Literature Living in the Past
(Editor’s Note: With this post we’re living in the past, in that this short essay originally appeared under the same title on August 9, 2013, at the Attacking-the-Demi-Puppets blog. It’s being reprinted because its approach represents the impetus behind our quest to reinvent the short story form– and because in five-plus years things haven’t much changed.)
SHIRLEY JACKSON AND THE NEW YORKER
The centerpiece of The New Yorker’s August 5 summer fiction issue is a story by Shirley Jackson named “Paranoia.” In style the short story reads like any other New Yorker short story published over the past year. Being from Shirley Jackson, it’s more entertaining than the run-of-the-mill NewYorker story. The biggest difference between “Paranoia” and other well-crafted New Yorker stories is that the story “Paranoia” by Shirley Jackson is sixty years old.
Did the run-of-the-mill New Yorker reader notice?
Likely not. In the first place, fiction appearing in The New Yorker is never read, A.) because the magazine’s purpose isn’t to be read, but to sit upon refined coffee tables in upscale residences from Manhattan to Newport Beach (but not very much in Newport Beach) as a marker of breeding and good taste—the unique cover announcing the week’s message; and B.) because the pieces that are actually read when an ambitious subscriber decides to read the magazine are the movie reviews and show listings, maybe the week’s big think piece, but never—never—the fiction. That the magazine still publishes “fiction,” even if no one reads the fiction, is all that’s required. “Oh, the fiction,” a person responds, looking at the Table of Contents. “Still there. Good.”
In on-line blurbs for the issue, The New Yorker hearkens back to a previous New Yorker story by Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery,” which received more mail response than any story they’ve ever published, before or since. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson was published in 1948!
With today’s establishment-produced “fictions” we’re not talking about a healthy art form. There’s not been a lot of change in it. After sixty-plus years of presenting the same thing, the few remaining publishers of literary short stories have lost their audience. Renowned-but-little-read short story writer Charles Baxter acknowledges as much in a Daily Beast interview this week, with hardly a shrug. No attempt to understand the reasons. No desire to create something strikingly new. Charles Baxter has been writing the same kind of short stories for thirty years (not a long period from The New Yorker’s perspective). One thing we can bet about the short stories Baxter has published then and now is that they haven’t changed one iota. Since no one reads them, beyond dutiful writing students eager to learn how to duplicate them, does it matter?
A healthy art form—think of rock music from 1964 to 1967—is engulfed in explosions of creative discoveries everyplace, new trails blazed, the standard centerpiece of the art (the pop song) presenting radical new experiments and experiences by the week.
In literature, we get the unchanging literary story. As unchanged in 60 years as the proverbial generic McDonald’s hamburger left on a plate that never changes, always looking the same.
But The New Yorker is happy, and if they’re happy, the unthinking unblinking literary herd is also happy. Yes. A good year for the short story. 1948!
Maybe next they’ll bring back Joe DiMaggio to play for the Yankees.
-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit News