As a New Yorker subscriber, I am constantly A) reading Talk of the Town pieces from six weeks ago and B) enraged by the stories. The New Yorker is the best place you can publish your short story. Yet The New Yorker story is also its own recognizable brand of lame—the exemplar of what Michael Chabon called the “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.” For writers of literary fiction, The New Yorker is Harvard: everybody knows it’s overrated, and everybody wants to get in. I was therefore extremely pleased to read this blog post in which several literary magazines, including The New Yorker, reject a story published in The New Yorker.
Because he is no fun, David Cameron does not tell us which story he sent or who rejected it. He reveals only that he submitted to the slush pile, the literary journal reader’s term for unsolicited submissions from unknown authors. In theory, the only way out of the slush pile and onto the page is by merit. In practice, you should either put the word “erection” in the first sentence, as an alarming number of slush pile submissions do, or prepare yourself for inevitable rejection.
Cameron did the latter, and he got it. His New Yorker story was rejected by every journal he sent it to, and then by The New Yorker itself. It was rejected with the same form letters his own stories got, in roughly the same length of time. Without the words “William Trevor” at the top, a story from the nation’s top magazine for literary fiction fared no better than one from the top drawer of your desk.
What can we conclude from this experiment?
- The New Yorker publishes stories with an eye to who wrote them, not which words they contain or, more desirably, the order in which those words are arranged. (maybe)
- Slush pile readers are tired and dismissive. (maybe)
- William Trevor sucks. (axiomatic)
Besides item (3), I don’t know if any of these conclusions is rock-solid. I do know that The New Yorker occupies its place at the top of the new-fiction hierarchy partly because very few magazines publish stories anymore, and almost none of them run detective, science fiction, western, adventure or other so-called genre fiction. We are left with the genre of “literary,” nebulously defined but no less straitened in its conventions than the space opera.
As a magazine with demonstrably arbitrary tastes, maybe The New Yorker is not what a nation of aspiring fictioneers should be writing for. Maybe trying to write a story like what you read in The New Yorker is like painting a picture based on what you see in The Art Book. Maybe it’s not good for contemporary literary fiction to be so consciously like itself, and we should all go back to our novellas about the cowboy who perceives time differently.
Or maybe we should read new fiction in outlets other than The New Yorker. I presume that your new copy of Tin House is sitting next to you as you read this, but if it isn’t, consider how much new fiction you consume compared to how much you produce. I know my ratio is way out of whack, and that makes me part of the problem. The New Yorker wields outsized power in an undersized market. Maybe regime change is less a priority than expanding the base.