I usually use The Clock at the Biltmore feature to highlight an older (hopefully classic) story from the magazine, but since this week is the mid-year mark (next issue will be July’s!) I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the first half of 2010. It’s also been my misfortune to have dug up a handful of old stories I didn’t like and didn’t want to write about, but I’ve got a good one for the next feature.

I do my best to stay on top of the weekly fiction, offering my thoughts and hopefully taking part in a larger discussion about what’s good and bad there.  The forum has been active since the first issue of 2010. There are many great comments. Not so many commenters recently, unfortunately. Is it summer? Have the lackluster stories put off readers? Are people not getting what they want from the forum? Perhaps any or a combination of those is the cause.

The good news is that any of you can help make it better (unless the problem really is the run of ho-hum stories — in that case, I’m afraid we’re in the hands of the editors). Most of the fiction is available for free on The New Yorker website, and I’ve linked to them in the individual posts here. If you’re ever interested in some generally good short stories and some always intriguing discussions about them, check out the forum and share your comments.

Furthermore, if you have suggestions for how to make the forum better, please leave your comments below or contact me via email if you don’t want to look critical in public.

Okay, on to the fiction.

There have been 31 pieces published so far this year. The next half of 2010 will have less, I presume; three of the five double issues will be published, and we probably won’t see another issue featuring eight pieces of fiction as we did in the recent June 14 & 21 issue. I’m hoping, however, that the latter half of 2010 has more top-tier stories. I’m afraid the first half has only a dozen stories I thought were worth reading, perhaps a dozen that were mediocre — the rest I thought were quite awful.

Though my general impression of the first half of 2010 is that there was more mediocrity than anything, when I look at the individual titles, I must step back and remember just how superb a few of them were. All in all, reading each issue was more than worth it. Yes, I read Joshua Ferris’s “The Pilot” (which I still think was just thrown in because the magazine wanted something from him), but I also got to read Philip Meyer’s “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone.” Also, just as finding a superb short story by an unknown author might lead to a very rewarding relationship over the years, the bad ones eliminate any desires I might have had to explore that authors work. Perhaps unfairly, but, hey, only so much time, etc.

So if I look at the first half of 2010 with those eyes, it has been a great six months. Here are my favorites of the first half of 2010. I’ve even tried to rank them.

  1. Philip Meyer: “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone” — I didn’t write much about this short story when I typed up my thoughts on it, but that isn’t because I didn’t like it. As you can see, I think it’s the best of the years so far, and I’ve acquired his novel American Rust and can’t wait to see if it’s as great. Sadly, this is the one story in this list that is not available for free online.
  2. Allegra Goodman: “La Vita Nuova” — Strangely, I also didn’t write much about this story. But I did put at the end, “This is what we read this magazine for.” Hopefully that was enough to tempt some to read this great story. I haven’t rushed out to read her other works though.
  3. Nicole Krauss: “The Young Painters” — This is the last offering of this half of 2010, and I loved it. I thought the writing exquisite. I’ve heard from others that Krauss’s novels are superb in parts and other parts not quite. I’m curious about how I’d feel. From this story, I certainly am excited for her new book.
  4. Claire Keegan: “Foster” — “Foster” has been a favorite of commenters. In fact, the page devoted to “Foster” has had more hits than almost any other post on this blog — if you don’t count my Home Page, it is number five in all-time hits. It’s an incredibly well written piece, very subtle and touching.
  5. Jonathan Franzen: “Agreeable” — Despite the fact that I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve read by Franzen, I can’t bring myself to read his novels. Something tells me I’m going to be disappointed, though I like him a lot in these small doses. However, this piece has convinced me to give up my baseless prejudice and read The Corrections — I’m just not sure when I’ll do that.
  6. Jennifer Egan: “Ask Me If I Care” — After not enjoying, particularly, “Safari,” Egan’s first offering in 2010, I was surprised to find myself really enjoying “Ask Me If I Care,” which forms a part of her newly released novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. I haven’t read that novel yet — haven’t got it yet — but I am intrigued.
  7. Jeffrey Eugenides: “Extreme Solitude” — I look forward to anything I can get my hands on by Jeffrey Eugenides. The Virgin Suicides made me a fan for life, so not even my disappointment in Middlesex could take that away. This is a great short story that is derived from his future book.
  8. Janet Frame: “Gavin Highly” — Some commenters didn’t like this story at all, but I couldn’t shake it. I thought it was written so well and that it’s implicit reflection on story telling was superb. The story telling, from the perspective of a six-year-old, completely covers up the horrors going on — well, almost covers up.

So if I stop griping about “The Pilot” and focus on these eight (and a few others) then I realize how much I’ve enjoyed this year’s fiction up to this point. In the next 11 weeks we’ll see the stories submitted by the remaining 20 Under 40 authors. Hopefully they’ll all be great. Some I’m particularly looking forward to are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Adrian, Daniel Alarcón, Yiyun Li, and Karen Russell (though, really, I’m looking forward to them all).

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