A special Rumpus lamentation with possible added pep talk.
So last week the New Yorker published their once-a-decade Fiction Issue, in which they printed eight stories, along with their list of 20 Writers Under 40.
I’ve read most of the stories by now, and I have to say: they’re pretty awesome. The Josh Ferris piece was dark and funny, a spot-on send-up of the Los Angeles fantasy machine. Phillip Meyer’s story was a bruiser, in the best way, and Rivka Galchen’s short totally slayed me. I’m in love with her voice. It was, in fact, an unmitigated pleasure to read such fine prose, to feel inspired toward deeper feeling, fresher language, new and tumultuous paths to the old verities.
I hereby congratulate every single one of the 20 Under 40 Writers. I know most of your work, though not as well as I should, and you all kick serious ass.
Likewise, I congratulate the New Yorker for being the one magazine that still devotes itself to the singular pleasures of short fiction – my first and final love. I can’t say that I adore every story you publish. But I recognize all of them as exceptional work.
I must now sadly interrupt this lovefest to confess one more thing: I found the 20 Under 40 issue totally depressing.
I could fabricate all kinds of supposedly legitimate reasons for this. I could say, “It’s a stunt that feeds the culture of literary celebrity.” Or, “It’s appalling that the New Yorker would privilege young writers in this way.”
But my reasons – like yours – are narcissistic and almost touchingly petty. I feel wounded.
Because here’s why: I spend most of my life doubting my legitimacy as a writer, not feeling that I suck exactly, but often convinced that I’m your basic mid-list hacker who will never write anything enduring, and therefore never be recognized by the various Bad Parents of literary legitimacy.
For whatever unassailable merits the New Yorker’s most recent list offers, it sends the basic message that they’ve chosen those writers who matter for the next decade – and by implication those writers who don’t.
Is this a totally solipsistic and self-pitying view of the situation? Hell yes. It also happens to be how most of the fiction writers out there feel deep down (my best estimate: 85 percent).
I’m not suggesting that I deserve to be on the New Yorker’s list. I’ve written a handful of stories – okay, maybe two – that might have merited serious consideration at the magazine.
I like to tell myself that my work is too overt in its emotional and moral concerns for the New Yorker, a line of reasoning that is frankly tiresome and perhaps fraudulent.
The truth is, I recognize the limits of my talent and drive. That’s the whole problem. I’m just good enough – as a writer and a reader – to recognize my spot in the pecking order. It feels slightly cruel to have that place by affirmed by the magazine I worship.
I remember when the New Yorker’s inaugural list came out. I was 33 years old, a full-time writer of short stories, most of them damned by the worst of all attributes: competence.
I knew at that point that I didn’t deserve to be among the luminaries pictured in that issue. But I read their stories, and studied their photographs, and I fantasized a good deal about what it might feel like to receive the golden touch of the anointed.
In my bent cosmology, the New Yorker always has represented the pinnacle of New York publishing. A lot of people grouse about the articles being too long, or the house style being too staid. But it’s the only slick I can even stand reading anymore, because it faithfully delivers the most precise and insightful prose on earth.
In my healthier moments, I viewed that initial list as an exhortation. Here was my chance to prove the Bad Parents of New York Publishing wrong.
In my less than healthy moments, I sat brooding and plotting, the default setting for the mid-list hacker. At one point, I grew so desperate to be known at the magazine that I submitted a short story with a letter addressed to the fiction editor Bill Buford, noting that “it was great to have talked with” him, and mentioning that I was enclosing the story he’d requested.
He wrote me a kind, if bemused, note of rejection, which I immediately posted on my wall.
My depression this time around is tempered with a certain strain of resignation. In the intervening years, I’ve managed to publish a handful of books, including two story collections. I’ve graduated, in other words, from wannabe to never-was.
I no longer worry about being the Next Big Thing. Those days are over. What I worry about is the essential internal struggle – which is against self-doubt and distraction and envy.
On bad days, it feels to me like the world of writers is a big, unhappy family, with thousands of children, all of them working so hard to be noticed and none of who get the attention they deserve. The culture at large has drifted away from the solitary pleasures of reading, toward the frantic enticements of commerce.
And so, too often, we turn on each other. Particularly when a Big Daddy like the New Yorker singles out his most talented children for praise. The rest of us are left feeling we’re doomed to obscurity, that these 20 hot young thangs are going to suck up every bit of cultural oxygen that exists for fiction writers.
The truth is, they will suck up a lot of that oxygen. They’re going to get book deals easier than you, and reviews easier than you. They’re going to find readers more easily than you. And here’s what really stings: for the most part, they’ll deserve the attention. There’s nothing you can do about any of this.
Actually, there is one thing you can do about this, which is to handle the situation with more grace and maturity than I seem to have mustered.
Your job as a fiction writer is to focus on your characters, and to ignore – to the extent you can – the rest of the bullshit. Your other option is to surrender to grievance, the very emotion state our Republican friends have used to infantilize this country.
Such feelings, how ever seductive, will do nothing to make your work any better. They are merely an old song you can’t shake.
It is perfectly natural – perhaps inevitable – to dream of being “discovered” and rocketed to the top of the Bestseller list. As Americans, we’ve been trained to dream in this way.
But the real life of a writer resides in showing up at the keyboard every day, with the necessary patience and mercy, and making the best decisions you can on behalf of your people. It’s a slow process. It often feels hopeless, more like an affliction than an art form.
Most of us will have to find our readers one by one, in other words, and against considerable resistance. If anything qualifies us as heroic, it’s that private perpetual struggle.
Put down the magazine, soldier. Forget about the other guy. Remember who you are.