Thursday, December 17, 2015

Grading The New Yorker

            I read (in The New Yorker) that Vladimir Nabokov’s copy of “Fifty Five Short Stories from The New Yorker, 1940 – 1950” is extant, and in it he assigns a grade to each story. The article bravely states that “Many of the stories did not fare too well, and would not have gotten their authors into a selective university.” I find the second part of that sentence to be revealing: when talking of authors’ work, why bring up admittance to a “selective university”? Especially since, when these stories appeared, the MFA program as we know it did not exist.
            I’d love to get my hands on that book and find what grades Nabokov assigned to each story. The article does name the ones that got top marks: Jessamyn West’s “The Mysteries of Life in an Orderly Manner” (A-), Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (A), J. D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (A+) and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Colette” (A+).
            Before I read about Nabokov’s grading, I had done the exact same thing. When I was staying at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony I found a pile of New Yorkers in my cottage (maybe thirty, and I believe they were from 2010). I read a few stories, thought they were pretty bad, and decided to set out on a project of inquiry: to read and assign a grade to each one. I recall a preponderance of D’s; there were some F’s, an equal number of C’s, and a few B’s. I don’t believe there was one A in the bunch. You could say that I was a hard grader; but this was the premier (or, at least, the highest paying) magazine for fiction in the country. Shouldn’t what it deemed worthy of publication live up to its prominence? The prose was never an issue. Nearly all the authors had been in an MFA program, many taught in one, so they could put words together. But good prose alone does not a good story make.
            In October of this year I decided to repeat the grading project with the stories that would appear in The New Yorker in the month of November. What follows are the results. First I give a brief overview and a grade. In another section I go deeper into specifics about the plot and characters, and it’s here that it will become clear where, for me, the problems lie.

The Gospel According to Garcia – Ariel Dorfman (November 2)
A story that brings up philosophical/political issues. But the characters and the situation are sketched in, and if examined on a down-to-earth level they’re farfetched. Though I couldn’t feel close to anyone, the story held my interest for its three pages.

Honey Bunny – Julianne Pachico (November 9)
In this hodgepodge the author first immerses us in the lifestyle of an affluent urban cocaine addict; later some exile business is tacked on. The aggressive sordidness was distasteful and the maneuver to impart meaningfulness fell flat.

The Weir – Mark Haddon (November 16)
A man rescues a girl from a suicide attempt. This event and its immediate aftermath constitute the bulk of the plot. It was engrossing and believable, but what makes this story special is a last short section in which many years are spanned. Haddon leaves us with an image of two of life’s lonely losers meeting once a week to have tea. That and nothing more.

Save a Horse, Ride a Cowgirl – Ann Beattie (November 23)
The words that make up the title are on a bumper sticker that Bradley sees and thinks about for a little bit; then we move on to the next thought or event. The bumper sticker and Bradley’s thoughts about it are of no consequence to the story. Is this a new type of fiction, in which we read about things that don’t matter?

Fifty-Seven – Rachel Kushner (November 30)
Kushner writes about a young man with an I.Q. of fifty-seven who’s trying to survive on the mean streets. He commits a murder and is sent to prison, where he continues to murder. He’s little more than an automaton, and the setting and the events — all stridently squalid — range from unlikely to silly.

The Gospel According to Garcia – Ariel Dorfman
This is a compact piece; as for the time frame, it begins with a substitute teacher coming into a classroom of an Academy and ends about fifteen minutes later. We’re mostly in the mind of an unnamed student in a remedial class, and from his (or her) thoughts we range further afield. The substitute is replacing Garcia, whom the students loved. His classes are described as “legendary.” Though we’re never told what subject he teaches, it seems that he engaged in philosophical discourses on Life. He talked about how to face eternity, and the essay theme he assigned the students was “Why is indifference worse than murder?” The substitute finds that Garcia had scrawled the same words at the end of each of the papers: “Would it be better never to have been born?” The students totally reject (and even despise) the substitute; no one can replace their beloved teacher. It becomes evident that Garcia is a rebel in a country with a repressive government (there’s mention of the sounds of tanks); the narrator believes that Garcia is missing because he was arrested, tortured and killed for his beliefs; the story ends with an imagined image of his brutal death. Writing this synopsis serves to solidify the problem I had while reading the story: the situation Dorfman presents is contrived. For starters, the narrator writes exquisitely, is insightful, and responds to Garcia’s profound questions; yet this student is in a remedial class (I suppose it only requires a great teacher to tap into raw potential). And why would a respectable Academy allow an openly subversive man to tamper with young minds? The student narrator states that Garcia was against their accepting the dictates of any authority; he even wanted them to question everything he said and “to be independent of his influence.” In this he fails utterly because the students worship every word he spoke; the use of “gospel” in the title shows that Dorfman was aware of this. I suppose we’re to take Garcia as a good influence, but my feelings toward him were stuck in neutral. Last note: the author teaches at Duke. What he teaches I don’t know, but I do know that he’s ensconced in one of the most elite enclaves in this country. Since his story has a strong political slant, that fact seems to matter.

Honey Bunny – Julianne Pachico (November 9)
The story opens with girl meeting boy at a party; after a bit of cool repartee they do drugs. Early on mention is made of sanitary pads and nostril hairs; when boy asks girl what she plans to do that evening she considers responding with “Watch porn and masturbate.” Girl is a cocaine addict and a student (mention is made of her “fashion-history class”); she also sucks her hair a lot. She gets mad at Paco (her drug dealer) and leaves a message on his answering machine: “I’m not the cow that shits the most.” (Don’t you love her already?) What bothers girl is that Paco seems to be putting objects in her baggies: insect wing, drumstick bone, rabbit fur. (If he is, why? — we never learn.) We get a lot of brand names (Nordstrom high heels) and mention of pop stars (Shakira). Pachico tries to impress with how savvy she is about the world her in-your-face heroine occupies, but she knew she couldn’t write just about what’s up somebody’s nose, so she introduces a deeper issue. Girl is a refugee from Colombia, and has memories of her innocent life before it was disrupted (one of her pet dolls was called “Honey Bunny”). Not that she’s a poor refugee; her family was affluent and she has an ample funds to buy her drugs and wear designer clothes. There’s a mysterious orange suitcase that she opens at the end. I’m not sure what was in it — things got jumbled for me. Maybe it was because the story was a series of scattered events; or maybe inattention, which had set in at the midway point, caused my incomprehension. I was supposed to care about this girl, but I merely found her distasteful. Young Ms. Pachico, a native of Colombia, got her master’s degree in creative writing in England, where she now lives.

The Weir – Mark Haddon (November 16)
Ian takes his dogs to a deserted tract of land to have them retrieve tennis balls. He sees a girl jump into water dammed up by a weir. He rescues her and gets her into his car; he intends to take her to the hospital, but she throws a fit at that plan, so instead (with some misgivings) he brings her to his house. She’s unconscious by this time; he undresses her and gets her into dry clothes. When she revives she’s accusatory and belligerent; she winds up bolting out the door and disappearing. At this point three quarters of the story has passed. Some well-worn plot lines have been avoided: there’s no sexual angle and though the girl is mentally ill (she hears voices, etc.) she’s not menacing. Along the way we’ve learned that Ian is fifty-three, and he and his wife of twenty-six years are in the process of getting a divorce (no reasons are given for the amicable breakup). They have a grown son who shows not one iota of love for his parents; why he’s like this is not explored. The story has only about four pages left when there’s a knock on Ian’s door; it’s the girl, wanting to retrieve her clothes. She gives her name as Kelly and her age as twenty-four. Despite her surly and suspicious attitude, he asks if she would like to have tea with him, and she agrees. They begin to meet weekly for tea — and this goes on for years. It’s in the last, short section that the story makes an impact. Kelly has all sorts of problems (which are cursorily stated); she truly wanted to die at that weir; she’s on medication and has some periods when she’s doing better than others. As for Ian, his wife remarried (to a man nine years her junior) and his son has, for all intents and purposes, disowned him. When he talks about his circumstances, Kelly never passes judgment or tries to cheer him up; he probably responds in the same way to her. Some days they don’t say anything. At the end Ian is nearing sixty; the dogs, once so eager to retrieve the tennis ball, have grown old and died. This has become a story of two lonely people who are failures at life. Haddon was right not to fix problems, or to move the relationship forward, or to define in words the bond they have. As things are, I was moved to think about them, sitting at a table drinking their tea. Mark Haddon teaches at the Avron Foundation, a charitable organization in the UK that promotes creative writing. He had a great success with his novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I review it at “How Jack London Changed My Life.”

Save a Horse, Ride a Cowgirl – Ann Beattie (November 25)
The story starts out with Sterne, who’s seventy-four, involved in a minor fender bender; the car he hits (it’s not his fault) is occupied by two girls, both college students. Their names are Bree and Heidi. We’re in the minds of Sterne and Bree, and from Bree we learn that Heidi is always getting into trouble (examples are given). Though Beattie bothers to relay all this information, it doesn’t matter to the story. The girls promptly disappear forever; Sterne hangs around for a little bit, then he also exits. It turns out (finally) that his brother Bradley is the main character. He’s a lawyer whose wife died two years ago (a nurse’s mistake involving medication); he has left the house they lived in and moved into another one close by. He seems sort of depressed. I use the words “seems sort of” because his emotional state remains unfocused. The amorphousness that pervades this story is bolstered by all the incidentals that are thrown into the mix. A host of people are introduced, but turn out to play no significant role. We get fragmented memories of Bradley’s experiences in Vietnam, but what effect they had on him is not clear. Then there’s a mysterious dancing couple that keep appearing. I wondered (in passing) if Bradley was imagining them or whether they were meant to lend a touch of magic realism. Beattie’s prose is smooth, and the individual scenes are interesting; but, beginning with that fender bender incident and continuing all the way to the last sentence, what happens, what is thought and felt, doesn’t add up to anything in particular. I almost considered the possibility that Beattie, who has had dozens of stories in The New Yorker over many years, was carrying out some sort of an experiment with a new type of fiction: one made up of inconsequentialities. If I was the guinea pig, and my reaction is of any importance to her, I can report on how unsatisfying the results are. Ann Beattie teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia.

Fifty-Seven – Rachel Kushner
The story begins with a man just out of I.R.C. (I don’t know what those initials stand for, but they add authenticity). We’re in his mind, in third-person stream-of-consciousness fashion, as he wanders the streets. He has a knife, and with it he carjacks a woman in a Mercedes. All he wants is some money, but she none on her, nor can she get any from an ATM machine. He gets angry and winds up killing her (it’s sort of an impulsive act; he isn’t clear about what happened, though he’s sorry he did it). He’s promptly arrested and convicted. We get his back story, which is one of misery and deprivation; at age twelve he was on skid row sniffing glue with an old one-legged man. Life for him isn’t like it’s depicted in the Hollywood movies he saw in the jail’s dayroom (he isn’t, for example, picked up by a beautiful rich woman who invites him to move into her mansion). He’s sent to prison where, on orders from the “shot-callers,” he kills people with a shank (there’s a lot about making shanks and the difficulties involved in using them, which adds even more authenticity to the story). The murders are watched on closed-circuit video by prison officials; it’s okay with them when inmates are killed: “This whole thing is a war between I.S.U. and the shot-callers. A game. There was money on it. Cops were betting, but not on a cop getting killed.” There’s a hit out for Sergeant Haggart, who just happens to be taking our protagonist (can I call him Jim?) from his cell; the sergeant is walking ahead of the prisoner because he believes the guy behind him has an I.Q. of 157 and wouldn’t do something real stupid like shove a shank into the back of his neck. Actually, a clerical mistake has been made: Jim’s I.Q. is 57 (whoops!). So the sergeant gets whacked and Jim winds up in a place called Pelican Bay, which is a top security facility where conditions are nightmarishly brutal. But people still survive. The story ends with Jim making this observation: “Prison turns its prisoners superhuman, and that is the truth. That is the truth.” Trouble is, truth is what’s missing from this story. In an interview Kushner expresses empathy for those who aren’t given a fair chance in life and she bemoans the injustice of the prison system. So this is a message story by a woman who has never lived on skid row, has never been a prison inmate, has never killed someone with a shank, and has an I.Q. above 57. She’s merely done research, and it shows; while reading “Fifty-Seven” I kept mentally responding with a skeptical “Really?” Worse, I never believed I was in any man’s mind. Kushner got her MFA from Columbia University and has written two novels that were finalists for the National Book Award. Success and privilege envelope this story. It appears in an issue whose back cover has a full-page ad for a Tiffany CT 60 wristwatch. If the terrified woman in the Mercedes (who had no cash on her) had been wearing the model that sells for $12,000, she might have traded it for her life.

            At my local university library I found a copy of the collection of The New Yorker stories that Nabokov gave grades to. Since it was made up of work written in the 1940s — the pre-TV heyday for fiction — I expected it to be vastly superior to what’s being published today. But the ones I’ve read so far were disappointing. I can relate to them more than I could to something like “Honey Bunny” or “Fifty-Seven,” but they seemed weak in a What’s-the-Point way. Part of the problem is that just about everybody who was on the magazine staff has a story (I counted six, including one by Roger Angell, son of the fiction editor). I suspect that the authors of most of the other stories came from an in-crowd. As is the case today. What appears on the pages of The New Yorker comes directly to Deborah Treisman’s desk. The magazine’s fiction has long been marred by exclusivity; the snooty character with the top hat and the monocle is a fitting symbol. In my reviews an objection could be made to the introduction of matters extraneous to the stories (MFAs, a Tiffany watch ad, interview comments). But I’m partly interested in the magazine itself.
            As for the stories that got Nabokov’s approval, I had previously read those written by Jackson and Salinger. I agree that they deserve A’s. “The Lottery’ is a beautifully-crafted shocker that makes a point. As for Salinger, people who downgrade him are discounting what a bright, fresh voice he brought to fiction. The West story was very short and slight; though there was an aura of sweetness about it, I didn’t get its appeal. Nabokov’s story isn’t really a story; it’s a mood piece made up of a boy’s impressions as he takes a train ride through Europe. The writing is gorgeous, but gorgeous prose doesn’t make or break a story for me. Near the end Colette appears, and in describing the boy’s feelings for her Nabokov puts his ability to create images to good use. I would give it an A- for that evocative closing stretch.
            To write something of excellence is a very hard task, and is seldom accomplished. But good or very good work should be easier to come by, and for me the decades starting with the nineties don’t yield much that meets even that standard. I sometimes read what’s being lauded and given awards, and almost always find it mediocre or downright bad. I don’t believe my response is due to a negative attitude or an inability to keep up with the times. The mores of a society may shift, but at its core human nature remains unalterable, and for me a story must present some aspect of human nature in a way that rings true. That was the great subject of the past, but many of today’s young writers of literary fiction give us ersatz characters carrying on in a bizarre way. Of course, this judgment is based solely on what’s being published.
            Which brings us to what’s currently being published in The New Yorker. Using the grading scale of a selective university, the cumulative average I assigned to the five stories came to 1.2. Getting a D- is not something to be proud of. Yet all these authors were proud of their achievement: they had made it onto the pages of The New Yorker. As for the three who got the lowest grades, Ann Beattie may have become so accustomed to acceptance that she didn’t get excited about it; Julianne Pachico, who’s just starting out on her career, probably used the nice check she received to throw a party; I hope Rachel Kushner donated all her money to an organization that gives assistance to newly-released prison inmates (so that some good can come from her misbegotten effort). The people whose opinions matter to these ladies are the “shot-callers” who deemed their work successful. These “shot-callers” are the ones who are really being judged.
            When I embarked on this project I had no high expectations. Still, I knew that over the years many excellent (even great) stories have appeared on the pages of The New Yorker. I was open to the possibility of finding work that deserved A’s and B’s. But, with a single exception, my low expectations were met. After I had read Beattie’s piece I thought I was done; it was with a sinking feeling that I saw that there was a fifth story waiting for me. Doesn’t a month have four weeks in it? Life just isn’t fair.

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