamilton Adair, which is by far the best thing this edition has to offer. (Exactly what it is doing in a special fiction issue is unclear.)
The most revealing selection here is not prose at all, but the
inevitable Richard Avedon photograph accompanying two columns of a mystifying "Personal History" by Candia McWilliam, who published a novel last year
titled "Debatable Land." The photo engulfs the text (which I'll admit I found perfectly incomprehensible except for the words "Anselm Kiefer"); it grabs us away from it, insisting that we inspect Miss McWilliam in all her doe-eyed, velvet-hatted, glossy-lipped splendor. It is urgently trying to tell us something, and it's this: words don't matter here, not anymore. Image matters.
The biggest fiction here in this special fiction issue is that the New Yorker is taking any kind of responsibility at all for the life of letters in America today. The magazine has cheerfully abnegated its once-cherished obligation to encourage and champion our country's literature, having decided that the cults of celebrity, beauty and fashion are much more vital.
This fact in itself is not a surprise, and although it's certainly regrettable, it is far from the end of the world. Those of us who know how much good American fiction is being written these days (and there is plenty), who read it regularly and know who is writing it, will just have to look for it elsewhere. What's really objectionable, though, is the New Yorker's chutzpah in putting out this mockery of a fiction issue, pretending with these four anemic little stories that it is accurately representing the current literary atmosphere.
Why bother? They seem like an awful lot of trouble, these special editions. The truth, I think, is that the New Yorker in its present incarnation is secretly ashamed of its abandonment of fiction. "We need stories because we are human," it says in the "Comment" that opens this fiction issue, sounding suspiciously like an admission of guilt: nobody, not the New Yorker's fashion-mongers or any of the commanders of our image-besotted culture, can kill the need for stories. Fiction is the telltale heart beating steadily under the floorboards of the house of Tina Brown. It is beating still, and it's not going to go away.
Donna Rifkind writes for the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the New Criterion, for which she was assistant managing editor.