The New Yorker

The Fiction Issue of The New Yorker

So, how far behind am I? I just finished reading the June 10 and 17, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. A lot of the articles, particularly the ones referred to goings on about town are probably out of date a year and a half, plus a pandemic, later. The reviews, though still valid, probably aren’t as fresh as they could be, either.

But a fiction issue, as this one purports to being, should be okay, so I read it with enthusiasm. All right, let’s qualify that: I don’t normally love the fiction in TNY. I find it a little too dull and boring.

The three stories in this issue were not bad. Not memorable in any way (Sanctuary in the Artist’s Studio is probably the best of the three), but not bad.

More interesting is the fact that they sprinkled the usual content with something called border crossings, where immigrants in different parts of the world describe their experiences. This is non-fiction, and it’s kind of weird to see The New Yorker voicing it. Weird because I expect TNY to show an idealized intellectual-progressive view of things, which obviously doesn’t exist when you bring the real world into it. Even more shocking to me was an honest article about what life in supposed socialist paradise (and failed state) Venezuela is like. It’s the kind of thing one would expect TNY to sweep under the rug, as it will definitely make a good portion of its readership uncomfortable.

So my respect for the magazine–despite still feeling the fiction is just okay–went up a few notches this time. It’s nice to see realism even among the intellectual elite who tend to try to block it out and live in an idealized world where theory rules and when reality doesn’t support that way of thinking, it’s reality that’s wrong.

If you need to understand The New Yorker by reading one issue, this is the best one to pick up of the ones I’ve seen.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres. His literary fiction is collected in Love and Death, a novel in short story form that tells the tale of several families, intertwined through generations. You can check it out here.

How do they keep it up, week after week?

We’ve spoken about The New Yorker here before. As was probably evident from that post, I am not a subscriber to the magazine, but I am an enjoyer. Essentially, I buy the available issues whenever I’m in the US and read them when they cycle through my TBR pile (apparently, it’s currently sitting at a year and a half).

While some of the news items in The New Yorker are obviously not going to be relevant all that time later (I’m clearly not going to make it to the July 2019 premiere of Midsommar), most of the content can be enjoyed whenever. Even the political stuff doesn’t change that much from one year to the next.

For a magazine that prizes itself for getting high-quality hot takes into its readers’ hands, one thing I admire is how enjoyable it is much later. Long-form journalism of this type appears to be a dying breed and where it isn’t, it is so skewed by the writer’s (or the editor’s) political leanings that to be almost unreadable. The New Yorker has a political lean, of course, moderate left, but they attempt to avoid letting that skew get in the way of the truth.

Take this issue’s cover story, for example: “Faith & Other Drugs”. It could have been an attack on Christianity, especially hyper-organized big-church Christianity in the US, but it wasn’t. It was an introspective piece on the comparative effect of religion and drugs on the mind and persona of one specific person. As such, it’s readable by all, alienating no one.

The thing that amazes me most is how they manage to sift through the reams of submissions to find the nuggets that work, and to print an eclectic selection that keeps everyone engaged. I can only imagine what kind of a constant tornado the TNY offices must be.

Of course, no one is perfect, and the fiction I’ve seen has been uninspiring at best and depressing at worst. Now, I can’t say that this is a constant because I read maybe three or four issues a year. I may just be unlucky. This issue’s story, unfortunately, is not among the best fiction I’ve read this year by any stretch of the imagination. I may be suffering from excessive expectations – I assume that TNY has access to the best work from the best writers… but I never seem to see that in the published work. It’s also possible that I may simply prefer a very different kind of fiction, and the problem is in the reader in this case. But I find the fiction–and only the fiction–pretty much pointless.

But other than that, it’s invariably a great read. Snobbish and elitist? Perhaps, but that is part of the enjoyment. I like nodding along when I’m in on the subject as much as the next person… and when I’m not, I’ll learn something. Win-win.

A subscription wouldn’t make it to Argentina, and I don’t have time to read one of these cover-to-cover every week, but I will continue (and have continued) to buy them whenever I travel. Watch this space for more thoughts as they get to the top of the pile.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose literary fiction appears in Love and Death, a novel told in short story form which, he hopes, isn’t quite as pointless as the fiction he’s encountered in TNY so far. You can check it out here.

The Other Airport Read

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke of one of my usual airport purchases: Scientific American.  Well, there’s another mag I often buy in airports, and that one is The New Yorker, proving that I’m not only a pretentious twit, but that I’m a stereotyped pretentious twit.  I guess I can live with that.

The New Yorker - September 16th, 2017

My most recent moment of weakness came in September of 2017 (see cover above) but, as you can see, I’m reviewing it over a year later.  Just like my scientific American, the reason for that is that I only read the first few articles, the ones that are time-based such as concert dates and the like, before tossing the mag onto by To-Be-Read pile, which is a beast about a year in height.

Of course, once I got to the mag, the concert dates were no longer relevant, and many of the theater reviews referred to shows I could no longer watch, but I read through them again anyway.  The reason for this is that I’m always fascinated by The New Yorker’s combination of two things: an appreciation for the finer things in life such as symphony orchestras and the breathtaking capacity to discuss run-of-the-mill stuff in terms that makes you think they belong among the finer things in life.  As an example of this latter trend, it’s impossible to tell whether a couple of the lesser-known bands they talk about are just a bunch of friends who’ve been practicing in a garage and sound like it or the second coming of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

I spend this time on the social news at the beginning of the magazine because that sums up the whole attitude perfectly.  It’s a local section that doesn’t feel local: you get the idea that the writers truly feel that a concert happening in a bar in New York needs to have a global audience, but it’s also an exercise in discussing everything, regardless of relative quality or banality, in the most exquisite language possible.

Of course, 95% of the people who pick up a copy of the mag will fall into one of two groups: those who shake their head in disgust at the pretentious nature of the writing, and those who think that reading it will somehow “improve” them (some of the latter group may be right, so I encourage them to keep trying).

For the five percent remaining, this one is a guilty pleasure.  We know what the editors are doing, and yet we love the magazine anyway.  We can take the pretentiousness, or leave it aside to read less opaque prose, but whenever we do come back, we find it charming.  I like to think that a lot of the readers of Classically Educated are the same way (although I often hope they don’t think we’re in any way pretentious twits…).

A final note for the fiction section, which, as you can imagine, I always read with particular attention.  The story in this one was well written… but I always seem to buy the editions with the suburban angst and sorrow.  Where are the great, bold stories of yore?  I guess they’re gone to wherever the bold men and women of yore have been laid to rest–after all, the fiction does reflect the readership, or at least it should.

Anyhow, if you’ve never picked up a copy of The New Yorker and read it cover to cover, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Even an old copy bought used is a good bet.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer based in Buenos Aires.  His literary heroes include Borges, Wodehouse and Asimov, and if you can reconcile those three, you are a better psychologist than he is.  His short fiction has been collected in Virtuoso and Other Stories, and you can check it out here.