The New Yorker has always worried me. When I was younger and only aspired to be a fiction writer the New Yorker was perhaps too far a reach for me. I had no reason to fear it, and yet there was something too highbrow, too glamorous about it, a national showcase of short fiction. I dared not touch it.
Except I did. When I lived in America I spent time with the stories in the New Yorker each week in what I hoped was a rigorous program of self-improvement as a writer. I often read other articles, too, loving them and fearing them at the same time, because of course the world of the New Yorker was not my world. Even when writers wrote about the kinds of places I worked—convenience stores and mall cafeterias—they were depicted in a manner that made such ordinariness seem exciting. A crappy employee locker room at Hot Shoppes with its blocky punch clock on the wall and yellow light above the bench seats where you changed into the uniform, would have been rendered in such a way that it had a lustre I had not experienced in my real life as a bus girl. The day my sister’s toe was squashed and she had to go to bed for days, lying on he back with the giant toe outside the bed clothes, the toenail slowly blackening and coming away, would have been some beautiful portrait of rural Maryland.
But only in The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker.
The New Yorker cleaned up squalor, made it magically beautiful or at least very cool. Reading The New Yorker had a lingering effect on me. After time in the public library, its pages spread out on a laminate desk, my mind transformed everything around me to fit into its prettified frame, as though seeing everything in my regular life with New Yorker eyes. For a little while anyway.
Let me tell you: nothing is interesting about shift work or a car that will not—cannot—pass an annual inspection, or the humiliation of the worst haircut ever at the ten dollar shop—except when such dreaded inevitabilities of life show up in the New Yorker. There, they are art. As for getting a story into The New Yorker, I would have loved that, but I couldn’t understand how they chose their stories, why this instead of that.
Not every story was to my liking—too long, too boring, nothing at stake, who cares?—but I looked for what others might admire. Anyway, who was I to assess? I did not live a New Yorker life. I read the New Yorker—good God did I—until I moved to the UK in 1990 and The New Yorker cost too much and wasn’t stocked in local libraries. I still got hold of copies…I’d been poor long enough to be thrifty. But my reading of the stories became spotty, late. I lost sight of my rigorous program of self-improvement as a writer and had babies, writing at nap times and between loads of laundry.
This is not a complaint. My happiest times ever were reading to my infant children, singing to them, rocking them. Along with some other wonderful and famous writers, Richard Ford contributed a list of his advice for writers to become successful. His number two was “not have children”. I got news for Mr. Ford, whose work I greatly admire and who has been in the New Yorker many times, you’d trade your Pulitzer for a child in a heartbeat if you ever knew what you’d missed.
But they are very messy, children. Nothing like The New Yorker.
So imagine how spoiled I feel now that The New Yorker has podcasts available for free. It’s too much for me. Every day is Christmas. I can hear Andrew O’Hagan read Edna O’Brien, or Allan Gurganus read Grace Paley. The reading of the stories matters immensely. In fact, I rather prefer listening to Kevin Barry than the story he read, which was Brian Friel’s “The Saucer of Larks.” I don’t know whether up and coming writers know what a gift we have in being able to access great work for free (once you’ve bought the computer, that is) but if the combination of podcasts, public domain writing, youtube readings, and poetry just everywhere all over the net doesn’t make for a renaissance in literature, I don’t know what does. I love literary festivals but just switching on the internet can bring you a festival in a morning.
Though I am still somewhat cowed by The New Yorker.