We review poetry on a rolling basis, but ask that you please not submit more than twice in a twelve-month period. You may send up to six poems (in a single document) per submission. Our response time is around six months.

We are interested in original, unpublished poetry. We do not consider work that has appeared elsewhere. This includes websites and personal blogs, even if a posting has been removed prior to submission .

We do consider translations, so long as the poem has not been published in English translation before. The original text may have been published elsewhere. 

Simultaneous submissions are welcome, provided that you notify us promptly if a poem has been accepted by another publication. If you need to withdraw individual poems from consideration, please click on the title of your submission; click on the "Messages" tab; and send a message detailing which poem(s) should be withdrawn. (Do not use the "Note" tab for this purpose—Submittable "Notes" are viewable only by the submitter, and information you enter as a note will not reach our team.) Please only use the "Withdraw" function if you intend to remove all poems from consideration.

Thank you for your interest in contributing to The New Yorker. We look forward to reading your poems.

We review poetry on a rolling basis, but ask that you please not submit more than twice in a twelve-month period. You may send up to six poems (in a single document) per submission. Our response time is usually around six months, but may be longer. 

submit an essay to the new yorker

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How To Submit Your Short Story To The New Yorker

submit an essay to the new yorker

As one of the most prestigious publications for fiction, poets, and journalists, The New Yorker receives thousands of short story submissions every year. But with its famously rigorous selection process, getting published in The New Yorker is no easy feat. If you want to submit your own literary short story, you’ll need to make sure your work and cover letter stand out among the competition.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick overview: To submit to The New Yorker, email your story as a Word doc or .rtf file under 5,000 words. Include a cover letter with details about your work. Adhere to their strict formatting guidelines and only submit finished drafts of your very best work.

Understand The New Yorker’s Submission Criteria

High-quality literary fiction only.

When submitting your short story to The New Yorker, it’s important to keep in mind that they are looking for high-quality literary fiction. The magazine has a long-standing reputation for publishing some of the best works in the genre, so it’s essential to make sure your story meets their standards.

The New Yorker is known for its commitment to artistic excellence and pushing the boundaries of storytelling, so your submission should reflect that.

Stories under 5,000 words

The New Yorker has a strict word limit for short stories: they prefer submissions that are under 5,000 words. This allows them to publish a wide range of stories and gives readers the opportunity to enjoy a diverse selection of narratives.

Keeping your story concise and focused will increase your chances of getting it accepted by The New Yorker.

Unique storytelling and compelling themes

The New Yorker values unique storytelling and compelling themes. They are looking for stories that stand out from the crowd and offer a fresh perspective. Don’t be afraid to take risks with your writing and explore unconventional ideas.

The magazine is known for its thought-provoking content, so make sure your story leaves a lasting impression on the reader.

Polished drafts ready for publication

Before submitting your short story to The New Yorker, it’s crucial to ensure that your draft is polished and ready for publication. The magazine receives a high volume of submissions, and they are more likely to consider stories that require minimal editing.

Take the time to revise and edit your story before submitting it, and consider seeking feedback from fellow writers or a writing workshop to make sure it’s in top shape.

Follow The New Yorker’s Formatting Guidelines

Submit .doc or .rtf files.

When submitting your short story to The New Yorker, it is important to follow their formatting guidelines. The preferred file formats for submission are .doc or .rtf. These formats ensure that your story can be easily accessed and read by the editors.

Avoid submitting your story in formats that may cause compatibility issues, such as .pdf or .pages.

Single-spaced, 12 pt. font

The New Yorker requires that your short story be single-spaced with a 12 pt. font. This format makes it easier for the editors to read and evaluate your work. Keep in mind that using a smaller font or double-spacing may result in your story being rejected.

It is important to adhere to the specified font size and spacing to increase your chances of acceptance.

Italicize any words not in English

If your short story contains words or phrases in a language other than English, it is recommended to italicize them. This helps the editors understand that the words are not typos or errors, but intentional parts of your story.

Italicizing non-English words adds clarity and enhances the overall reading experience for the editors.

Include page numbers

When submitting your short story to The New Yorker, it is crucial to include page numbers. This helps the editors keep track of the order of the pages and ensures that your story is complete. Additionally, including page numbers shows that you have taken the time to carefully organize your work, which reflects positively on your professionalism as a writer.

Craft a Strong Cover Letter

Your cover letter is the first impression you make on the editors at The New Yorker, so it’s important to make it strong and compelling. Here are some key elements to include:

Summary of 2-3 sentences

Start your cover letter with a brief summary of your short story. Highlight the main theme, characters, and plot points in a concise and intriguing way. This will give the editors a clear idea of what your story is about and pique their interest to read further.

Relevant background about you

Provide a brief overview of your relevant writing experience or background. Mention any awards, writing workshops, or degrees that showcase your dedication and passion for writing. This will help establish your credibility as a writer and demonstrate your commitment to the craft.

How you found their submission info

Share how you came across The New Yorker’s submission guidelines. Whether you discovered it through their website, a writer’s forum, or a friend’s recommendation, mentioning this shows that you have done your research and are serious about submitting to them.

Previous publications (if any)

If you have been previously published, include a list of your most notable publications. This could be in literary magazines, anthologies, or online platforms. Highlighting your past successes can help build your credibility and show that your work has been recognized and appreciated by others.

Remember, the cover letter is your opportunity to make a strong first impression, so make sure it is well-written, concise, and professional.

For more information on crafting a cover letter for literary submissions, you can refer to Literary Hub’s guide on how to write a cover letter for a literary magazine submission. They provide valuable tips and insights that can help you create a standout cover letter.

Review Submission FAQs on Their Website

If you’re considering submitting your short story to The New Yorker, it’s important to familiarize yourself with their submission guidelines. One of the first things you should do is review the submission FAQs on their website.

These FAQs provide valuable information about the submission process and can answer many of the questions you may have.

Can’t submit multiple stories at once

One important thing to note is that The New Yorker only accepts one story at a time. So, if you have multiple stories that you’d like to submit, you’ll need to choose the best one and submit it separately. This allows the editors to give each story the attention it deserves.

No simultaneous submissions

The New Yorker does not accept simultaneous submissions, which means you should not submit your story to any other publications while it’s under consideration at The New Yorker. This is a common policy among many literary magazines and helps ensure that the publication has exclusive rights to the story if it’s accepted.

Only submit finished drafts

The New Yorker only accepts finished drafts of short stories. It’s important to spend time revising and polishing your story before submitting it. Make sure it’s the best possible version of your work before sending it in.

The New Yorker looks for well-crafted, compelling stories that showcase strong writing and unique perspectives.

Be prepared to wait several months

Submitting to The New Yorker requires patience. The review process can take several months, so be prepared to wait for a response. While waiting, it’s a good idea to continue working on other writing projects.

Remember, the publishing industry often moves slowly, and it’s not uncommon for response times to be longer than anticipated.

For more detailed information and answers to specific questions, be sure to visit The New Yorker website’s submission FAQs section. It’s a valuable resource that can help guide you through the submission process and increase your chances of success.

Submit via Email to Fiction Submissions Editor

If you dream of having your short story published in The New Yorker, the first step is to submit it to the Fiction Submissions Editor. Submitting your work via email is the preferred method, as it allows for easy communication and efficient processing of submissions.

Send to: [email protected]

To submit your short story, simply send it as an email attachment to [email protected] . Make sure to address it to the Fiction Submissions Editor, who will be responsible for reviewing your work.

Include cover letter in body of email

Along with your short story, it is important to include a cover letter in the body of your email. The cover letter should introduce yourself and briefly summarize your story. It is also a good idea to mention any relevant writing credentials or previous publications, if applicable.

Keep the cover letter concise and professional.

Attach Word doc of story file

When submitting your short story, it is recommended to attach a Word document of the story file. This ensures that the formatting and layout of your story remains intact. Avoid sending your story as a PDF or any other file format, as it may cause compatibility issues.

Add SUBMISSION in subject line

To ensure that your submission is properly categorized, it is important to add the word “SUBMISSION” in the subject line of your email. This helps the Fiction Submissions Editor quickly identify and sort through the incoming submissions.

Remember, submitting your short story to The New Yorker is a highly competitive process. It is essential to carefully follow the submission guidelines and present your work in the best possible light. Good luck!

With its distinctive prestige and massive readership, The New Yorker is many writers’ dream publication. Submitting your own short story requires carefully following their guidelines and presenting your best work in a professional manner. Understanding their selectivity and unique process will help you craft a submission that stands out. While publication is highly competitive, take your time polishing a compelling story and cover letter to give yourself the best shot at success.

This guide covers all the key details, from properly formatting your story file to emailing the fiction submissions editor. With a pristine draft, engaging narrative, and convincing cover letter, you’ll be primed for a solid submission to The New Yorker’s esteemed fiction section. Just be sure to thoroughly review their website first and follow all specifications to avoid easy mistakes.

submit an essay to the new yorker

Hi there, I'm Jessica, the solo traveler behind the travel blog Eye & Pen. I launched my site in 2020 to share over a decade of adventurous stories and vivid photography from my expeditions across 30+ countries. When I'm not wandering, you can find me freelance writing from my home base in Denver, hiking Colorado's peaks with my rescue pup Belle, or enjoying local craft beers with friends.

I specialize in budget tips, unique lodging spotlights, road trip routes, travel hacking guides, and female solo travel for publications like Travel+Leisure and Matador Network. Through my photography and writing, I hope to immerse readers in new cultures and compelling destinations not found in most guidebooks. I'd love for you to join me on my lifelong journey of visual storytelling!

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How to successfully pitch The New York Times (or, well, anyone else)

Freelancing is tough! It can be an unpredictable, unreliable grind, and sometimes things fall through even if you’ve done everything right.

As Smarter Living editor at The New York Times, the bulk of my job is working with freelancers. On the slowest days, I’ll get around a dozen cold pitches in my inbox; on busy days, almost 200 . (Lol sorry if I owe you an email, promise I’m working on it.)

The thousands of pitches I’ve read over the last few years usually fall into one of three categories: great (very few), something we can work with (a small, but decent, amount) and bad (everything else).

submit an essay to the new yorker

But most bad pitches are bad for the same few reasons, and they’re often salvageable with some tweaking. After consulting with about a dozen editors who commission stories at publications ranging from small, niche blogs to national magazines and newspapers, I’ve pulled together the six most common mistakes freelancers make when pitching — and what you can do to impress an editor.

You don’t know what your story is.

Most editors are willing to take a chance on a great story idea, even from a new writer — 75 percent of the stories I commissioned last year were from first-time New York Times writers. But we can’t help you if you don’t know what you’re pitching.

The most common variant is this: “Hi, I’m a freelance writer and I’m interested in covering [x topic] for your section.” I’m glad you’re interested, but…what’s the story?

Another version is the super-lengthy email pitching a meandering, unfocused “look,” “exploration,” or “deep dive” into a topic. I’m glad you’ve thought so much about your topic, but don’t forget to think of the actual story you’re telling.

Even worse: You want me to tell you what your story is.

“Freelancers should always come with story ideas,” said Sarah Kessler , deputy editor of Quartz at Work . “I get a lot of emails that just say, ‘I’d like to be a contributor for Quartz at Work.’ That isn’t much help.”

A good safeguard against this is to write a solid, clear, powerful nut graf. It’ll be just a draft — after all, you won’t have done all the reporting for the story yet — but knowing exactly what your story is about is crucial to piquing an editor’s interest.

You didn’t check the archives.

Even if you think you have the most original idea in the world, and you’re 100 percent sure the outlet you’re pitching has never done it, check to see if the outlet has already done it. Then check again. Skipping this step shows you’re either blindly shooting off pitches en masse, or you just don’t care enough to look.

Meet your new best friend: Google site search . Just type “site:[] [your keywords]” and you’re set. ( Do not rely on a news outlet’s built-in search engine .)

“Pitching a version of something I’ve already published, or a version of something the writer has already published but for a different pub” never works out, said Lisa Bonos , editor of Solo-ish at The Washington Post. “This latter one REALLY gets me. You don’t get to sell the same personal essay more than once. If you’re writing a variation on a story you’ve told before, be upfront about how this new story is different.”

You pitched the wrong editor or section.

It’s sloppy and it shows you didn’t do the basic research required to get your story published. Be absolutely sure that your idea fits within the section or outlet you’re pitching, and that you’re emailing the right editor.

“Pitching me something that doesn’t make any sense for the publication, subject-wise or tonally, shows me you haven’t read through the site,” said Gina Vaynshteyn , editor-in-chief at First Media . “If you haven’t done your homework, I wonder how diligent you’ll be about your story.”

You’re too aggressive with following up.

“It’s O.K. to follow up on unanswered pitches, but wait a week, not 24 hours,” said Kristin Iversen , executive editor of Nylon . “When a freelancer’s pitches are turned down, they should not follow up with more pitches a day or two later; please don’t pitch me more than once a month, unless it’s something very timely.”

Your story is too low-stakes or narrow.

This mistake is a little hard to define, but it probably accounts for at least half of the stories I decline. If you’re going to ask an editor to pay you for your idea, make sure it’s an idea worth paying for. Think scope, reach, and impact.

This problem emerges in a lot of ways, but the most common issues I see are: Your story requires very little — or no — reporting; it could be written by anyone; it applies to a very small demographic (caveat: this isn’t a problem if that’s intentional and the publication is interested in that audience); your story has a very limited shelf-life (again, not a problem if that’s intentional and you know the outlet would be interested); or it just doesn’t have any sweep or scope. Editors want important, substantive stories.

Ask yourself: If an editor responded and said, “So what? Who cares?” — would you have a real answer?

You don’t disclose conflicts of interest.

Most publications have codes of ethics and/or guidelines around conflict-of-interest disclosures. They can vary widely, so always — always! — err on the side of over-disclosure. The worst-case scenario is that outlet finds out you had a conflict after publication (and they will find out), which usually results in a correction with the disclosure and that writer possibly being blacklisted from the publication.

A travel editor at an international outlet shared this story:

I’m not allowed to accept press trips, and same goes for people who write for us. I can usually tell when someone went on a press junket even if they don’t disclose it, because multiple writers all pitch me the same story about the same destination all at once. Often, it was a trip I was invited on myself and had to decline. A writer pitched me one of these stories, and I wrote her back politely giving her a heads-up about the no-press-trips rule. Her response: “You must have figured out I was on a press trip because YOU’RE STALKING ME.” Good tip: Don’t accuse editors of stalking you. And also be honest about stuff.

So now you know what not to do — here’s what you should do. It boils down to basically three things:

Be concise yet informative.

Very few cold pitches need to be more than, say, 10 sentences, and the best ones are often less.

Explain why anyone should care.

Get me interested to learn more, but more important, make me want to tell this story to the readers of my publication.

Show that you can pull it off.

If you want to pitch the huge, ambitious, weighty feature you’ve been mulling over months, go for it. But make sure you’ve laid out how you’re going to put it together, along with the clips to demonstrate that a story like this is within your range.

“The best freelancers use their pitches to showcase their writing skills — especially when pitching an editor for the first time,” said Nick Baumann , an editor at HuffPost. “A pitch gives me a better sense of your raw copy than your edited clips do. If your pitch has a fascinating, beautifully written lede, your story probably will, too. If the pitch is confusing, the filed story is likely to be, too.”

To end, here’s one of the best cold pitches I’ve ever gotten. This was my first interaction with this writer — Anna Goldfarb — and she’s since become a regular New York Times contributor :

Hello! I saw your call for pitches so I figured I’d toss my hat in the ring. Let me know if any of these ideas resonate! [She had sent three different ideas, but I’m including only the one I accepted and later published.] (Essay) What I wish I’d known before moving in with my boyfriend — I’d always pictured moving in with a guy like diving into a pool; a graceful, swift action. It turns out I was absolutely wrong. Instead of a dive, it was like doing the Macarena, in that there’s a series of steps that need to be executed in a certain order for it to be considered a success. A little bit about me: I’m a culture and food writer based in Philly. I’m currently a contributor to Elle , The Kitchn , Refinery29 , Thrillist and more. You can see my full list of writing clips here . Thanks for your consideration!

Why’s this so good? Four simple reasons: There’s no filler; she told me everything I need to know about the idea without getting bogged down in irrelevant details; she knows exactly the story she’s pitching and how to execute it ; and she sent clips with a link to more.

Yes, it’s that simple. Don’t overthink it.

Tim Herrera is Smarter Living editor at The New York Times.

Cite this article Hide citations

Herrera, Tim. "How to successfully pitch The New York Times (or, well, anyone else)." Nieman Journalism Lab . Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, 22 Oct. 2018. Web. 16 May. 2024.

Herrera, T. (2018, Oct. 22). How to successfully pitch The New York Times (or, well, anyone else). Nieman Journalism Lab . Retrieved May 16, 2024, from

Herrera, Tim. "How to successfully pitch The New York Times (or, well, anyone else)." Nieman Journalism Lab . Last modified October 22, 2018. Accessed May 16, 2024.

{{cite web     | url =     | title = How to successfully pitch The New York Times (or, well, anyone else)     | last = Herrera     | first = Tim     | work = [[Nieman Journalism Lab]]     | date = 22 October 2018     | accessdate = 16 May 2024     | ref = {{harvid|Herrera|2018}} }}

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May 7, 2024

Zadie Smith Sparks Controversy Due To New Yorker Essay

In her criticism of Smith's novel, Chu traces the writer’s practice of negative capability, or the practice of articulating the virtue of seeing something from both sides.

After British author Zadie Smith wrote a 3,000-word essay for The New Yorker , the backlash on social media was nearly immediate and thunderous. The essay, equal parts linguistic exercise and philosophy, attempted to argue that a central problem of the campus protests currently engulfing many institutions of higher education across the country boils down to an imprecise employment of language and rhetoric. 

Not long after Smith’s piece was published, on X, formerly known as Twitter, Vulture reposted a 2023 review of Smith’s latest book by Andrea Long Chu , a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic. In that piece, Chu traces the writer’s practice of negative capability, or the practice of articulating the virtue of seeing something from both sides. Chu argued in her piece that Smith’s practice of publicly engaging in negative capability throughout her career as a public intellectual tends to land her in hot water, and the response from the wider literary and academic community to her essay titled “Shibboleth” is emblematic of this criticism. 

If you want to know why Zadie Smith is two-siding a genocide after 8 months of indefensible bloodshed, Andrea Long Chu nailed it in How Zadie Smith Lost Her Teeth: — Thamina Eff 🇵🇸 (@Thamina_F) May 5, 2024
Whole essay was like "WORDS MEAN THINGS!! or do they? Maybe not. Who can tell? What if words that mean things make people uncomfortable? Who is disempowered now? Words might mean things! Call me names if you must! A good day! You're welcome!" *Vanishes like Tuxedo Mask* — Daniel José Older (@djolder) May 6, 2024
Who among the students and faculty protesting and who among those with families being genocided invited Zadie Smith into the conversation. The young peoples language is far beyond this dislocated, moonwalking, looking from a real safe distance rhetoric. — Natalie Diaz (@NatalieGDiaz) May 5, 2024
Honestly it has become exhausting having to listen to liberal writers yap about “its complicated” and “both sides”. Just say that you are a coward and move on. — Arnesa Buljušmić-Kustura (@Rrrrnessa) May 6, 2024
I’m just gonna put up the sign reminding everyone that ZS called her kids quadroons in an art review and AFAIK has never expressed regret about the choice to do so — Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (@IBJIYONGI) May 5, 2024
Note Smith's accusations, unmoored from supporting evidence. When considering a literary approach, it's tempting to make excuses (and later, Smith addresses her status as a writer) but claims require facts. This is the irresponsible imprecision I'm referring to /2 — Dwayne Monroe / @[email protected] (@cloudquistador) May 6, 2024

In a 2017 piece for Longreads , writer Danielle Jackson carries the same criticism of Smith as Chu regarding Smith’s lack of engagement. In a piece for Harper ‘s Bazaar , Smith argued that a letter calling for a white woman’s abstraction of Emmett Till lying in a casket to be removed was absurd , which Jackson found to be disappointing. Jackson writes, “I wished she had engaged this subject matter with her heart. I needed her to think of the logic of [Hannah] Black’s letter from a place of shared pain, shared experiences, and shared anger. I needed her to really listen to it before dismantling it.” Black’s letter, reprinted in its entirety by ARTNews , is primarily concerned with white artists mining Black pain in the name of art.

“Although [Dena] Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others and are not natural rights. The painting must go.”

Smith’s piece and the reactions to it underscore the responsibility of a nuanced discussion to have a point, especially when one side of the debate involves genocide or charges of genocide. The criticism that Smith’s use of language is an attempt to sanitize that genocide is a fair one, and it exemplifies Desmond Tutu’s often-quoted admonishment of neutrality during injustice is a correct analysis.

Despite the reactions from writers and academics, Smith’s place as a literary darling will likely be unaffected by this piece, as it was not affected by her hand wringing over Schultz’s Open Casket and connecting that to the perceived Blackness or lack thereof of her own children. Black writers and academics who are concerned about the plight of the oppressed will likely continue to doubt Smith’s ability to meet the moment, particularly where oppressed people are concerned, because, as The New Yorker piece makes clear, it is more important to her to seem to be an objective philosophical authority than it is to adequately react to objectionable things. 

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Reading pulp fiction taught me how to write, said S.J. Perelman

The great humourist ascribes his success to the hours he spent deep in the adventures of tarzan and fu manchu – and watching lurid b movies in afternoon cinemas.

  • From magazine issue: 18 May 2024

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Scott Bradfield

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Cloudland Revisited: A Misspent Youth in Books and Film

S.J. Perelman

Library of America, pp. 200, £15

This volume of short essays – originally written for the New Yorker in the 1940s and 1950s but never before assembled – provides ample evidence that the great S.J. Perelman could misspend his youth with the best of them. It’s also the closest thing to an autobiography he ever completed: a series of comic reflections on the awful, absorbing books and movies which entertained him when he should have been attending his classes at Brown University (from which he eventually dropped out), or keeping a steady job.

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Recollected in the tranquillity (or complacency) of being a well-established, middle-aged family man, these guilty pleasures prove less absorbing to him the second time round, and often hilariously so – perhaps because vanishing into the ‘cloudland’ of books and films is a lot harder when there’s a wife, two demanding children and a taxman eager to pull you straight back out again.

In a far away, more carefree time, there was only the teenage-to-twentysomething Perelman who mattered: a young man who enjoyed fleeing late shifts in a cigar store, or electroplating automobile radiators, to disappear into afternoon cinemas with the likes of Lillian Gish and Rudolph Valentino. Or he might go gloriously swinging off into library adventures with Tarzan of the Apes or the lesser known Leonie of the Jungle .

Even better were tales of worldly, passionate men and women chasing one another across landscapes far more exotic than Perelman’s native Rhode Island, such as the 1916 silent movie adaptation of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea , featuring an early film version of Captain Nemo wearing ‘a Santa Claus suit and a turban made out of a huck towel’, or E.M. Hull’s 1919 bestseller The Sheik , in which irresistible Lady Diana Mayo is kidnapped and ravished by Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan – who turns out (providentially) to be the legitimate son of Lord Glencaryll and a Spanish noblewoman. (Like Tarzan, many of these romanticised ‘foreign’ super-men proved to be disguised British nobility all along.) Despite his ‘fluctuating’ resources as a young man, Perelman recalls:

I would sooner have parted with a lung than missed such epochal attractions as Tol’able David or Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse , and I worked at some very odd jobs indeed to feed my addiction.

Like other great writers of his generation – Graham Greene, say, or F. Scott Fitzgerald – Perelman learned as much from bad books and movies as he did from good ones. He discovers in Hull’s ‘pungent’ prose a casual genius for moving stories along quickly without a ‘lot of fussing over the table decorations and place cards’, thus serving ‘the soufflé piping hot’ from the oven. And even the ‘engagingly simple and monstrously confused’ plots of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series possessed enough diabolical energy to drive breathless pre-teen Perelman into his bedroom each night where he barricaded the door, while ‘sprinkling tacks along the windowsills, and strewing crumpled newspapers about the floor to warn me of approaching footsteps’.

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But it’s clearly movies that most inspired the man who would go on to co-write (some claim) the best of the Marx Brothers’ most anarchically funny scripts – Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932). Perelman describes being mesmerised by the histrionic Erich von Stroheim – who not only kicked the metaphoric dog in a movie to establish his unrepentant evil, but kicked ‘the owner and the SPCA for good measure’ – or the puberty-accelerating Theda Bara, whom he liked to imagine cradling his head in her lap, while he lay ‘intoxicated by coal-black eyes smouldering with belladonna’.

Some people live more fully in their entertainments than they do in themselves; and these essays are the glorious record of one of them, retracing childhood reveries in dusty attics filled with cardboard boxes of mouldering books, while cranking up restored prints of old films. It’s nice to finally have this handy volume for those of us who have lived our lives just as unprofitably.

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E. B. White is one of the most famous children’s book authors. But he should be better known for his essays.

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I was well into adulthood before I realized the co-author of my battered copy of The Elements of Style was also the author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web . That’s right, the White of the revered style manual that everyone knew as “Strunk and White” also wrote children’s books…as well as some of the best essays in the English language.

If you’re of a certain age, you might well remember E. B. White’s pointers in The Elements of Style :

Place yourself in the background; write in a way that comes naturally; work from a suitable design; write with nouns and verbs; do not overwrite; do not overstate; avoid the use of qualifiers; do not affect a breezy style; use orthodox spelling; do not explain too much; avoid fancy words; do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity; prefer the standard to the offbeat; make sure the reader knows who is speaking; do not use dialect; revise and rewrite.

That’s some good advice, much better than the terrible counsel offered on Page 76: “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute.” Thanks, E. B., I do what I want. ☹️

Born in 1899 in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Elwyn Brooks White attended Cornell University, where he earned the nickname “Andy.” (Weird historical fact: If your last name was White, you were automatically an Andy at Cornell, in honor of the school’s co-founder, Andrew Dickson White. There is no connection to fellow Cornell alum Andy Bernard .) After graduation, White worked as a journalist and an advertising copywriter for several years. He published his first article in The New Yorker the year it was founded, 1925.

White became a staff writer at The New Yorker in 1927, but was an early enthusiast of the work-from-home movement, initially refusing to come to the office and eventually agreeing to come in only on Thursdays. In those days, he shared a small office (“a sort of elongated closet,” he called it) with James Thurber.

His famous officemate later recalled that White had an odd a brilliant habit: When visitors were announced, he would climb out the office window and scamper down the fire escape. “He has avoided the Man in the Reception Room as he has avoided the interviewer, the photographer, the microphone, the rostrum, the literary tea, and the Stork Club,” Thurber later remembered of the chronically shy author. “His life is his own.”

In 1929, White and Thurber co-authored their first book, Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do . (Don’t worry: It was comic essays.) That same year, White married Katharine Angell, The New Yorker’s fiction editor from its inaugural year until 1960. She was the mother of Roger Angell , the famed essayist and baseball writer who himself became a fiction editor at The New Yorker in the 1950s.

In 1938, White and Katharine moved permanently to a farm in Maine they had purchased five years before. If you’re wondering about the inspiration for 1952’s Charlotte’s Web , look no further than White’s 1948 essay for The Atlantic, “ Death of a Pig .” (He bought the pig with the intention of fattening it for slaughter; instead, he later nursed it through a fatal illness and buried it on the farm.)

Stuart Little had been published seven years before Charlotte’s Web . Along with 1970’s The Trumpet of the Swan , these books have made White one of the nation’s best-known children’s authors. I’m sure White didn’t mind, but by all rights, he should be better known for his essays. He authored over 20 collections of such classics as “Once More to the Lake,” “The Sea and The Wind That Blow,” “The Ring of Time,” “A Slight Sound at Evening” and “Farewell, My Lovely!” Endlessly anthologized, many are also taught in writing workshops to this day.

In 1949, White published Here Is New York , a short book developed from an essay about the pros and cons of living in New York City. In a 2012 essay for America , literary editor Raymond Schroth, S.J., noted White’s juxtaposition in Here Is New York of technological terrors like nuclear bombers (the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949) with the simple beauties of nature:

Grand Central Terminal has become honky tonk, the great mansions are in decline, and there is generally more tension, irritability and great speed. The subtlest change is that the city is now destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a flock of geese could end this island fantasy, burn the towers and crumble the bridges. But the United Nations will make this the capital of the world. The perfect target may become the perfect “demonstration of nonviolence and racial brotherhood.” A block away in an interior garden was an old willow tree. This tree, symbol of the city, White said, must survive.

“It is a battered tree, long suffering and much climbed, held together by strands of wire but beloved of those who know it,” White wrote in Here Is New York . “In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun. Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the planes, I think: ‘This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree.’”

The tree lasted for another six decades —two more than the Cold War, in fact—before finally being chopped down in 2009.

In a 1954 review of books by White and James Michener, America literary editor Harold C. Gardiner, S.J. , said White “has one of the most distinctive styles discernible on the American literary scene.” Since even the most cursory review of Father Gardiner’s many years of commentary shows he hated almost everything, it was quite a compliment. (Later in the review, he noted that “Mr. Michener, who has done better in his other books, comes a cropper here mainly because his style is wooden, sententious and dull.”)

In 1963, White received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his writings. Fifteen years later, he was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for “his letters, essays, and the full body of his work.” In 2005, the composer Nico Muhly debuted a song cycle based on The Elements of Style at the New York Public Library. Among its signature moments was a tenor offering more of White’s good advice, this time in song:

Do not use a hyphen between words that can be better written as one word .

White died in 1985 at his farm in Maine. His wife Katharine had died eight years earlier. His obituary in The New York Times quoted William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker:

His literary style was as pure as any in our language. It was singular, colloquial, clear, unforced, thoroughly American and utterly beautiful. Because of his quiet influence, several generations of this country's writers write better than they might have done. He never wrote a mean or careless sentence. He was impervious to literary, intellectual and political fashion. He was ageless, and his writing was timeless.

Our poetry selection for this week is “ Another Doubting Sonnet ,” by Renee Emerson. Readers can view all of America ’s published poems here .

Also, news from the Catholic Book Club: We are reading Norwegian novelist and 2023 Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse’s multi-volume work Septology . Click here to buy the book, and click here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group .

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

​​Who’s in hell? Hans Urs von Balthasar had thoughts.

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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James T. Keane is a senior editor at America.

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What I’ve Learned From My Students’ College Essays

The genre is often maligned for being formulaic and melodramatic, but it’s more important than you think.

An illustration of a high school student with blue hair, dreaming of what to write in their college essay.

By Nell Freudenberger

Most high school seniors approach the college essay with dread. Either their upbringing hasn’t supplied them with several hundred words of adversity, or worse, they’re afraid that packaging the genuine trauma they’ve experienced is the only way to secure their future. The college counselor at the Brooklyn high school where I’m a writing tutor advises against trauma porn. “Keep it brief , ” she says, “and show how you rose above it.”

I started volunteering in New York City schools in my 20s, before I had kids of my own. At the time, I liked hanging out with teenagers, whom I sometimes had more interesting conversations with than I did my peers. Often I worked with students who spoke English as a second language or who used slang in their writing, and at first I was hung up on grammar. Should I correct any deviation from “standard English” to appeal to some Wizard of Oz behind the curtains of a college admissions office? Or should I encourage students to write the way they speak, in pursuit of an authentic voice, that most elusive of literary qualities?

In fact, I was missing the point. One of many lessons the students have taught me is to let the story dictate the voice of the essay. A few years ago, I worked with a boy who claimed to have nothing to write about. His life had been ordinary, he said; nothing had happened to him. I asked if he wanted to try writing about a family member, his favorite school subject, a summer job? He glanced at his phone, his posture and expression suggesting that he’d rather be anywhere but in front of a computer with me. “Hobbies?” I suggested, without much hope. He gave me a shy glance. “I like to box,” he said.

I’ve had this experience with reluctant writers again and again — when a topic clicks with a student, an essay can unfurl spontaneously. Of course the primary goal of a college essay is to help its author get an education that leads to a career. Changes in testing policies and financial aid have made applying to college more confusing than ever, but essays have remained basically the same. I would argue that they’re much more than an onerous task or rote exercise, and that unlike standardized tests they are infinitely variable and sometimes beautiful. College essays also provide an opportunity to learn precision, clarity and the process of working toward the truth through multiple revisions.

When a topic clicks with a student, an essay can unfurl spontaneously.

Even if writing doesn’t end up being fundamental to their future professions, students learn to choose language carefully and to be suspicious of the first words that come to mind. Especially now, as college students shoulder so much of the country’s ethical responsibility for war with their protest movement, essay writing teaches prospective students an increasingly urgent lesson: that choosing their own words over ready-made phrases is the only reliable way to ensure they’re thinking for themselves.

Teenagers are ideal writers for several reasons. They’re usually free of preconceptions about writing, and they tend not to use self-consciously ‘‘literary’’ language. They’re allergic to hypocrisy and are generally unfiltered: They overshare, ask personal questions and call you out for microaggressions as well as less egregious (but still mortifying) verbal errors, such as referring to weed as ‘‘pot.’’ Most important, they have yet to put down their best stories in a finished form.

I can imagine an essay taking a risk and distinguishing itself formally — a poem or a one-act play — but most kids use a more straightforward model: a hook followed by a narrative built around “small moments” that lead to a concluding lesson or aspiration for the future. I never get tired of working with students on these essays because each one is different, and the short, rigid form sometimes makes an emotional story even more powerful. Before I read Javier Zamora’s wrenching “Solito,” I worked with a student who had been transported by a coyote into the U.S. and was reunited with his mother in the parking lot of a big-box store. I don’t remember whether this essay focused on specific skills or coping mechanisms that he gained from his ordeal. I remember only the bliss of the parent-and-child reunion in that uninspiring setting. If I were making a case to an admissions officer, I would suggest that simply being able to convey that experience demonstrates the kind of resilience that any college should admire.

The essays that have stayed with me over the years don’t follow a pattern. There are some narratives on very predictable topics — living up to the expectations of immigrant parents, or suffering from depression in 2020 — that are moving because of the attention with which the student describes the experience. One girl determined to become an engineer while watching her father build furniture from scraps after work; a boy, grieving for his mother during lockdown, began taking pictures of the sky.

If, as Lorrie Moore said, “a short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage,” what is a college essay? Every once in a while I sit down next to a student and start reading, and I have to suppress my excitement, because there on the Google Doc in front of me is a real writer’s voice. One of the first students I ever worked with wrote about falling in love with another girl in dance class, the absolute magic of watching her move and the terror in the conflict between her feelings and the instruction of her religious middle school. She made me think that college essays are less like love than limerence: one-sided, obsessive, idiosyncratic but profound, the first draft of the most personal story their writers will ever tell.

Nell Freudenberger’s novel “The Limits” was published by Knopf last month. She volunteers through the PEN America Writers in the Schools program.


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June 6, 2024

Current Issue

Why Not Memes?

May 14, 2024

In a series of conversations with Merve Emre at Wesleyan University, some of today’s sharpest working critics discuss their careers and methodology, and are then asked to close-read a text that they haven’t seen before. The Review is collaborating with Lit Hub to publish transcripts and recordings of these interviews, which across eleven episodes will offer an extensive look into the process of criticism.

The first essay by Lauren Michele Jackson that I ever read was published in the summer of 2020, a week or so into the protests following the death of George Floyd. Many media outlets and English departments had published an “anti-racist reading list” or “anti-racist syllabus,” and a swarm of more or less identical essays on the phenomenon recommending more or less identical books, Lauren published an essay called “ What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For? ” Here are the lines I still remember: “The syllabus, as these lists are sometimes called, seldom instructs or guides,” she wrote. “Aside from the contemporary teaching texts, genre appears indiscriminately: essays slide against memoir and folklore, poetry squeezed on either side by sociological tomes. This, maybe ironically but maybe not, reinforces an already pernicious literary divide that books written by or about minorities arefor educational purposes, racism and homophobia and stuff, wholly segregated from matters of form and grammar, lyric and scene.” I admired how sharply her words cut through the pablum, and I loved that she had read all the memoirs, essays, folk talks, and poems that other people had simply slapped onto their syllabi. Her essay sent me to her 2019 collection, White Negroes , about the appropriation of black culture by a wide range of actors: pop stars, artists, hipsters, chefs, people making and sharing memes online—a world of “black aesthetics without black people,” as she put it. Lauren is an assistant professor of English at Northwestern University and a contributing writer for The New Yorker , where I have read her on Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Lana del Rey, Mary Wollstonecraft, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison. I read her most recently in The New York Review of Books on the Barbie movie, in a piece that demonstrates how exceptional she is at synthesizing ambitious ideas about race, gender, and consciousness with her uncompromising voice.

Merve Emre: Many of the people in this room are college students . Can you narrate how you got from where they are to where you are today?

Lauren Michele Jackson: I have been trying to think about this question because it comes in so many different versions. There’s the version of the story where I retrofit where I am today to the various things I did across college and graduate school. Then there is the more holistic, sidewinding version—the more truthful version—which is that there was never any deliberate choice or goal on the horizon. It was a lot of following my own whims and interests, which were united by the fact that I like to write.

I did my undergrad among the cornfields, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I started off as an art major, then I thought I wanted to study computer science, and landed on English because I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I took a nineteenth-century American literature survey course, and that’s when I learned that you could do what I was doing there—reading and writing—as a job. My parents weren’t academics, so my idea of what a professor was, even two years into undergrad, was still hazy. I followed that track pretty conventionally. I took more American lit classes, applied for Ph.D. programs, and during my second Ph.D. year started writing freelance for the Internet. It was a fun time for the Internet. It feels like we’re in the last days of online, which is not actually true—but it feels that way for someone who began writing professionally in the 2010s. I was writing three thousand words for fifty bucks, or for nothing.

Could we linger on those early days of the Internet? You write sharply and beautifully about Internet phenomena that can be quite ephemeral. For instance, the essay on Kermit memes in White Negroes. Who still knows what Kermit memes are? These things court their own obsolescence. Can you recreate the halcyon days of the Internet for us and tell us how it spoke to your sense of whimsy?

I was in an English literature Ph.D. program when close reading was still the bread and butter of the field, though that’s changing and has been changing for a while. I was reading theory about how to analyze literary texts. I was reading secondary criticism in which those people were doing the thing that we’re supposed to be doing. I was also having my brain broken by the Internet and Tumblr and Twitter, back when it was still Twitter. These two experiences collided, and I realized that with something like a meme, which feels like it’s changing very quickly, you can use the tools of literary analysis—slowing things down, lingering over something. There’s a specialness to literary texts, but it is not exclusive to literary texts.

I think English as a discipline has already been doing this for decades now. You can study films, video games, comics in an English department. I felt like, Why not memes? I was writing for little blogs, most of which don’t even exist anymore. There was a playfulness and a lack of stakes. I could write two thousand words on a Kermit meme, and it wasn’t going to be the thing that I was dissertating on or that was going to stick with me for the rest of my life. But it was something that I could have fun with in the moment.

How does the fun, the lightness, and what some people might call the unreality of the Internet collide with questions of race and gender? One of your first pieces, for Teen Vogue in 2017, was on digital blackface. A claim you make that really leaps out at me is about how the Internet isn’t fantasy; it’s real life, so it can’t escape the racialized or gendered dynamics that are part of our embodied existence. How did you reconcile the fun, the whimsy, with questions of race and gender?

It’s funny, I have so many mixed feelings about that piece. They’re not even that mixed anymore, they’re very negative. In old-school Internet parlance, it went viral. That piece circulated very widely and still pops up every now and again. It sutured my name to problems of identity when the intent of the piece was really about aesthetics. It was about how these images cannot be disentangled from a history of photography, from a history of sentiment—all of the things that you have to think about as a good Americanist. This is where the low stakes version of it was coming in; I was just trying to have a rudimentary thought.

If we take as true that racial, gendered, and social and economic factors guide the way that we interpret and circulate texts and images, what does it mean that there are certain kinds of representation of certain kinds of people that we share without thinking? Should we feel bad about that? Should we not? Should we do something about it? I don’t tend to read my old work, because it’s humiliating. But it wouldn’t be misrepresenting what I was trying to do or the actuality of the piece to say that it was an inquiry. I don’t say, Don’t do this. I try to stay away from prescriptions. I just wanted to raise the question. I don’t know if it was necessarily picked up as that, but that was what I was trying to think about.

Many of the people that I’ve spoken to for this series have a before-and-after moment when something they wrote cleaved in two both their career and their sense of purpose as a critic. Was that piece your before-and-after moment? How do you think about the after—moving on from low-stakes writing about Internet culture to what came after that piece?

It was an unintentional branding that in the years since I have developed an allergy to. I’ll be curious ten, fifteen years from now—God willing, if I still have a career—to see if there was a deliberate course correction in terms of the subjects I chose to write about or declined to write about. I wrote a book about race and appropriation, but after writing that book I felt like I had said the things that I wanted to say, and I wanted to explore other things, or things that were related but perhaps in a different way.

For those of you who want to write books or have books hidden away in your cubby somewhere that will someday be published, the thing you will learn is that when you write a book, it becomes your beat, your thing, for the rest of your life. People will come to you and say, “You wrote this book on this thing, and this thing has popped up in the news. Would you like to say something about it?” My thought is, “But I’ve already said the best version of it, in that piece or in the book or in the other pieces that I’ve written, in which I try to think about the Internet as an aesthetic place.” The Internet has also become so different now. I’ve lost the pulse of what’s happening there.

I’m not online anymore, so I don’t know what happens. I assume terrible things. Going viral is one way that people who do not have the material apparatus of celebrity accrue the symbolic logic of celebrity. You can experience, for a brief time, visibility in a certain version of the public sphere. It’s interesting to me that you started by writing about the aesthetics of virality and now you often write about what I like to call “real” celebrities and, in particular, musicians. How do you think about the relationship between micro and macro, or minor and major, forms of celebrity and their aesthetics?

That’s such a wonderful question. We’re in such an odd moment with celebrity. I’m not at all unique in saying this. It’s been observed that major celebrities now, or at least over the past decade or so, have trended toward the idea of relatability, of multidimensionality. We see this in everything from the phenomenon of Goop to celebrities taking Zoom calls in the “poor corner” of their house, their unfinished spare-spare-spare-spare bedroom, so that no one can observe the lavish lives they lead.

I still find myself fascinated by the surfaces of celebrities’ lives, because at the end of the day the surface is all that we have access to. As much as anybody feels that they know Taylor Swift—and she might even think her fans know her—and the Easter egg hunt, really all we have is text. The interesting thing about minor and instantaneous Internet celebrity is its lack of finesse. What you’re reading is not necessarily a snapshot of who that person is or an image that they have deliberately cultivated. Rather, you are tracking a quickly moving target. How did “Damn Daniel”—which feels so vintage at this point, as a Vine—proliferate such that Daniel and Josh were on Ellen and had a sponsorship from a shoe company?

You and I have both written about Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where Are You , in which a celebrity author writes an e-mail to her friend complaining that her fans and followers think they actually know her the way that they know people in real life. How do consumers of culture go from the surface to the imagination of depth? Or even beyond depth, to fantasies of intimacy?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Lauren Berlant’s The Female Complaint. It’s about the invention and proliferation of what Berlant calls “women’s culture,” which is a subset of popular culture that arises in the nineteenth century. It distinguishes itself by speaking directly to, or at least professing to speak directly to, women’s experiences. It has a lot to do with genres of sentimentality, race, and politics. It considers cultural objects that make the consumer feel attuned to the uniqueness of womanhood in a way that is politically mobilizing, even if the act of consumption, the capitalist aspect of it, is actually politically demobilizing.

Barbie is women’s culture as mass culture. It can’t get more on the nose than that. We use the word “community” a lot. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we paused to think about that term, especially when it is evoked around cultural objects. What does it mean for an object to speak to a community, to speak to an experience? When sentiment congeals around cultural objects, we often box ourselves into a binary of the good object and bad object. One of the things that The Female Complaint taught me is how to take that community feeling seriously. Not seriously as a substitution for coalition building or anything like that, but seriously as something that ought to be read closely, interrogated, treated with care and scrutiny.

Speaking of Barbie , women’s culture, surfaces and depths, pop stars, and the appropriation of black aesthetics, we have an object for you to read.

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Did you expect this? You thought I was going to give you a poem, didn’t you?

I was so scared. I was like, Am I going to get a selection from The House of the Seven Gables ? Which would have been fun, too.

Why don’t you begin by describing, I believe she’s called,“Pop Star Barbie”?

I will start with the exterior of the object. It is Barbie. We know that because it is one of the most recognizable brands in American life. There is a little subheading. She is a pop star, as we’re told in the upper right corner of the box. She has a little tagline that reads, “You can be anything.” Very feminist, thank you, Barbie.

It continues: “Since 1959, Barbie™ has been inspiring imaginations and shaping the future of play. A pop star is a performer who sings and performs songs for an audience.” Okay, I don’t disagree. “They must practice and hone their vocal technique, learn new music and lyrics, and rehearse with their band and dancers to ensure a smooth performance. They also travel to different cities and venues to perform. Do you like to have fun singing and performing while being yourself? “You Can Be a Pop Star!”

I want to sit with this description for a moment. There’s so much here. This is a direct result of “poptimism,” in the sense that a pop star is not a frothily manufactured, hack-type performer. This is selling us pop music as a very laborious art, and the pop star as a laborer. She has these strappy pink plastic stiletto heels. Lest you think it’s easy singing in these shoes, it is not. In the description we have the shift from third-person to the direct second-person address with, “Do you like to have fun singing and performing?” And then also, “You Can Be a Pop Star!” The first letter of all those words is capitalized and there’s an exclamation point. It’s very Rosie the Riveter. “You can do it!” but as a pop artist.

I’m interested that you’re going for the text first.

It’s so much easier. There’s so much there. I think it’s worth noticing that they offer multiple multiraced versions. This one, though she is not identified by race, has a caramel tone, which could be suggestive of many different kinds of ethnicities. This is the skin color that saves you from having to make twelve or forty Fenty shades of Barbie. This is the color of a Barbie who could be Latinx, Filipina, or black. She could identify in many different ways, which is to say that it makes her available to be identified with, by whoever is going to purchase her or whomever she’s being purchased for.

I do think it’s worth going through her accessories. I will say right off the bat, I’m trying to think about who the analog for this figure is. On one hand, she’s got the big guitar, which could not be more evocative of Taylor Swift at the moment. She’s also got the Pussycat Dolls heels. I don’t know whose dress this would be—Kacey Musgraves? But I don’t think Mattel was like, Let’s make Kacey Musgraves Barbie, with all due respect to Musgraves, whom I love. Barbie has a very tall microphone. Barbie’s proportions are absurd, so she’s also very tall, but she somehow looks even more absurdly tall when you look at her very tall, skinny microphone.

Can I put together two things that you said? She is a multiethnic Barbie, but she’s also the amalgamation of every pop star. She’s not Taylor Swift Barbie or Beyoncé Barbie or Katy Perry Barbie, but something recognizable has been taken from all of them to put together the absolute pop-star Barbie of all races and no race. Is that what I’m hearing?

Yes. Can someone help me out? Is this a necklace?

I think it’s a necklace that says “LOVE.”

It does say “love”—again I’m like, Who is wearing this, Fergie? There are also the nerdy glasses, so she can have her indie Folklore moment, and then behind her, a stage.

We’ve read this Barbie’s surfaces. We’ve read her racialized presentation, we’ve read her genre presentation, and we’ve read her strategies of interpellation, of hailing the consumer. What are we supposed to think about this Barbie’s depths? This is the question, or the problem, that the Barbie movie presents, too. We can read the surfaces; what, if anything, do we need to read about the depths?

If I had to ventriloquize Mattel, in this instance, I think they would say the depth comes from history. This is a historic doll and a historic product. How many ways are there for them to tell us that Barbie has been around since 1959, that this is a legacy brand? They really are trying to drill into us this idea of Barbie as a mainstay. Obviously, the American part is the quiet part, but not that quiet. At this point, if you’re buying this for a child, it’s something her mom played with. It’s something her mom’s mom played with. Maybe even her mom’s mom’s mom. Though they didn’t always have these colors.

They had some of those colors; the pink is still Barbie pink.

Right. I was using color to mean race. I appreciate the check on that. I think that’s one way that the packaging is trying to signal a certain kind of depth. The other place where the depth comes from, or is signaled, is in the substitution that happens, the transfer from the pop star in the general terms, in “they” terms, to what you’re going to do with it. There’s the idea of the boundless imagination of a child. What happens when you give this to a child is that their imagination grows. That’s a kind of depth, even if we think of it as projection. So much of this involves a managed imagination. It’s not quite as freewheeling as it wants to appear, even though the scattershot number of options for race and genre are meant to suggest a multitude.

I want to get back to something you said a little bit earlier about how you’re interested in the metaphor of objects speaking. What’s interesting about Pop Star Barbie is that that metaphor is front and center. She can speak, she can sing, but of course she is entirely voiceless. How do we think about the paradox of this object as “speaking”?

Something clicked for me just now. It couldn’t be more dramatic, the idea of a pop star with a microphone who literally cannot speak. I could imagine a range of counterarguments, but I do think one argument against the idea of objects speaking is that objects don’t speak. We imbue, attach, associate things with and to them. We interpret from them. We form emotional attachments, associations, and ideas about objects such that they can seem to reverberate, or rather, radiate from the objects themselves, when it’s actually not the object. It’s us. It’s us—not just us as consumers, but also as laborers.

We could think about Barbie as representing a certain kind of labor. But she is also literally a product of labor, to say the obvious. That is not a cosmic quality of Barbie herself, but the physical means by which she was created and the destruction required when I throw away the plastic, which will go somewhere in the ocean. But none of that is an innate quality of a Barbie. It’s what we, as human beings, make.

Something that I admire so much about your writing is that it clues us into all kinds of voicelessness: the voicelessness of the incessantly laboring female, the voicelessness of the people who literally made her. At the same time, you are not a moralizing writer at all. How do you judge this Barbie, or a Barbie? It’s very hard to disentangle how one judges one Barbie from how one judges all Barbies. This seems to be part of the promise of the object as a toy: Does it make you want to play with her?

It does. I do want to note that her hands and her elbows are—what do you call that? Opposable? They can flex, they have flexion, but her knees do not. She ain’t Beyoncé. She’s not going to be doing a whole lot of dancing. I do wish her knees bent, though I understand why they don’t.

I did have Barbies as a kid. I had a roller-skating one. Obviously, you need to bend your knees to roller-skate. I do recall that there was a certain ugliness about it. There is something so streamlined about the Barbie leg. It is disturbed and almost grotesque. It reminds you that this is a doll. I understand why she’s not a dancing doll. That’s one judgment, but if I were going to imagine myself as a pop star, I would want to have some sick choreography.

Yes, otherwise, you would look like Taylor Swift trying to sit on a chair.

I love her weird sits.

If you want to play with it, why? How does the desire either to play or not to play with it make you feel?

I do like the color pink. It’s such a fraught color, and yet such a good encapsulation of everything to which Barbie as a brand and as an object aspires. It has a similar function to blonde hair, even though this Barbie is not blonde. It has the cultural associations of youth and fun and whimsy.

When we read an object like this, there is a compulsion to evaluate the truth-value of its promises. We can all say, Barbie will not, cannot, did not, cure gender inequality. We haven’t won yet. Barbie persists. In some ways, that’s the least interesting thought. A more interesting thing to think about, which is the question you were asking me, is: How does Barbie make those promises, from the color of the guitar to the shoes to the outfit to the skin color to the baby hairs—this doll has baby hairs, oh my lord—to the text on the back? I honestly don’t even know why the stuff on the back exists, because who’s reading that? They made the font so small, so they must on some level know that nobody’s reading that, though someone wrote this copy.

This is what I try to get my students to do, which is actually really hard: stick with an observation of what’s there, what’s in the text, what’s the color, how tall is she, what are her secondary objects, and then move to thinking about what it’s doing, what it’s accomplishing.

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Lauren Michele Jackson is an assistant professor of English and Black Studies at Northwestern University and a contributing writer at The New Yorker . She is the author of White Negroes . (February 2024)

Merve Emre is the Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing and Criticism and the Director of the Shapiro Center at Wesleyan. She is the host of The Critic and Her Publics , a new podcast series produced in partnership with The New York Review and Lit Hub. (April 2024)

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By Roger Angell

An illustration of wild flowers growing through a handwritten letter

Do anything long enough, and you hang up a record. Just go to bed every night, and before you know it you’ve passed Sleeping Beauty. Set down the dog’s dinner, day by day, and pretty soon he’s put away enough Alpo to feed the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. “Hey,” said a colleague of mine, sticking his head in my office door the other day. “Did you know that you’ve rejected fifteen thousand stories here? I just figured it out. Fifteen thousand, easy.”

Well, thanks. I got out a pencil and did some figuring, and decided that eighteen thousand was probably more like it. I tried to envision that many manuscripts trudging back home again in the rain, and to imagine the reception they got there when they rang the bell—“Oh. You again”—and, wincing, I heard the mumbled apologies and explanations. Then I added on all the other mournful regiments of rejected fiction sent back from this salient, down the years, by fellow-editors of mine in the same line of work: a much larger body of the defeated and the shot-down—a whole bloody Caporetto. “We regret . . . ,” I murmured unhappily to myself. “Thank you for . . .” I sounded like a field marshal.

The regret is real, though it may vary in depth from one manuscript to the next. What is certain is that no one can read fiction for thirty-eight years, or thirty-eight weeks , and go on taking any pleasure in saying no. It works the other way around. You pick up the next manuscript, from a long-term contributor or an absolute stranger (“Prize in Undergraduate Composition; two summers at Pineaway under Guy de Maupassant; stories in Yurt, Springboard, and Yclept; semifinalist in . . .”), and set sail down the page in search of life, or signs of life; your eye is caught and you flip eagerly to the next page and the one after that. Can it be? Mostly, almost always, it is not—or not quite. You read on to the end (well, not always to the end) and then make a note to yourself about what you will say to your old friend who hasn’t sold a story here in two years, or what to put, in some lines scribbled at the end of the printed form, to the young or not so young author who has laid his or her soul out on these eighteen pages but somehow not in a way that makes you want to slow down and enter this particular bar in company with Jay and Hugo and Lynn, or hear more of what was said on the back porch on a particular night of recriminations and fireflies. Sometimes there is a little descriptive passage or some paragraphs of dialogue, or the tone or tinge of a page or two, to single out for praise or encouragement, but even these responses, let it be said, may go into a return letter as much to make yourself feel better, a bit less of a monster, as in any great hopes of getting a socko manuscript from this same author in a month’s time.

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about fiction. “How do you get a story published in The New Yorker ?” somebody asks. “Send it in, and if we like it we’ll publish it,” I reply, and my interlocutor shoots me a knowing look and says, “No, seriously —”

“Are you looking for the typical New Yorker story?” someone else asks. “Sure, lady,” I want to answer back. “The one that’s exactly like Borges and Brodkey and Edna O’Brien and John O’Hara and Susan Minot and Eudora Welty and Niccolò Tucci and Isaac Singer. That’s the one, except with more Keillor and Nabokov in it. Whenever we find one of those, we snap it right up.”

A distinguished reporter here, the author of long, ferociously researched articles, stopped by to see me one day in great excitement, to say he was giving up all this drudgery and would write only fiction from now on. “Fiction writers never have to leave their desks, do they?” he said.

“Well, no,” I said. “Except for one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“They have to get up to vomit,” I said.

A visiting reporter from a media journal once asked, “What are you people looking for in the fiction line? What are your standards?”

I stalled for time. “I don’t know what they are,” I mumbled at last. “We’ve never decided. We want something good—you know, something we like.”

“No, seriously ,” she said, but when she saw that we were serious (I had cunningly laid on some colleagues) she closed her notebook. Her piece never appeared.

The writers are the main players, which means that we can hurry past such esoterica as the opinion sheet, on which two or three or more fiction editors weigh in helpfully or warily or stubbornly (“Hate to disagree, but—”) on an incoming manuscript; often the process turns up some structural flaws, and the work is shipped back to its creator for minor or major repairs. Or rejected. No contributor is spared this blunt possibility, which may explain why certain celebrated authors have attempted to negotiate an acceptance before a story of theirs is sent along, or have stopped submitting altogether. Lack of unanimity on an opinion sheet is not uncommon, nor is the brave or truculent silence of a dissenting editor in the face of a story that has been taken in spite of his or her fervent objections: a turn of events that brings brief, rushing doubts about the future of Western civilization, or about the sanity of the Editor, who has had the last word. This is a weekly, thank God, and a few days later we fiction people are out in the hall exclaiming over a new manuscript, by an old standby or a total unknown, that has just gone the rounds: “Have you read it? Isn’t that terrific!” Some writer has made our day, and we are collegial once again, gleaming in reflected brilliance.

Just as there is no one way to write a story, there is no one way to edit it for publication, or to deal with its author over an extended period of time. What is being set down here, I mean, is one editor’s experiences and recollections of these semi-private matters—a selective history that cannot give proper honor to my departmental colleagues, past and present, or to writers whose work did not happen to come my way. What I noticed about bygone fellow fiction editors at the magazine—among them, Robert Henderson, William Maxwell, Robert Hemenway, Rachel MacKenzie, Frances Kiernan, Patricia Strachan, and Veronica Geng—was how much alike they were in their passion for their work, and how different in the ways they went about it. The same holds true for my present friends and everyday companions here, whose devoted attentions continue the long line of New Yorker stories—over six thousand of them so far—while properly encouraging its alteration, almost issue by issue, in directions unforeseen. Fiction is special, of course, for its text must retain the whorls and brush-splashes of the author: the touch of the artist. At the same time, the editor should not feel much compunction about asking the writer the same questions he would put to himself about a swatch of his own prose: Is it clear? Does it say what I wanted it to say? Is it too long? Does it sound right—does it carry the tone that I want the reader to pick up right here? Is it, just possibly, too short? And so on. (It’s no coincidence, by the way, that so many New Yorker fiction editors have also been writers.)

Some distinguished editors here have forsworn most such meddling, particularly with young contributors, on the theory that the writer almost always knows best. My own instincts lean the other way, for the obligation to preserve the sanctity of a neophyte’s script is counterbalanced by my hope that he will, by life habit, come to ask himself those short, tough questions as he writes along, never omitting the big question at the end: Is it good enough? Is it any good at all? Lifelong practitioners—the best ones, I’ve noticed—ask themselves this every day: that’s why they look the way they do (hunched over their word processors, or at the bar next door), which is like morticians.

That new story we exclaimed about will be brilliant, but perhaps not right away. A week has gone by, and its author—a young man in his twenties, let’s say, not previously published in The New Yorker or anywhere else—is in my office. We are sitting side by side at the desk, with his manuscript between us, and on its top page he finds some light pencillings and question marks. What’s this? The joyful, sunstruck expression he has worn ever since he got the good news fades a fraction; middle age, one could say, has just begun. They edit fiction here? “Don’t worry,” I say. “Let’s take a look. Down here, do you want these three whole lines about the dog, who doesn’t turn up again in the story until . . . until over here on page 11? Do you want to say something quicker about the dog? Up to you . . . But before this, up here at the top of the paragraph, I’m not sure why the father seems so bitter. Do you need to explain that, or have you made him seem angrier than you meant to? Well, let’s mark that and move on . . . Over here on page 4, just after Lucinda goes off in the truck, you’ve used this same construction for the third time in a row—you’ve got awfully fond of those dashes. Want to do it some other way? And then here’s your ‘dirgelike darkness,’ right in the middle of this wonderful scene. Can darkness have a sound ? What should we do about that?”

I pause and look at him. He is trying to decide whether I’m simply a bully or someone out to steal his writer’s soul. Perhaps it’s neither. How can he be persuaded that these are the same wireworms and dust balls that every writer discovers in the corners of his beautiful prose, no matter how carefully he has woven it and laid it down? The young man looks pale, and who can blame him? He feels himself at a brink. He wants to be an artist, but he also wants to be a pro. His words, which once looked so secure, so right, are beginning to let him down. Why is this all so hard? Why has the language suddenly turned balky? He needs time to think it over.

“Never mind the dashes,” I offer now. “I think they’ll work fine. And you can look at that ‘dirgelike’ later on, when this is all in type.”

We go on to the next page, and I have a passing brief memory of other writers, sitting just here to my left, as we bend over a manuscript or a proof together. William Maxwell, cheerfully x-ing out a proposed line change (marked “for clarity” at the margin of the galley), smiles and says, “I don’t want to be too clear.” Donald Barthelme, encountering a short paragraph with my “Omit?” at its flank, sighs and reddens. He is the cleanest of writers, and proud. “Well, yes, goddam it, if you say so,” he mutters at last. “I count on you to get the hay out.” And then it is my turn to wonder if I’m right. Later on, I may recall some words of William Shawn’s—the only advice about editing I ever heard him put forward. “It’s very easy to make somebody’s manuscript into the best story ever written,” he said. “The trick is to help the writer make it into the best story he can write on that particular day.”

If I could do it, I would invite the first-time author to come back on a day when I am sitting here with John Updike, going over the galley proofs of a story of his, or discussing them with him on the telephone. Updike has rewritten (in his angling pencilled handwriting) some lines of his, up on top of a long paragraph, and we are trying to decide about a word in the middle of one sentence. “Well, you may be right,” he says in his soft, musing way. “Which do you think sounds better?” He says the phrase with the word in it over to himself once or twice and makes a decision. The following day, after this and a dozen other burning trifling matters have been resolved, I overnight the revised page proofs to him at his home in Massachusetts, and two days later—on the morning the story must go to press—the proofs come back to me with the word and the whole section we discussed crossed out. The top of the paragraph has been redone in pencil, done differently: the content is the same, but the tone, the feeling, of the passage has shifted. Elsewhere on the proofs, Updike has altered some bits of punctuation, crossed out things, reworded something else. This is the way the story will appear in the magazine, and, later on, the way it will read in the next collection of Updike’s stories. The book will go into libraries, and into some school and college curricula, I imagine. The way the story reads—the words that students will find in the book and will believe were put down that way from the beginning, cut in stone—is only another stage in the struggle to get the writing to do its work: the version that the author and the editor had to let go of in the end.

The young writer’s own galleys (with some of the queries and suggestions taken, others not) will be finished up, too, one day, and he and I will shake hands, out by the elevators. The story will appear next week—a great moment for us both. He is launched, and his tippy little canoe will soon disappear round the bend, on a journey whose duration no one can tell. I don’t think he knows how short it may turn out to be, or how unimaginably long. “Let us hear from you,” I say.

Reading short-fiction manuscripts can be wearing and wearisome from day to day and week to week. Every human situation, every sort of meeting or conversation, is something you have read before or know by heart. But then here comes a story—maybe only a couple of paragraphs in that story—and you are knocked over. Your morning has been changed; you are changed. A young woman and her sister, a nun, are talking in the back yard in the evening, and Sister Mary Clare says that she is going to take a vow of silence. “Do you think it’s a bad idea?” she asks, and her sister says no, it’s a good idea.

“If you care, I’m not very happy,” Sister said.

“You were never happy,” Melissa said. “The last time I saw you laughing was the day that swing broke. Remember that day?”

Spare and pure, the story murmurs along to its ending. It is intimate and painful and then it stops, and these particular lives go on. It is Mary Robison’s “Sisters,” her first acceptance here—though not, I believe, her first submission. It was written in 1977 and now feels like part of its time, but what I felt when I came to those lines is still fresh and strong. Every fiction editor here has had such an experience, and eagerly waits for the next one.

That same era brought a freshet of striking fiction from Ann Beattie: along with the painful, sensual feelings of loss in those stories came assemblages of characters apparently insatiable for company but increasingly alone—young men and women talking and cooking, arriving from somewhere, telling stories, picking up on ironic details, patting the dog, getting drunk, changing the music, driving to town for pizza, waking up in the night, waiting for something else to happen. The titles—“Vermont,” “Tuesday Night,” “Shifting,” “Downhill,” “A Vintage Thunderbird,” “Colorado,” and the rest—are a generational montage now, but the stories remain vital news for anyone who read them when they were just written and just out.

“Epiphanies” became the chic, dismissing word for scenes of this kind, but other forms of the short story, arriving here in due course, seemed only to reach the same ends by a different route. Bobbie Ann Mason’s scrupulously detailed accounts of a younger K mart generation of Southerners, living in mobile homes and shabby condos and making do with the remnants of their parents’ lost rural America, brought characters less inclined to linger on what was happening around them but perhaps no less aware that something had been going wrong in their world. Mason is such a sharp noticer of down-home detail—her people make Star Trek needlepoint pillows, own cats named Moon Pie, unexpectedly find the name “Navratilova” floating in their heads, and know that “Radar Love” is a great driving song—that we sometimes don’t give her her full due as a chronicler of American loss. I remember once asking whether her men and women felt emotion without always finding ways to show it, and she said, “I don’t understand. I thought these stories were nothing but emotion.” Then, a year or two later, while she was finishing her poignant post-Vietnam novel, “In Country,” a section of which ran here in 1985, she called me and said, “The emotion has turned up. I don’t think I can stand much more of this.”

We editors wait for whatever it is that the writers are trying to discover, and sometimes it arrives here in surprising forms. Once, it arrived in a flash—a gas explosion in a parking lot, where some kids were listening to Bruce Springsteen over their radios and had flicked their lighters during “Born in the U.S.A.” That 1988 story, Alan Sternberg’s “Blazer,” was the first of his gritty, eloquent panoramas of southern Connecticut mechanics and builders and carpenters and cops and landfill inspectors toughing out hard times and industrial decline, along with their wives—who, all in all, were handling it a lot better than they were.

Stories and groups of stories work differently, and may require editors and readers to learn their particular tone and language before they can reach us, sometimes while an author is also struggling to find a direction or an opening that is not yet clear. Now and then, a writer stakes out an entire region of the imagination and of the countryside—one thinks of Cheever, Salinger, Donald Barthelme, and Raymond Carver, and now Alice Munro and William Trevor—which becomes theirs alone, marked in our minds by unique inhabitants and terrain. Writers at this level seem to breathe the thin, high air of fiction without effort, and we readers, visiting on excursion, feel a different thrumming in our chests as we look about at a clearer, more acute world than the one we have briefly departed. Reading Alice Munro’s tales (the old word fits here) brings back for me, every time, the mood of thrilling expectancy with which I read the entrancing events in all those variously tinted fairy-story collections of my childhood—“The Blue Fairy Book,” “The Yellow Fairy Book,” “The Grey Fairy Book,” and the rest. Trevor’s stories, by contrast, are quieting, but with the awful calm of acceptance: his precise, deadly stitchings of country or family circumstances and cruelties leave their victims, for the most part, silent or almost decorously murmurous in resignation.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s stories, arriving here (on crinkly, tightly typed airmail paper) from India in a steady stream through the sixties and seventies, moved at a pace that sometimes made me fidget or sigh impatiently for more action and swifter developments—but only while I was still in the early pages. Reading along, I would find myself slowing, and listening to the sounds and hours of a different continent, as I grew aware of the grinding societal weight with which lives were being fixed, in comical or gruesome or affecting fashion, in the multilayered modern India she knew so well. Mrs. Jhabvala, who is Polish but is married to an Indian architect, wrote, in the introduction to her last collection, “Out of India,” of her deep discomfort with the hypocrisies and ironies of her second country. “I have no heart for these things here,” she said, and, “All the time I know myself to be on the back of this great animal of poverty and backwardness.” Almost in self-defense, it appears, she watched and wrote. Her stories can be satirical (a wealthy, Anglicized young Indian, making out with a similarly modernized girl on a date, thinks, I am kissing a Parsee), or simultaneously touching and tough-minded (an old woman attempts to explain the lifelong passion that keeps her close to the elderly, Dutch-born sahib who has been her careless lover), or scarifying (in a similar situation, a police superintendent sexually mounts his Muslim mistress while encouraging her to pray out loud, after her fashion, on her knees). Jhabvala’s fiction runs more to novels these days, and since leaving India she has given most of her attention to screenwriting, as her Oscar-winning screenplays for the long-established Merchant-Ivory production company attest. It would be ungrateful to complain.

The movies have also snatched away a different but no less valued contributor, Woody Allen. Most of his work for this magazine, to be sure, came in the form of wild parodies and casuals, which isn’t quite what we’re talking about here, but at least one submission, “The Kugelmass Episode,” is a dazzling short story, a Koh-i-noor of the form—not the first attribute that would come to mind while one is wheezing or pounding one’s thigh in happiness over the C.C.N.Y. humanities professor Sidney Kugelmass, who, through the ministrations of a magician, is able to bring the live Emma Bovary to New York (he stashes her at the Plaza) and, conversely, to visit her at Yonville. Allen’s modest early submissions here so resembled the work of his literary hero S. J. Perelman that I had to remind him that we already had the original on hand; he saw the point and came up with the remedy, almost overnight. Those first casuals also seemed to carry a joke, or sometimes two or three jokes, in every sentence—something that didn’t work as well on the page as it did when one heard the same stuff during one of Woody’s standup routines at the Bitter End. “ Fewer laughs?” he said doubtfully, and, horrified at the thought, I nodded yes—yes, please.

“Whatever Works” should be the sampler that a fiction editor keeps affixed to his wall, or up over the water cooler. Mary Robison’s story “Yours” seemed to have some missing manuscript pages when it turned up in the mail in 1980, but after I’d read its seven hundred and ninety words it was plain that a single line more would be much less. “We” was the title of Mary Grimm’s 1988 story about a Midwestern working-class neighborhood of young newly married women friends, and the pronoun was repeated through multiple scenes, in paragraph after paragraph, as the group became less obsessed with sex and more with children, tried out recipes and new jobs, and grew older and more private together. The “we” was an impossibility, a trick, but one that became more pleasing and useful and right as the story moved to its terrific conclusion.

You never know. Edith Templeton’s engaging first-person stories of her childhood in the grand-monde nurseries and castles of Czechoslovakia in the nineteen-twenties, which ran here thirty years ago and more, offered no preparation for “The Darts of Cupid,” in 1968, a rending erotic love story about a married British woman working in the United States War Office outside London during the Second World War: a novella of power and perfection. Twenty-three years passed, and then here came her “Nymph & Faun,” a twisted tale about money and wills and antique silver and marital cruelty that unfolds, at length, in a writhingly intimate conversation between an art dealer and a reclusive older woman, a widow, who understand each other because each can speak the drawling, edged, deadly language of the British upper crust. Mrs. Templeton, who lives in Bordighera, on the Italian Riviera, readily admits that most of her stories are true stories, but this time the mining and extraction of a clear line of events from her many pages of manuscript, and then her early and late galley proofs (on which her interpolations, done in green ink, ran to dogs and artists, British naval parlance, psychiatry, Mayfair scandals, quotations from Dante and Isaac Singer and Thomas Mann, visits to a Maharaja and the King of Nepal, Hemingway’s suicide, and the workings of international art dealerships), produced from each of us long letters filled with questions and explanations but set down in tones of trust and mutual pleasure over the work we were engaged in together. It almost made me wish I’d been an antiquarian, so that I could concentrate on keeping hold of things instead of taking them out. We parted at last (we have never met), after exchanging a final thick set of airmailed galleys and agreeing that it was time to push this child out the door to fend for itself. I have at hand a page of her correspondence, discussing point 14, on galley 20, where she describes a figure of Dürer’s, in the story. “I’d like it to stand—hood, scythe, hourglass . . . death being alone, and not wanting to be had up for speeding.” And she adds, “As Goethe said of a painter, ‘He doesn’t paint red velvet, but the idea of it.’ ” Her stories, she wrote to me farther along in this letter, were “outside facts underpainted with subjective feelings”—a definition of fiction that will do as well as any other.

What becomes clear is that we can’t sum up this tough, shifting, indefinable medium with these samplings, or talk about a few New Yorker story writers while excluding the vital many, including those scores of contributors who gave us one or two or three wonderful works of fiction and then, for one reason or another, or for no apparent reason, could not or did not write more. To convey some idea of the long flow of fiction here, I can do no more than list a handful of splendid contributors, whose names and work will have to stand for the rest: Eudora Welty, Mavis Gallant, Gabriel García Márquez, Nancy Hale, Brian Friel, Jean Stafford, Jean Rhys, Edward Newhouse, Robert M. Coates, Peter Handke, Roald Dahl, Deborah Eisenberg, Milan Kundera, Mark Helprin, Michael Chabon, Tom Drury, Doris Lessing, Shirley Hazzard, Frederick Barthelme, Peter Taylor, Laurie Colwin, Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Adams, Cynthia Ozick, Nicholson Baker, Thom Jones.

There have been stories in this magazine that felt like nothing in the language that had come before, and there is great pleasure for me in thinking back to some of our predecessor fiction editors—among them Katharine White and Gus Lobrano and William Maxwell—and imagining what they must have felt when they first read John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” (or “Goodbye, My Brother” or “The Country Husband”); Frank O’Connor’s “My Da”; Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”; J. D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor”; Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lance”; Harold Brodkey’s “Sentimental Education”; Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”; and many others.

It’s funny, too, to look back at myself, thirty years ago, opening the stories from Donald Barthelme (with his name typed at the top left corner of the manila envelope) that first brought us his pasteups and headlines, the falling dog, the pitched street battles with bands of Comanches, the lost fathers, Eugénie Grandet and Montezuma and Hokie Mokie, and the seven men—Bill, Hubert, Kevin, and the others—living with Snow White while she dreams of princes and pushes her shopping cart. “What is this?” subscribers asked indignantly, and though it wasn’t always easy to frame an answer, what we all knew for certain, editors and readers (most of them) alike, was that we were lucky.

The new is alluring, but not always what matters most. What is more pleasing to a long-term editor or a loyal subscriber than to watch a master of fiction—a Prospero or a Jefferson of the form—as he walks his thematic acres and then, once again, falls to work? John Updike, unfailingly curious and spirited and reflective, circles back to the Maples, or to his native Pennsylvania small town, or to his mother and her death, reopening and revisiting lives and connections he has been setting down in these pages for forty years; and some of the late stories—“A Sandstone Farmhouse,” “His Mother Inside Him,” “Playing with Dynamite”—carry a grave power not touched by him before. William Maxwell goes home to his boyhood in Lincoln, Illinois, still again, to bring back a shocking sixty-year-old murder (that novel, “So Long, See You Tomorrow,” ran here in 1979), or to tell about his brother’s terrible accident, or to reconsider the complex, silent lives of the black servants in his family’s house and in other houses then, and, if we think at first that we have been there before, the story, without fail, will show us why this trip was essential for him and for us.

Weeks and stories go by, and one of the records that are being run up, one realizes, is a life’s work. V. S. Pritchett is as old as the century, and, while there is little about him that feels monumental, he is England’s grand master of the short story and our language’s presiding man of letters. He has been a contributor to this magazine for forty-five years, and, if he has at last laid aside his pen, the total of his published pieces here (stories and incomparable reviews and critical works), which stands at a pausing hundred and four, will always suggest that the next one may turn up in tomorrow’s mail. Reading the stories once again, we see the freedom he has felt with strangers and odd ducks, and hear his avidity for dialogue. Children and elders, clubmen and decorators, hairdressers and antiquarians and bullying menservants, cranky or sensual widows, and gardeners and shopkeepers and artists are on hand, in story after story, all crammed together, misunderstanding and mystifying each other, giving themselves away in noble or squalid fashion, startling themselves with life.

Sir Victor has always insisted that he is more craftsman than artist, and claims that plots are almost beyond him, but he is too modest. The three interconnected Noisy Brackett stories, which begin with “The Key to My Heart,” are made up of car chases, crooked business dealings, drunkenness, gossip, class snobbery, and comic invention: the ingredients of a Feydeau farce, one might say, except that they are also stuffed with heartbreak and sexual suffering. Rereading them, you relish the craftsmanship, but then your eye is caught, once again, by something else. Birds, for instance. I had remembered “. . . and the rooks came out of the elms like bits of black paper,” in “The Key to My Heart,” but not “A soft owl flew over the lane.” The short adjective, instead of the expected adverb, is art itself, and makes a place and a mood and a time of day, an entire scene, out of seven words.

Call back the interviewer. This is what we’re looking for in the fiction line: We want that owl. ♦

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Rachel Cusk Reads Marguerite Duras

By Deborah Treisman

André Alexis Reads “Consolation”


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