The following stories were originally published in the June 8 & 15, 2015 “Summer Fiction” issue of The New Yorker.

  • Zadie Smith: “Escape from New York” (click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage)
  • Jonathan Safran Foer: “Love Is Blind and Deaf” (click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage)
  • Primo Levi: “Quaestio de Centauris” (translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee) (click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage)
  • Jonathan Franzen: “The Republic of Bad Taste” (click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage)
  • Karen Russell: “The Prospectors” (click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage)

June 8 & 15, 2015 It’s that time of year! Yet, sadly, I’m not as excited as I usually am. For me, other than Levi, these authors have been trending down, but I have no problems seeing that change with this issue. Again, we’ll provide some initial thoughts above, and we look forward to discussions about the stories and the issue in general below!


Zadie Smith: “Escape from New York”Smith Escape from New York From Adrienne: Initial impression? I think I tricked myself into some sort of word association at first — instead of “Escape from New York” it registered in my brain as something similar to Escape from Alcatraz. It isn’t that. It is a comedy set into motion by a tragedy. This story examined the way we search ourselves, our companions, when terror strikes and there is a moment, many moments, to reflect. I listened to it on the SoundCloud provided as I was unloading groceries. I kept becoming upset with Zadie Smith for the ultra-feminine voice she used for the character of Michael. It was quite distracting. As a writer, a storyteller, couldn’t she fashion another voice for him? And then I read the Page-Turner interview with her, and discovered that the high-pitched voice was intended to be the voice of Michael Jackson. Marlon was Brandon and Elizabeth was Liz Taylor. Then the story changed even more in my head! It became more amusing, and yet more tragic. The constant fast-food trips — not coming to a unified plan and then eating and waiting for the next meal — sounded child-like, continuing the sensation I had after the first paragraph that the narrator was a man-child. Someone who should be able to function normally, but didn’t . . . couldn’t. I was unsure why I was listening to a story about the extremely wealthy and recognizable. There was a part of me that did not care about their experience with 9/11. But I was drawn in by the macabre humor that comes only when fear, grief, are too deep to bear. I enjoyed it. It was a story — almost like “stories” we read when younger — fantastic, whimsical, true emotion, not cluttered with long scenery and weather . . . It was light. It was simple. It was well-written. An expansion on an urban myth that ended with a beautiful paragraph. Ah, the wry pleasures in being normal and suffering in the exact way everyone else is. I will read now with images of “Thriller,” The Godfather, and National Velvet in my head.


Jonathan Safran Foer: “Love Is Blind and Deaf”Foer Love Is Blind and Deaf The last time I read anything by Foer was when he was inducted into The New Yorker’s 2010 “20 Under 40” series. I was one of the only readers here who liked “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly,” a two-page story some read as a mere gimmick. With this issue, Foer is back with another incredibly short story, this one dealing with a blind Adam and a deaf Eve who “lived together happily for a few days.”

I’m afraid I didn’t care for it. Gimmicky? Maybe not, but too clever by ten:

And, at a certain point, with no awareness of the incremental process that had led them there, they were fully cured of their blindness and deafness. Cured, too, of their marital felicity. . . . . And then the first bruises spread across the first knees, as the first humans whispered the first prayers: Diminish me until I  can bear it. But God refused them, or ignored them, or simply didn’t exist enough.

For me, the story was fake. “It worked until it didn’t.” Excuse me? Cleverness, on its own, is not profound. The ending is not clever, though, and certainly seeks to be profound on its own. Instead, it’s just a mess.


Primo Levi: “Quaestio de Centauris”Levi It’s always nice to see The New Yorker find something from the past that, until now, few have seen. Earlier this year, we got a story from Isaac Bashevis Singer, which I enjoyed, and now we get one from Primo Levi, who killed himself in 1987. His writings are supremely important, and I’ve heard good things about this particular story already. I’m looking forward to this one, and I look forward to the thoughts below.


Jonathan Franzen: “The Republic of Bad Taste”Franzen Oh dear. I knew this excerpt from Franzen’s forthcoming novel, Purity, was coming, but when I heard it would be included in the Summer Fiction issue I was sad. Is anyone going to read this “story”? Is anyone going to read the novel? Next.


Karen Russell: “The Prospectors”Russell The Prospectors I used to look forward to stories from Karen Russell, the second alum from 2010’s “20 Under 40” here, who also had a story in last year’s fiction issue. For the last few years, though, mostly since her debut novel Swamplandia!, I haven’t liked much of her work. Again, it always feels too clever, any profundity an illusion rather than true. Still, I find myself curious here. I look forward to thoughts below!

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53 Comments

  1. Lee Monks June 4, 2015 at 3:33 am

    I’m not sure I want to read anything else by Zadie Smith or Karen Russell. I think they’re both skilled writers but I can’t face it. Too cute or too gimmicky.

    The Safran Foer sounds painful.

    I’ll have to at least try to read Purity. I’ve read plenty about the response to Franzen’s murky sexual politics and am intrigued as to what he’s upto. Is he basically a bounder now? He fascinates me a little, and he always manages to rub countless people up the wrong way. I think he’s a good writer.

    Like everyone else I’m looking forward to Levi.

  2. Trevor Berrett June 4, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the Franzen, Lee! I do not like his work or his persona, but I do care about your opinions :-) .

    All that said, I’ve never come across a sentence that more completely encapsulates my disdain than this opener to his New Yorker post on “Carbon Capture” (which you can read here):

    Last September, as someone who cares more about birds than the next man, I was following the story of the new stadium that the Twin Cities are building for their football Vikings.

  3. Adrienne June 4, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    2 more down!

    Love is Blind and Deaf – I was so excited to read a tale about Adam and Eve – some of my favorite folks! And what I found here was a false story. It wasn’t just false because the facts were not accurate, but also because there was no truth to the fantasy being shared. There are no Seven Dwarves or a poisoned apple but we BELIEVE. There ARE these dwarves, and we care whether or not Snow White eats the apple. Here? This Garden of Eden? I did not believe. Nor did I care to.

    Quaestio de Centauris – This one was definite contrast to Foer’s story. I actually believed in centaurs and in their feelings and living circumstances. The long backstory gave history, characters, and set-up that were truthful. I did not question the existence of a centaur living in some young man’s barn. But I did not feel the sudden, bursting ending was congruent to the beginning. It felt jarring and out of place. Like two different stories within the one tale…

  4. Lee Monks June 5, 2015 at 2:45 am

    Trevor: that is, without any argument, an odious opening paragraph. For so many reasons…I’ll (with added trepidation) read the Franzen piece later and let you know!

  5. Joe June 7, 2015 at 9:13 pm

    I just read the story by Karen Russell. I was looking forward to it because I hadn’t read anything by her before. I thought the first half was terrific, in a sort of Alice Munro way. About halfway through the story there is a tremendous and unfortunate turn of the plot and after that I felt like I was reading young-adult fiction for the zombie and vampire crowd. Very disappointing.

    I hate to be a Gloomy Gus, but I was also really put off by the Zadie Smith story. Normally I’m a big fan of her work, but this piece felt like something she wrote to read aloud at a party with her friends. I think it’s difficult to write a story about larger-than-life figures like Michael Jackson, Liz Taylor, and Marlon Brando, and this one seemed to be based on easy stereotypes about the celebrities. I know Zadie Smith is capable of better thinking than what I saw in this piece.

    Those are the only stories from the issue that I have read so far, but I am keeping my fingers crossed for better things to come.

  6. Sean H June 7, 2015 at 9:37 pm

    Started with the Zadie Smith and went in with high hopes because I’m usually a big fan of her work but my god that was awful. The CLASSIC case of “If it had been written by someone less famous it never would stand a chance of being published in The New Yorker.” In fact, most undergraduate writing classes would’ve savaged that nonsense. That’s something a 19 year-old thinks is clever at 3 in the morning when they’re stoned and then two days later realizes it’s absolute dreck. Worst thing I’ve ever read by Zadie Smith and one of the most awful stories I’ve ever read in The New Yorker. Just dreadful from top to bottom. I’ll report back in when I get to the other pieces. The Safron Foer I probably won’t even attempt because he’s so noxious but everything else I’ll try to get to..

  7. Archer June 8, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    I also had expectations for the Zadie Smith. I thought her story, The Embassy of Cambodia, was one of the best the magazine has run in recent years. But I agree, this latest one was truly, painfully awful. It seemed she was going for some kind of literary ventriloquism, and it just did not work for me at all, even as an experiment. Terribly unfunny and misjudged from start to finish. I also like Smith generally, especially her essays. But I think her fiction set in England is vastly superior to her fiction set in America. She’s often praised as a writer of dialogue, but am I the only one who thinks she has a real tin ear for American dialogue? Very jarring and inauthentic.

    I didn’t read the Franzen piece, but I’ll complain about it anyway. Not only is it a novel excerpt, but it’s a very LONG excerpt. TNY doesn’t often run long fiction pieces anymore; that seems to be the trend nowadays. But if they’re going to give a writer so much space, I’d much prefer to get a proper short story.

    I don’t have much hope for Russell or Foer, but I’m hoping Primo Levi will save the day!

  8. lotusgreen June 8, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    Oh my my my. Reading the above felt like being involved in a pile-up on the interstate. I have an undeveloped theory — that The New Yorker used to be, you know, 40s, 50s, 60s, the place to be published. Almost that they were doing a favor to anyone they published, but not really a favor, because of the respect on both sides of the manuscript. But an honor, for sure.

    To be published in the New Yorker was to have arrived at some plateau in one’s work life. Today one gets the feeling it’s more like all day publicists calling, “I can let you have a Morrison excerpt, she’s big, she’s very big (oh I wasn’t referring to that, now stop that!) — she’ll open the doors to a whole new audience….”

    Like writers are doing the New Yorker a favor. Blame the many major shifts of the publishing industry; blame the internet, blame the fiction editor, whatever…. it doesn’t serve us, the readers, it doesn’t serve the writers, and it doesn’t serve the magazine itself. I can almost hear the drool dropping from all the way out here.

    Speaking of drool, I needed an umbrella for all the stories in that issue — I’d start reading then get pee’d on not very far in. Then I came to The Prospectors; I loved it!! Oh I’m reading along, juicily savoring every morsel, loving the style, the situation, the characters, and everything else. I kept being called away, but then I’d be all excited to be getting back to it…. until…. WHAT????? They’re dead???!!!????? Oh was I ANGRY!!! Sad, disappointed, pissed off, and ANGRY!!!! Personally offended and betrayed. I mean ANGRY.

    Grrrrrrrrrr.

    I’m still angry.

  9. Joe June 8, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    In response to lotusgreen, I had a similar feeling of anger after I read the Karen Russell story. I did stay with it until the end (which required an effort on my part) and felt like a bit of a chump for doing so. It just seemed like such an incredible waste of time and a waste of pages in the magazine.

    I do think it is possible to write a good story that starts the way Russell’s did and ends up in the realm of the dead, but this particular story felt like it derailed midway through and then was handled in such a heavy-handed way. As you said, it was a betrayal of what came before.

    I just wonder if anyone at the NYer has any sense of readers’ responses. (Do the editors check this blog? :-) In the old days, you’d fire off a letter to Mr. Shawn (and you’d probably get a personal reply). These days, there are lots of ways to communicate via email, their web site, etc., but I wonder if anyone is listening.

  10. Trevor Berrett June 8, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    Oh boy, I see what lotusgreen means by the pile up. I hope that folks who have read and liked a story will still speak up and defend it! Not that the rest of us should keep our sour opinions to ourselves :-) either!

    I feel bad that this is the summer fiction issue . . .

  11. lotusgreen June 8, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    I remember when the Summer Fiction Issue always meant a blond in a red dress.

    Anyway….

    Conversation started February 13

    2/13, 12:31pm

    Lotus Green
    Dear Ms. Treisman,

    I am curious about your choices for fiction in The New Yorker. Perhaps I’m asking about your “philosophy” of fiction; perhaps I’m asking about your taste… I don’t believe I can quantify it that finely, and rather, I’ll just lay out my questions:

    Since around June of last year, a really high percentage of your choices have been in the, hmmm, not-for-real camp. There’ve been surreal tales, mythical ones, symbolism, magical realism, fairy-tale-derived, or even fairly cartoonish.

    These made up 25-30% of all that’ve been run in that time period. That’s quite a high percentage, unless you personally are really saying something with that.

    And considered in the light of the other stories you’ve run, even more curious. Another quarter to a third run in this period are about druggies, some including hallucinations. And the last roughly half, or most of it is filled with the most dysfunctional families one might ever want to meet (or likely not meet). Yes, there has been the occasional “love story,” but very few and far-between. Please understand, I’m not saying I want more love stories!

    What I am saying, rather asking, is why? Do you have a guiding principle? Do you not like the old scenario of actual people experience something, change, grow, whatever, but that we as readers are taken through the process with them, somehow, rather than having to wade through the over-story to get to the real one down below? Am I saying I want all characters like me? Of course not, but I would like the characters to be just that, characters, rather than caricatures. And yes, it’s harder to say what I’d prefer because that would presume that I wanted them all to be alike which I don’t.

    Please forgive my cheekiness, but I’m curious.

    Thank you.

    Lily Pond aka lotusgreen

    February 17

    2/17, 7:19am

    Deborah Treisman

    Dear Lily,

    There’s no conspiracy to choose stories with specific themes or content. It just happens sometimes that we receive a wave of strong stories with overlapping themes or styles. If you looked at New Yorker stories from other years, you might find quite different groupings jumping out at you.

    In any case, I hope you’ll find more stories to your taste in the magazine in 2015, and thanks for writing.

    Best wishes,

    Deborah Treisman

    February 18

    2/18, 7:50am

    Lotus Green

    Thanks for your response, Deborah. I used to publish a magazine and did experience that same thing fairly regularly. Re: finding more stories to my taste… there’s no doubt about that.

    Lily

  12. lotusgreen June 8, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    Oh — that was through private messaging on Facebook.

  13. Dan June 8, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    I’ll start by piling on. The Safran Foer was puerile and stupid; the Smith was somehow so much worse. I’m totally with Lily on the Russell: started off promisingly, and then–holy shit, zombies? Give me an f-ing break. And I’ve really liked Russell before (Her story, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is wonderful and so very memorable). The Levi was brilliant and oh so human. I actually thought, contra Adrienne, that the ending was totally earned.

    Now, the Franzen. My feelings here are complicated. I hate Franzen, I hate his writing, and I absolutely loathed “Freedom”. Although an infrequent commenter here, I think my preference for “real” short stories as opposed to novel excerpts from big names is well known. So “The Republic of Bad Taste” had many strikes against it going in, and I started this piece with something more than trepidation. But . . . but . . . but, I found myself drawn in. The language was so direct, almost as though he was just narrating events. The motivations and actions–not to mention the setting–were interesting and raised questions.

    Don’t get me wrong: there is stuff in there that is just ridiculously stupid (“He had to kill the man he’d always been, by killing someone else.” Really? That’s what you’ve got?), and the sexual politics are as terrible as you’d expect from Franzen, but at least it was readable, someone fell in love, and someone changed.

    I really wanted to just hate this piece. As it is, I both hated it and had some grudging respect for it. So there’s a win for the New Yorker and Franzen, right?

  14. Sean H June 8, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    Read the Franzen today and I guess the best thing I can say about it is that it’s a page-turner. His facility with plot is really impressive, it’s a long piece but it remains kinetic and dynamic throughout. I prefer old angry young man Franzen as opposed to new Oprah’s buddy Franzen, and I can honestly say there are probably only three or four writers living who’ve written a novel as good as The Corrections, but overall this piece didn’t impress me at the level of the writing. I expected more precision, more lyricism, more brilliant sentences. I appreciate that he’s doing something different and maybe a pared down thriller of sorts is what he’s going for (or maybe it’s only one section of the larger work and the other sections are written in different styles) but overall I found it a little lacking in depth. Nicely plotted and fast-moving though.

  15. Trevor Berrett June 9, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Madwomanintheattic left this comment over on the post for Justin Taylor’s “So You’re Just What, Gone?” (here). I am copying it here because I think it’s quite relevant to our thoughts on this year’s fiction issue.

    The tenor of this forum has changed, I think, and I’m sorry – and perhaps it’s because of general disenchantment with the New Yorker, but I think it’s more than that. I’m always several weeks behind in my reading, but whenever I finished a piece of fiction, I rushed to see what Betsy especially, but other keen analysts as well made of the story. Betsy’s detailed exegeses were always a starting point for my own thoughts; she kick-started me into considering an opinion. Relatively recently, however, the discussions have been more about general theories of fiction, or of what constitutes “good writing” (can you hear me gagging from where you’re reading), or the purposes thereof. To my mind, The New Yorker is not only featuring younger writers, but its advertising revenue depends on attracting a younger readership which, forgive me dear fellow commentators here, is not you. If you are yearning for more William Trevor or Alice Munro, you are not the people the New Yorker is courting. I think of Alice Munro’s frequent treatment of the same topic of sexual predation, and I recognize that her characters do not have texting capability, or emoji (who knew that plural of emoji is emoji, speaking of learning from fiction), or Instagram, and I understand that the tenor of this forum has changed perhaps because (with the notable exception of young Julian) we are OUT OF IT, kids. P.S I’m wholly with Rosalind on this story.

  16. Trevor Berrett June 9, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    I am very interested in responses to and elaborations on Madwomanintheattic’s comment.

    I agree that the tenor here has changed. Betsy’s absence contributes, and I think I had a hand when I announced my own disappointment in The New Yorker‘s offerings and changed things up here a bit.

    I’m curious if many of us have aged out of their target audience. I’m not so sure. I’m 35 and have been reading the magazine for around 15 years. I actually would have thought that I’d just moved into their target age demographic. I also spent almost half of those years in New York City, so I also don’t think I’m unable to appreciate the magazine just because I’ve since moved to the west. I’m not necessarily putting up a hard dispute of madwomanintheattic’s comment, but I’m trying to find my place in it.

    I’ve definitely been a bigger fan of the “old” stories this year: the double punch of I.B. Singer and Elizabeth Harrower in midwinter really hit my sweet spot. But the Toni Morrison that followed? No thanks. As for the younger writers, I’ve been thrilled to see work from Callan Wink (thought it’s been a while) and Thomas Pierce, even if Pierce’s last was not a favorite.

    But with selections like this week’s . . . Their target audience seems to be those who have simply heard the big names — Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Karen Russell, Zadie Smith — and not those who’ve, in some way or another, dedicated a great deal of time to wrestling with fiction.

    I realize I’ve taken the comment out of context a bit when I bring it here from Justin Taylor’s thread (and I have liked Justin Taylor’s work in the past, too), but some of its contents are of general application. I’m very interested in what folks have to say.

  17. Lee Monks June 9, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    Franzen sounds bored. Really, truly, tragically uninspired. And since and including Freedom (as readably unmemorable as I found that) I’ve felt he’s not enjoying writing. You’re probably aware of his ritual of rolling up to his room each day, replete with iPod playing one continuous ‘pink noise’ track, no internet in case he gets distracted by tits.com, switching on the laptop and banging away until he begrudgingly hits the 1500-word count. This is how he puts it, as though he need ever write another word. I agree about The Corrections – I think it’s fantastic. It’s like Philip Roth meets the DeLillo of White Noise. This extract reads like under-duress Martin Amis of Pregnant Widow vintage. Functional, tired. Grimly determined, fuelled by dyspepsia. Maybe he should just write an airport novel to mark time.

  18. Lee Monks June 9, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Trevor: I think I can say two words about the New Yorker and avoid a yawnsome comment about writers who can’t do short-form pieces and revenue issues et al.

    ‘Tom Hanks’.

    I agree with Lily. That is how I look at the New Yorker: as a two-way benchmark. Writer getting that key approval and platform; magazine furthering its rep as an excellence arbiter/barometer. I clearly need a reality check.

  19. lotusgreen June 9, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    Old? Yes, blissfully. In the way? Not even close. The day literature hands itself up only to the young is the day that we find cereal boxes and bus schedules in the libraries. That discussion of fiction, in a place where fiction is bell, book, and candle, should seem out of place is, I think, questionable. What else should we be discussing? Sandwich recipes? Please.

    But, or So, to challenge myself, I have plucked an old paperback from an upper shelf: Anti-Story Anthology: Experimental Fiction by Philip Stevick, with John Barth, Heinrich Boll, Joyce Carol Oates, Eugenio Montale, Nathalie Sarraute, Julio Cortazar, etc. http://www.amazon.com/Anti-Story-Anthology-Experimental-Philip-Stevick/dp/002931500X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1433879131&sr=8-1&keywords=%22anti-stories%22 I’m going to read that now, something that in 1971, I presume, was “out there,” that those fogies wouldn’t understand.

    I guess the impulse is to see what I learn from doing so. If I think the stories are wonderful (and the Boll, the first, so far, is) what will that mean? That though they were new then they’re old now? That good writing is good writing? That the New Yorker needs a new fiction editor? God knows. But I’ll let you know, for sure, and will be very interested in hearing your thoughts too.

  20. Adrienne June 9, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    This thread has been fun to read. I am a neophyte to contemporary fiction… I fell in love with 19th century literature and found that it affected my writing negatively (or so my writing group said – hmmmm….) So I am new to Franzen and Froer and Rushdie and Munro and Smith and even Carver- just read my first Carver this year.

    This has certainly made me rethink all I was taught about the short story (the rules a la Vonnegut and Poe).

    If I like it – I like it. I try to find the reasons why when I share whether or not I liked it. Maybe there is a mathematical formula for the perfect story, like there is supposed to be in music… maybe there is a “right” way or an expectation. Maybe there isn’t.

    Art changes with time. Chekhov? Would The New Yorker publish him today? Or Dickens? Would they publish an excerpt from Virginia Woolf? Who knows… Do they have a “mission statement” for their fiction somewhere? Are we privy to it?

    The New Yorker has afforded me a place to begin to explore contemporary shorter fiction. So, for now, I am not disenchanted. I am going along for the ride. Give me time to become disgruntled. I am sure it will happen…? But do I HAVE to like art? Or do I have to be affected by it? Don’t know yet. Some things I like. Some things expand me but anger me. Some things I turn from never to return. I like the opportunity to TALK about the stories – decide how I feel about them. And I love to hear/read what others have to say…

    As for Franzen’s story: ick. That’s the first impression. I put it down three different times before forcing myself to finish it. It was gritty, explicit, sad, disturbing. But folks were right – there was something compelling about it. A story of redemption – of a nation, of a man, of a girl… Redemption does not always mean bread or shorter lines or true felicity in freedom. Or love. It just means a release and a change of heart regardless of the externals.

    Did I like it? No. I didn’t like his writing voice. It seemed stuttered, choppy, robotic. I didn’t like the depth with which we inhabited Andreas’ head. It bothered me on a personal level even though it offered the strong contrast needed for the redemption to be believable. It was indeed too long for my tastes, though came within the two hours or lest required by Poe’s rules. And I had a hard time following some of the identifying pronouns – like I lost a character for a second.

    Would I read it again. Nope. Did it make me think? Yes.

    Do I feel it belongs in this magazine? I have no context yet only having been reading it for a few months.

    I do feel it is a cop-out to publish excerpts. This is not a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book…

    I am almost afraid to be disappointed now with Russell’s story from reading the above, but we’ll see. I like to find the good where I can.

  21. Archer June 10, 2015 at 12:26 am

    I really enjoyed the Primo Levi story. I thought it was a work of rich detail and imagination, and it put me in the authoritative hands of a master. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for the Jonathan Franzen piece. I agree with Adrienne’s complaints about the writing being choppy and robotic. I thought there was a marked stylistic shift from The Corrections to Freedom, and this excerpt would indicate that Franzen is continuing with his page-turner prose. It kept me reading, but it’s not terribly interesting beyond the superficial. And Dan is totally right about his sexual politics. They’re problematic, to say the least.

    I don’t get the sense that all the posters here are necessarily “old” (however that’s defined). My impression is that quite a few of us are, say, under 40. And I don’t think that hankering for more Alice Munro means we’re out of touch; I’m quite certain the magazine would happily continue to print her stories if she kept writing them. (In fact, I’m pretty sure that the arrival of a new Munro story would be an event that would generate more attention that all the writers in this summer issue combined.) Like others stated above, the problem seems to be that the powers in charge are often more intent on publishing “names” than finding exceptional fiction. If they had space for Tom Hanks or that awful Sheila Heti story from a few weeks back, why not publish work from someone like Lydia Davis, a great vanguard writer, and one of the most distinctive short fiction voices in America? I checked out the archives and saw that TNY has only published one Davis story — fifteen years ago! It’s especially dispiriting when one remembers that the magazine regularly published a writer like Donald Barthelme once upon a time.

    In answer to Joe’s query about whether TNY editors are aware of this blog and the comments here, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. It seems to be one of the few places on the Internet where one gets immediate reactions to the stories, and I’d imagine that would be of interest. And after that Chinelo Okparanta debacle, we must be on their radar! ;)

  22. Ken June 10, 2015 at 5:00 am

    I agree about the tenor changing. I just read the Zadie Smith and how can the tenor not change when this garbage (almost as dreadful as last week’s ego trip by Rushdie) is published. What is there to say about writing like this besides hissing and rage.

  23. Adrienne June 10, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    I finished The Prospectors. And I am glad I was forewarned. It was so promising at the beginning… beautiful prose and interesting characters. I loved these lines “pouring bright malice into the fruit punch in the form of a mentally deranging Portuguese run… Together, the Finisterre women smoothed arguments and linens.” And the description of the sweater – “a covering so thin could erase her bruises”… Ahhh… the visuals were great.

    And then it happened – THE TURN. It was as if Russell started a wonderful story, paused to get herself a drink and then was distracted by something on Netflix. It was as if finished by a completely different author. Like reading a manuscript newly discovered by a classic author and finished by a high school student for a writing assignment.

    This is my first reading of Karen Russell. I saw an interview with her and Junot Diaz (through the New Yorker on YouTube) and I found her quiet (compared to Junot Diaz – who isn’t?) and reserved. It seemed that she likes the magical, the superstitious, the slightly left of reality. So maybe the idea isn’t what threw me – I mean, spoken aloud it is an interesting plot line. Two young Depression-era women stumble upon a lodge filled with dead CCC workers, and instead of stealing from the living, the dead almost take their lives… It was the presentation and the sudden shift from promising to broken promise that left me cheated.

    The ending was also sudden and without a sense of closure. I know not all stories have closure, per se, but I put it down and said, “and…?” It’s tenor did not match the beginning or the middle. Maybe it was time for another drink and another Netflix show… who knows…

    So we request more variety of TNY and less “glamorous” writers? If so, I agree. But I still take each story as it comes. For me, it isn’t about the writer or even the magazine. It’s about a story.

    What other publications are folks happy with for fiction? I’ve been reading some random ones from the Atlantic and Paris Reviews, as well as the Best American Short Stories collections…

  24. Trevor Berrett June 10, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    So we request more variety of TNY and less “glamorous” writers?

    I think that’s a large part of it. Too much of this issue feels like the magazine equivalent of “click-bait.” I don’t necessarily request more variety per se (if they hit a treasure trove and want to publish ten stories by the same author that’s fine with me), and I don’t think the writers themselves need to be less glamorous (if all ten stories turn out to be by Karen Russell, that’s fine); I just wish it were more apparent they were selecting stories based on quality and not merely because of the name of the author.

    Though I do think it’s much more complicated at the front lines in the actual editorial office, I really do question the good faith of the magazine. This issue — the yearly fiction issue — is a mess. It really does feel like the question going in was not “what should we publish” but rather “who can we publish”: “Oh, let’s see if we can get a story from Karen Russell. And Jonathan Safran Foer is a good sport.” I still shudder when I consider Foer’s story in this issue.

    Speaking of Foer, his third novel, Escape from the Children’s Hospital, was due to be published in 2014. I don’t know what has happened with it. Presumably some tidying up, which is a refreshing thought.

  25. Trevor Berrett June 10, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    I love that today my blog is running advertisements for Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.

  26. Sean H June 11, 2015 at 4:22 am

    Got to the Karen Russell and found it wanting as well (she’s never impressed me for a half a second though, and how AWP dropped down from Annie Proulx to her as keynote speaker from one year to the next I have no idea). Overall this is the worst summer fiction issue I can recall in my ten plus years as a subscriber. There’s just not a real winner in the bunch and as a whole they’re not even average or passable, they’re downright sophomoric and inane.
    I have no problem with courting a younger demographic and the New Yorker has always been a trend-follower more than a trendsetter, from its fascination with Eastern European fiction writers every other issue it seemed like in the early oughts, then it’s similarly consistent obsession with Junot Diaz (ooh, cursing and Spanglish, oh my, we’re getting “edgy” over here at Eustace’s place), but they need to publish quality fiction. I may disagree with their book reviewers, but the writing is always articulate and eloquent. The piece on Nell Zink recently (by K. Schulz) was quite illuminating. But why not put writing of Zink’s quality and freshness in the fiction issue then?
    Even the one-pagers on “time travel” were crappy. The best of the lot was the Thomas McGuane piece but even that felt more like a dashed off recollection, minor work, something that couldn’t fully blossom into a short story or a novel segment so instead of throw it away entirely he crammed it into the time travel theme.
    There have been some good pieces this year (Kundera, Brownstein) but again, this fiction issue was a bomb of Gigli-esque proportions.

  27. Lee Monks June 11, 2015 at 8:52 am

    “There’s just not a real winner in the bunch and as a whole they’re not even average or passable, they’re downright sophomoric and inane.” “…this fiction issue was a bomb of Gigli-esque proportions.”

    Sean, as you’re an agog subscriber, I hope someone connected to the New Yorker is reading this. There would seem to be a general, withering consensus amongst the commenters here. The newer pieces are disastrous. There is a worrying blind-spot amongst the editors: perhaps it’s time for a change? I can’t believe they wouldn’t find a ‘ten-plus years subscriber’ along with all the other bemused onlookers responding as you have deeply worrying. It’s a publication in sharp decline. For every first-year Uni student charmed by the bumper ‘names’ nature of the issue, its awfulness may put off two older, no less relevant fans. I suspect low-level FIFA-esque shenanigans afoot: favouritism, publishing clique networks, a weakness for hip authors regardless of end product.

  28. lotusgreen June 11, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    Would anyone have a problem with my inviting Treisman to read and participate in this particular post?

  29. Joe June 11, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    I think it would be great to invite her to read and respond to the comments in this thread. I think it’s clear that there is a lot of disappointment and frustration with this issue of The New Yorker, and I think our concerns/complaints are legitimate. After all, we are all pretty well informed readers. I have had my subscription to the magazine for about 25 years, and have probably read at least 80% of the fiction pieces over that period. I can’t remember a complete shipwreck like the current issue.

  30. lotusgreen June 11, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    sent:

    Hi Again, Ms. Treisman.

    For the past year I’ve been involved with a website whose major purpose is to discuss the stories in the New Yorker each week. Generally there is the great tumble of disagreement, with one articulate commenter after another raising interesting points.

    The discussion has turned somewhat unanimous, though, for this new Summer Fiction Issue. There have been a lot of serious comments both from long-time New Yorker subscribers and from relative newbies.

    In fact, so much has turned up that a wish has been expressed for you to come, read the post and comments, and join in expressing your views, perspectives, etc. We would love for you to drop by and let us know your thoughts. Thank you

    Lily Pond
    The New Yorker Summer Fiction Issue
    The 2015 summer fiction issue of The New Yorker is now available, featuring stories from Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, Primo Levi, Jonathan Franzen, and Karen Russell. Read the full post.
    mookseandgripes.com
    Chat Conversation End

  31. Ken June 13, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    I thought Franzen’s piece was good. I agree there’s something gross here–a male fantasy of saving a lost, but of course beautiful–interesting women must be pretty!–, teenage girl but also a very good page-turner (as noted above). I thought the scene where he plays with time and different mental states as Andreas waits for the victim, was pretty masterful. I don’t feel this is tossed off at all, but very well crafted. In contrast, the Safran-Foer and Smith (which I commented on already) were lousy. I enjoyed the Levi well enough, but it’s pretty thin stuff. What a sad issue. Triesman should be replaced by James Wood. That’s my comment.

  32. Greg June 15, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    Thank you Ken and Sean for your comments. I really appreciate both of your keen insight!

  33. Madwomanintheattic June 15, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    Ah, ok. I conflated, in the post that Trevor generously re-posted here, three thoughts. Please let me try to clarify:

    1) I perceive the tenor of the conversation here to have changed because it has broadened, and I wish it had not. I want to read thoughts only about one particular story at a time (perhaps sparingly expended with germane commentary relating to the works of that writer) and not a general discussion of literature, of writing, or composition, or of the flowers in your garden or the detritus of your past experience of reading.

    In other words, I miss Betsy, who kept those margins.

    2) I adore Alice Munro, and think that it does not matter how old you are when you read and admire her work. My comments using her work as an example were really a (weak) riposte to the people who were shocked and annoyed by the kind of sexual detail in Justin Taylor’s “So You’re Just What, Gone?” Alice Munro is, of necessity, a writer of her generation; Justin Taylor is, ditto, a writer of his.

    In other words, I misspoke by lumping together Munro and age.

    3) One of the great privileges of being old is that I can love the rhetoric and the conventions of the great writers of my own era and of many previous (I have a hard time with Suetonius), but at the same time, keep my shock and awe in check when I am confronted with new mores, new ways of expression, new attitudes that actually displace some of the ways of writing to which I am used. The more I am able to exercise the self-control that keeps me from being disturbed, the more often and easily I am delighted and appreciative.

    In other words, I hate it when you whine.

    I have never been able to figure out the New Yorker’s publication rubric, but on some level I recognize that there is one: my partner and I just read an Elmore Leonard story in this month’s Harper’s, and we agreed that it could never have appeared in the New Yorker. We knew that. That rubric may be only and ever the editorial judgement of Deborah Tresiman and her staff, and forgive me, that may be different from yours (or mine). Alice Adams once told me that, although she had had many stories published in the magazine, they would take nothing (this of course is some years ago; Alice Adams died in 1999) from her dealing with cancer or old age. I can remember the first story that dealt openly with homosexuality.

    I heard Helen Vendler speak a couple of weeks ago; someone in the audience asked her why some poems in the New Yorker seemed less admirable than others, and she reminded the audience that the New Yorker is a weekly publication that has to troll for excellence over and over again. There are brilliant stories abounding, dear friends, in every generation, but I believe that finding fifty-two of them in any one year is a mighty enterprise. Praise and gratitude.

    PS; The Franzen took my breath away, the Primo Levi was a tour de force, the Zadie Smith was, as you said, just awful.

  34. lotusgreen June 15, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    You know, back when I was new here, I think it was last year’s fiction issue that brought me, and Betsy was always here, I was even then (as always) bubbling with insights and overviews, “going meta” and being picayune, and I asked, just generally, where does one go to discuss connections between stories, thoughts that the stories bring up that are not necessarily exactly about the story, etc.

    I’m pretty sure it was Betsy that encouraged me to do so right then, and right there.

    Fiction, apparently, changes. So do discussion groups. The two steadfast participants a year ago were Betsy and Trevor. I didn’t (and still don’t) know if they had started the group together, or what, but the thing is, neither are regularly here at this particular time.

    I’m not going to tailor my comments to a standard, high though it may be, set by people who are not here, and frankly, madwoman, I took your snooty comments personally. Gag me with a spoon? Please.

    If you can adapt to the sweep and alteration of the arts as they progress throughout our lives, I’m sure you can adapt to other changes as well. To me, bringing the conversation back and forth between tight focus and wide pan is fascinating and worth it, and an aid in placing this whole little world into the larger one.

  35. lotusgreen June 15, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    On another track — I wonder if we haven’t been doing something I’ve seen others, and myself, but particularly groups, do, namely jumping to inescapable conclusions which are baseless in fact.

    We’ve all added up “all” the factors and coincidences, and jumped to the conclusion that we knew why the particular stories have been being chosen, etc. I mean, we’ve been reasonable! And our conclusions have had the ring of fact.

    When, perhaps, they are no such thing. We’re making sweeping assumptions based on “certainties” that “must” be true, mustn’t they? Well, actually……… no. We have assumptions of what has gone on that we’ve fabricated out of thin air, and then drawn conclusions from them, never a safe bet.

  36. Ken June 15, 2015 at 9:41 pm

    A thought–the “topic” of this issue–Impossible worlds or something like that–may encourage fantasy and fantasy if hard to pull off. Zadie Smith is usually pretty decent, but here she tanked, same with Safran-Foer. Even the short pieces were pretty lame–the one by Erdrich about her time machine experience was a borderline embarrassment. Last year I think was noir, perhaps easier to do. I don’t know much about writing, but if I was going to write, I’d only try fantasy when I had a lot of experience.

  37. Joe June 15, 2015 at 10:05 pm

    Following up on Ken’s post, I am no fan of the New Yorker’s “theme” issues, and I especially don’t see why the summer fiction issue needs a theme. It seems to me there is already a theme: fiction.

    Now that I’ve read the entire issue, I guess I feel a bit naive for thinking that the main purpose of the New Yorker’s fiction department is to publish great fiction. These days, there are very few places that operate that way. I imagine it is all about demographics and deals with agents and a million other factors that are unknown to me. I suppose the reason it’s difficult to accept this is because I still have the illusion that the New Yorker is “pure” and a hold-out in a world where virtually every decision is about money.

  38. Madwomanintheattic June 17, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    After bragging about how I am amenable to new techniques and new information, I read the Karen Russell story and realized that the current preoccupation (hers and others’) with the undead is probably generational and I hate it. Since this is now a generalized forum, can someone please explain to me its roots and causes? Is the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer the progenitor? And unlike other commentators here, I did not like the first part of the story either; its contemporary tone and language conflicted oddly with the time period she’s writing about.

  39. lotusgreen June 17, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Yeah — I don’t get it either, probably adding evidence that the taste may be generational. But maybe having no vampires was also generational? Certainly things had been horrific enough in the world in the 30s and 40s to want to avoid horror for some decades…? But for Anne Rice, who preceded Buffy.

  40. Jan Wilkens June 17, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    LOVED reading all these comments from thoughtful readers of the short story. I would say “Prospectors” was the only one I enjoyed. Also, JSFoer should probably consider another line of work…
    AND, I agree with Joe who says the summer fiction issue does not need a theme.

  41. Madwomanintheattic June 17, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    Thanks, Lily – I had forgotten about Anne Rice. And Joe, I think you are right – agents probably play some part in the choices and so probably does name recognition, upcoming novel promotion, etc. I am grateful, however that the NYer still discovers writers and publishes pieces by writers unknown to me, and that it has introduced me to favorites like Haruki Murakami, Tom McGuane, Miranda July, Jen Egan et al who have not yet disappointed me. And unlike Trevor, I still have hope in my heart every week that there will be a story that grips and challenges and delights me, and moves the world of fiction closer to some inchoate ideal.

  42. Trevor Berrett June 22, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    Oh boy, I’ve been out of touch for too long here. I’m back from a busy work time and a vacation, so I’ll be more active.

    One thing I wanted to address is something madwomanintheattic brought up: how do we talk about these stories on this site?

    The answer is that I don’t want limits in any way. When I first started writing about The New Yorker stories in 2009 I wrote tiny paragraphs that could have been boiled down to a remark on whether or not I felt it worth reading. Some authors bring out more, some less. With Betsy joining the ship a few years ago, things got much more detailed, thankfully so. That said, I don’t want anyone, myself and Betsy included, to feel that they have to do that kind of work on each or any story. I also want people to feel free to talk about the author, the magazine, other magazines, other authors, issues with the story in particular and issues with stories in general. In short, this is a comment stream, and I want to hear your commentary, to the extent it is respectful.

    I hope we can keep this going for a long time!

  43. Madwomanintheattic June 22, 2015 at 5:36 pm

    I was noting the changes that are less interesting to me, but I am still here, respectful, and grateful as heck.

  44. Margot Boland, RGD June 26, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    We have not received our July issue yet, as we have just subscribed, but this thread is already full of drama as season readers adjust to changing times and tastes. I sincerely hope I can do this as well! LOVE the New Yorker!

  45. Roger June 29, 2015 at 9:36 pm

    I’ve never seen a writer nosedive as precipitously as Zadie Smith. What a shame. Is she just rushing, or not paying attention to what she’s writing, or what? I admit I didn’t recognize Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlon Brando in the car. (I briefly thought of Brando because the name Marlon is rare.) After reading the interview and attaining enlightenment about the celebrities’ identities, the story seems even worse. What a bad idea. The Kurt Russell movie of the same title was more entertaining and certainly no less artful.

  46. Arsen July 3, 2015 at 3:28 am

    I agree with most commentators that the Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer stories were almost painful to read. I’m extremely disappointed with the Smith story. I recognized the celebrities immediately but couldn’t figure out their relevance to today. If this was satire it was about a dozen years too late. I enjoyed the Primo Levi story. He creates a spell and the reader can revel in the world he has made. I loved his images of fecundity. I disagree with most commentators about the Karen Russell story. It’s true that the story didn’t go where I expected it to go, but I don’t think it really divides in two. Her writing is even throughout the story. I don’t have much patience for zombies, but I don’t like to categorically dismiss anything. I felt the story was original and well told.

  47. mehbe July 4, 2015 at 10:54 am

    The Zadie Smith satire was a brilliant savaging of certain self-absorbed chunks of the American psyche. It did take me a bit of wondering about what to make of it before I found the perspective that allowed it to work – I think she may have overestimated the reader’s ability to discover the rather peculiar angle she was working from, right from the beginning. Well, she overestimated this reader, anyway.

  48. Trevor Berrett July 4, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    Can you expound a bit, mehbe? I read the Smith, got the references, read her interview, then listened to her read it. I admire Smith quite a bit, which led me to trust her more here than I would many other authors, but I still didn’t see any brilliance. Please give us some analysis, as I think most of us would be interested to see how it worked for you.

  49. lotusgreen July 4, 2015 at 2:41 pm

    An odd correlation just popped into my head. I remember the very early days of Bill Murray. To my ears, he’s always sounded derivative; though now thousands are derivative of him, and though I can’t point to who or what I thought him to be derivative of, and moreso, since I was apparently to only person on the planet to think so, to my ears, he always sounded like he was talking in quotes, as in “this is what a comedian sounds like,” instead of being one. He was always a 14-year-old boy telling not-really-dirty jokes with his friends in the back of the hall during a bar mitzvah. Even a little valley girl slipped in; one could always almost hear him say, “Gag me with a spoon.”

    I’m trying to make a comparison here with the Smith story, about which no one has even mentioned the one silver glove on the first page which should have been the tip-off from the get go but none of us grown-ups caught it! (though I did figure it out before the ending) Maybe mehbe is tuned into a clean frequency which the rest of our ears can no longer hear.

  50. Arsen July 5, 2015 at 12:19 am

    I would love an explanation of the Zadie Smith story. I got the characters from the opening paragraph. The New Yorker illustration with the story certainly led me there. I even laughed out loud a few times at Marlon and Elizabeth’s dialogue. Especially during the sequence where Liz can’t believe he’s reading in the back seat and Brando replies “What should I be doing? Shakespeare in the Park?” But still it just seemed like an overlong gimmick.

  51. mehbe July 5, 2015 at 10:18 am

    Let’s see – I don’t really do analysis (I’m a VERY casual reader), so what can I say about why and how I enjoyed the Smith story? Maybe this – the thing that worked for me was to see the characters totally as American mythological beings, rather than as real people. And that they were on the run from the reality that was impinging on the fantasy world that made their existence possible. Something like that…

  52. Dan July 5, 2015 at 10:34 pm

    I have been calling (at least in my mind) for Treisman to find another line of work for a while, and the summer fiction issue really solidified that feeling. But just last week, I listened to the New Yorker fiction podcast in which Tom McGuane reads Davis Means’s “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934”, and she absolutely blew me away with her insights into the story. So I am going to have to re-open my mind.

  53. MCMXVII August 10, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    Let’s look at the Franzen piece a little more carefully. It seems to me to be rushed, poorly edited, and confused in tone.

    First, the whole piece is aslosh in ambiguity. When Annagret makes her appearance, we are informed that her beauty “was so striking, so far outside the norm”. We are told she was dark-haired and dark-eyed. That’s it. Striking how? Outside the norm how? Later, she is wearing an “ugly rain jacket that half the teen-agers in the Republic were wearing.” Ugly. Ugly style? Ugly color? Makes her look fat?

    Now comes the best line of the story:

    “He looked down at her legs, which were of a piece with the rest of her.”

    Paints quite a picture doesn’t it? Perhaps the norm in East Germany is for women to have removable legs.

    “He took her shaking hands in his own. They were icy and so ordinary, so ordinary; he loved them.”

    Her beauty is out of the norm, but not her hands. Sure.

    “A nasty cold drizzle was falling on Siegfeldstrasse”

    Makes you feel like you’re right there. “cold drizzle” may not be a cliche, but its hardly imaginative.

    As far as the tone, at the start Franzen is at great pains to minimize the situation:
    “the worst that could happen was that you’d … have your life wrecked”; “However inconvenient this might be for the individual, it was leavened by the silliness of the larger apparatus”; “Everyday life was merely constrained, not tragically terrible.”. The words “ridiculous”, “absurd”, “risible”, and “silliness” are used to characterize the regime.

    Is this irony? Satire? The following story of a murder is at odds with either take. But how could this be a serious view of East Germany? (In fairness, Franzen does mention that it’s not silly to get shot trying to cross the border. But that’s just one sentence out of twenty).

    “Andreas, whose embarrassment it was to be the megalomaniacal antithesis of a dictatorship too ridiculous to be worthy of megalomania”.

    Did any of you readers get the impression that he was megalomaniacal? Not just narcissistic or self involved, but megalomaniacal. Megalomaniacal.

    “The Republic had defined him, he continued to exist entirely in relation to it, and apparently one of the roles that it demanded he play was Assibräuteaufreisser.” This sentence occurs near the beginning. There is no explanation of what Assibräuteaufreisser means. “It was all very well to be an Assibräuteaufreisser, a troller for sex among the antisocial—the label was appropriately ridiculous.” This sentence occurs well past the halfway point. If you’re going to explain the term, it makes no sense to wait until the second time it is used. I put this one on the editor, if there was one.

    The whole Petra in the dacha story was unnecessary. The only notable line was “He ordered her to do this and do that, in the dark…”. Such restraint, Jonathan!

    I finished reading the story/chapter/excerpt, but it was a struggle. This is not good writing.

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