by Kate Folk
from the March 23, 2020 issue of The New Yorker
I hope this post finds you healthy and safe in spite of so much disruption and uncertainty going on. Some things will presumably carry on per usual, such as The New Yorker fiction. This week we get a story from Kate Folk, another writer I don’t know. Folk has published stories in Granta and McSweeney’s, among other places, but this is her first story in The New Yorker, and I don’t see where she has a book published (if I’m wrong, please let me know!). I hope many of us have the chance to get to know this young author’s work.
“Out There” is definitely for a generation younger than me. I have never used a dating app, and so I don’t know all of the nuances and risks involved. This story seems like one to get me caught up. Here’s how it begins:
I was putting myself out there. On my return to San Francisco from a bleak Thanksgiving with my surviving relatives in Illinois, I downloaded Tinder, Bumble, and a few other apps I’d seen Instagram ads for. I resolved to pass judgment on several hundred men per day, and to make an effort to message the few I matched with.
There are many reasons I’m glad I didn’t grow up with online dating apps, but one of the scary ones is the fake accounts used to collect personal information. Folk calls these “blots.” Her character, though, figures: “But what choice did I have? Apps seemed to be the way everyone found each other these days.”
Again, I hope you’re able to enjoy some time reading . . . and letting me here know how you’re doing and if you liked “Out There.”
A fast-moving “slice of life” from “the front lines” of “the dating scene,” told by a member of the millennial generation – skeptical, flippant, and less self-righteous than most of ‘em – and closer to literature than to reportage, with a speculative-fiction twist, which makes it a winner.
The protagonist’s statement that “letting something happen” = doing nothing, this showed me early on that Folk had imbued her character with self-deprecation while also making her simultaneously a little arrogant/superior (to the girl who orders milkshakes and gets scammed) and giving her some obstacles (loneliness, alcoholism, addict absentee dad) to contend with. The character’s also a meritocrat who recognizes BS when she sees it in Roger (good name choice; roger=affirmative and Roger=James Bond). I particularly enjoyed her giving him all fives out of habit (automaton behavior is present in humans too, not just blots, and what really is the protagonist, etc etc, Blade Runner replicant stuff, or Gattaca).
This piece has some things in common with the recent one in The New Yorker, “Kid Positive” by Adam Levin (interrogation of our backstories, notions of real vs. fake and where the lines blur), as well as Elvia Wilk’s 2019 novel Oval, Ishiguro’s neo-classic Never Let Me Go, Jonathan Lethem’s novel from a few years back A Gambler’s Anatomy, and the stories of Aimee Bender (whose career path she seems to be following as well, Folk already with lots of high-line story publications to her credit, similar to early-career Bender – they’re both small, pretty California brunettes that are neither everywomen nor are they like whoa, gorgeous; Folk seems to be trying to do with speculative fiction what Bender did with magical realism/surrealism).
I like that blots in this story disappear but leave a lavender scent behind. That felt like a new and well-chosen detail.
There’s a likable timelessness here. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” is classic advice, be it in the domestic realm of Updike or the more political one of Steinbeck. The details of sex with Sam are concise and well-observed. The pervasiveness of uncertainty is solidly applied not just to relationships but to everything. There’s a subtlety as Folk’s flawed heroine says things like “my apartment was objectively superior” that reveal her naivete and susceptibility to logic gaps, and as her behavior becomes more obviously blot-like as the story goes. She’s not satisfied unless Sam has been “drained,” like a bank account accessed by an identity thief, and this metaphor is carried from the sex to the juicer scene—extraction being the metaphor, as she also tries to extract a pitching lesson, or joy from the trip, or a sly smile from the maybe-blot-male at the hot springs spa.
The balance between telling and showing isn’t all that finely calibrated and she could work on the dialogue (though the story’s well-edited, the scolding/apology from Sam about previous partners moves well even if Tool Cover Band Guy feels more like a notebook idea than a final-draft-story detail). The revelation that people want what they don’t have from their partners, even if it’s fake, is a little basic, but the notion that you can never truly connect or know another person (or AI) is certainly a universal existential truth. Returning to the unexceptional apartment, to old cats, a lazy phrase and an emoji from Sam, is a very nice scene. The ending then is a bit sudden, but not unearned, and it creates room for discussion at story’s end.
I read this story attentively right to the end. It moved slowly but relentlessly, as it accumulated telling details, and my interest never flagged. I liked the suspense — “Is Sam a blot [rhymes with bot] or is he not?” And I was amused by the ironic humor — the narrator was relieved when Sam didn’t show interest in her, because that was evidence that he was a real man, not a blot. I laughed out loud at the ending. Sad, but funny. A clever way to express the notion that women have a difficult time finding a satisfactory man. Or is it about women being difficult to please?
Also — Folk uses pseudo-technology as George Saunders does to enhance a story.
The first paragraph almost lost me–I feared I had wandered into some millenial-lite material and then it became interesting. I would agree that our protagonist is well-constructed as a character and it did hold my attention and create suspense. But…it also felt a little too single-tracked: basically “is he or isn’t he?” The ending is funny yet is this sort of cynicism–relationships are doomed or stultifying so maybe best find a robot–really wisdom?
In a short story, even a longish one like this, one track is about all the author can present. And it wasn’t just about “Is he or isn’t he?” (reminds me of “Which twin has the Toni?”), it’s about one woman’s experience trying to find a satisfactory man.
Yes, the ending is funny, but it’s also bitter. Just because it implies your conclusion — might as well find a robot. In this context I wouldn’t call it cynicism — it’s more of a lesson that emerges from this woman’s experiences. We’ve been getting a lot of this kind of negative fiction in the last couple years. Perhaps this is what the world of relationships looks like to many women.
I’m wondering what the world of relationships looks like to men — where are the corresponding male stories? I think of T.C. Boyle — no glimmer of hope in his fiction.
William–I’ll give you the first point (about how a short story can only do so much) but i’d still say that even though this is a character having this epiphany–might as well get a robot—that is might come off as authorial wisdom. Plus, can’t “cynicism” emerge as a response to experience?
Sean H The author told me that she didn’t like the fact that you commented on her appearance. I agree with her on this point. What does her appearance have to do with anything?
I thought that was kind of creepy too.
Agreed. I apologize for not seeing it sooner; since I have not read the story yet, I only read the first part of Sean’s comment. Let’s all keep this in mind in the future.
The timing of my reading this couldn’t have been more perfect. After having finished the story last night, I matched with a fellow user of a popular dating app this morning. Their first message was a friendly request for sensitive personal information.
Folk’s story is very much in line with the millennial fiction that often gets maligned here, but, as a millennial, I found it to be relatable. It only takes so many anonymous dates with people you are lucky to see twice in your life, whose names you will likely not even remember, before dating a robot doesn’t sound entirely terrible. Although there is a sense of magical realism in the “blots” of this story, they don’t strike me as all that different from the AI sex robots that will apparently be a reality soon.
Superficially, this brought to mind the Mary South story from several weeks back. Both stories are set in the Bay Area, and examine different aspects of technology’s encroachment in our lives. The Folk story, though cynical, didn’t seem as joyless as that story, and perhaps for that reason I enjoyed it more.
Good thoughts. I wonder, if the AI sex robots become reality, whether many will accept them or enjoy having sex with them? I’m sorry to be so old that I won’t live to see that phenomenon or see my curiosity satisfied. For those of you who will be alive for it, I predict that society will condemn them as immoral, just as society currently condemns CSWs and online sex videos.
You might be luckier than you think: http://www.forbes.com/sites/andreamorris/2018/09/25/prediction-sex-robots-are-the-most-disruptive-technology-we-didnt-see-coming/amp/
Thanks for that link. Informative and thought-provoking. It’s difficult for me to imagine what that experience would be like. What the robot would be able to do. As for ETA, I guess it depends on how much realism you are looking for.
Hey Paul and Trevor. Just wanted to chime in. I don’t know if you actually know the author, Paul, or if that was just a jokey comment, but of course an author’s appearance matters! I would go so far as to say that it matters every bit as much as (and probably more than) an author’s race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. There was a New Yorker piece a few years ago that argued that the differences in the literary outputs of Sartre and Camus came almost entirely down to their appearance (Camus = dashingly handsome, Sartre = notoriously ugly).
It’s all fair game. Not just looks but all aspects of a creator’s background. If I’m discussing twentieth-century theatre, for example, it is quite germane to mention that Edward Albee was gay, that August Wilson was black, that Wendy Wasserstein was a chunky frizzy-haired Jewish lady, that Sarah Kane killed herself, that David Mamet is a republican, that Eugene O’Neill was an alcoholic, that Tony Kushner is pro-Palestine, that Arthur Miller was married to Marilyn Monroe, or that the New York Times described Sam Shepard as “at the far edge of handsome, where it begins to tip over into pretty.”
If a writer looks like Donna Tartt, she’s going to have a different experience of the world than if she looks like Annie Proulx. Zora Neale Hurston’s appearance absolutely shaped the way she walked through the world differently than Maya Angelou’s did hers. Like uh, the poetry of Rupert Brooke, John Keats, and Lord Byron are over here, and then the poetry of Charles Bukowski, Gertrude Stein, and Allen Ginsberg are over there, people. How you look affects everything! Especially in a short story about love/sex/dating/romantic relationships, it’s absolutely 100% applicable to talk about the author’s appearance.
And if you do know Kate Folk, Paul, by all means invite her over to this discussion! I’d love to hear someone try to make the “looks don’t matter” argument. Or just to hear from the author in general, about whatever she feels like discussing in response to the comments on her story.
Hi Sean H. I am quite a literal-minded person, and I wouldn’t say something that I didn’t mean, as “just a jokey comment.”
Perhaps this literalness is why I was never any good at fiction writing despite taking several undergraduate classes in it. However, I also do not “know the author”. I have a habit of contacting writers when their work interests me. Kate Folk was kind enough to respond, and she objected to your comment. The exchange went something like this: [summarized not verbatim]: Me: Mookseandgripes.com have a lot of good feedback on New Yorker stories. You might be interested to read what they said.
Author: I don’t appreciate the way Sean H commented on my appearance. I’m not small and I think that adjective was chosen to be as dismissive as possible. The comments were unnecessary.
Me: I agree with you.
This is just a remembered impression of what was said. I’m not quoting verbatim as I said. However, it’s certainly absolutely clear that she objected to your comments.
I will encourage her to join the thread. I would hope to get more feedback from authors than we do. Perhaps they’re too busy writing.
I’m a writer who has been lucky enough to be published in the New Yorker, and I like to read what people on this site have to say about the stories that appear in the magazine. I find the energy and intelligence that Trevor and the Mookse gang bring to the stories encouraging and, in the case of my own stories, enlightening. I appreciate that people care enough to take time out of their busy days to share their thoughts on these “hot fudge sundaes” as Vonnegut so aptly called them.
Sean H – I admire your passion for good writing, your often clearheaded critiques, but I found your comments regarding Kate Folk’s appearance (and Aimee Bender’s, for that matter) insensitive at best. By your contributions to this site I know that you can do better.
The whole idea of a woman best being better able to find a good man by just obtaining a male bot seems to be a final futile (and yes bitter) decision. It also hints at revenge reverse objectification of men. Such a bot will probably have been programmed to be the perfect male for any woman just as a man could purchase a female bot programmed to be the perfect female for any man. The only problem with this is that it becomes wholly reductive to physical capability as though perfect physical capability is all that is ever really necessary. (Sort of what some people might think of as a mechanical arranged marriage of sorts.) Thoughts, emotions and feelings are too simple, difficult, time-consuming or a total waste if you have to deal with someone else’s as well as your own. Thus technology takes us into the real time mechanical moment of sterile preprogrammed virtual thoughts, emotions and feelings. Not specifically the ones anyone is actually having, but only the ones technology decides in its virtual model are the most perfect for the largest number of men and women.
“The only problem with this is that it becomes wholly reductive to physical capability”
Perhaps this would be true of a female blot/bot made for male pleasure. But this story is very clear in showing that the female narrator’s problem in finding a live male human who is satisfactory for a relationship revolves around psychological and behavioral characteristics. Yes, physical properties are described. but as I read it those are no the dominant factor.
I can see your point. I didn’t mean to imply that the woman in the story was only (key word here, only) looking for female pleasure from the guy. I just think it is sad that she feels she has a better chance with a bot that has virtual (as in not really real) artificial psychological and behavioral characteristics. And sad that she feels that they could be good enough (assuming that the man or woman who writes the programming, has enough brilliance for writing convincing behavioral mimicry of original thought processes into the physical property app functionalities). And if I were Kate Folk, I would cringe while reading the comment on writer appearance. The best selling women writer in India was interviewing a much loved very successful Bollywood actress. And at the end the interview, she offers the actress a cookie and says, “A cookie a day keeps the toxic men away.”
I agree that “I just think it is sad that she feels she has a better chance with a bot that has virtual (as in not really real) artificial psychological and behavioral characteristics.” I think I said that in my original comment. If it wasn’t clear, I will reiterate: I think that one of the main points of the story is the irony that the woman ends up feeling that she can do better with a blot than a flesh-and-blood human.
One caution: we need to be careful with our use of the word “real”. I’m surprised that no one so far has gotten into phenomenological cavils about what’s “real”.
I want to say something about appearance, but I’m trying to formulate something short and neutral.
Speaking of neutral, I admire Will Mackin’s neutral and measured comment. Nice to know that some writers peruse our efforts. I have to remember when writing future comments.
I agree with you about the perils of the word real or even honest versus fake. But this also brings to mind Mick Jagger’s lament,
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, well, you just might find
You get what you need
(Three times mind you is the level of this guy’s desperation). So maybe this is how the woman in Kate Folk’s story feels about her search for the right guy as though a male bot will have to suffice.
Hey Paul (and Mr. Mackin and others),
It’s certainly interesting/intriguing to me that Ms. Folk objected to (one tiny part of) my comments, but I certainly was not AT ALL being “dismissive” or “insensitive,” and as my most recent post displays a very, very strong case for why appearance is a huge determinant of artistic output, I stand by my remarks. They’re also 100% gender neutral, and it’s abundantly clear that I have used both male and female examples to make my point.
Would gladly discuss further with either of you, Paul or Will (or Trevor, or Larry, William, et al), as I like a good rhetorical debate as much as anybody, but I am equally fine with letting it drop and just saying “agree to disagree”
Two of the difficulties in writing comments about author appearance concerning a New Yorker short story are:
1) people think you shouldn’t have written something even though it might in some way be true.
2) people usually tend toward thinking you might have shown disrespect in something you wrote when that wasn’t your intent or might have not be seen exactly what was intended.
I just don’t think any writer wants to have their appearance considered in comments when it shouldn’t have anything to do with their writing. Though sometimes that even happens in book reviews.
Kate Folk probably just wants her story to be read for the “appearance of how compelling the story is as written”. And you mostly wrote about that.
Hopefully anyone seeing your comment will want to read “Out There”.
A long thread of exclusively men debating the relative merits of invoking their perception (based on Google-able images) of a woman’s appearance as an important means of assessing her creative work, which also describes the brilliant late playwright Wendy Wasserstein as “a chunky frizzy-haired Jewish lady,” truly you love to see it! Yes indeed these tepid hot or not takes are the vaunted and respected methods of literary critique and analysis that I learned in my PhD, and that I observed in action at the New Yorker itself during my time in the fiction department. Why it feels like it was just yesterday that I watched Deborah Treisman and Willing Davidson seek better angles of its author’s face, trying to figure out a story’s True Meaning. Of course we can all agree that discussions of appearance are totally objective and rooted in capital-S Science and not, oh, I don’t know, a staggeringly tone-deaf demonstration of the insidious tentacles of late capitalist patriarchy. Not at all. Truly I have been deepened by this Very Important Literary Discussion, good talk, good hustle, old chaps
Women have written very sharp and perceptive comments at times on the Mookse blog concerning their perspectives on New Yorker short stories, often on those written by women as well as those of the men. I was wondering what your perspective might be on Kate Folk’s “Out There”. You might tell us what we might have missed or what we might have misunderstood or not quite have perceived. It’s almost as impossible to work in the fiction department of the New Yorker as to get one’s short story published there so you must have a high degree of expertise with fiction. But if you’d rather not. Understood.
Sean H I like discussion and debate, too. My views on the matter have not changed. I think that the problem with your initial post (the controversial sentence) is that you utterly fail to explain its relevance. Also, the author doesn’t even think it’s accurate — she says that she isn’t small. I agree with you that discussions on appearance can sometimes matter, but they seem totally irrelevant in your post.
Here’s where such discussion might be relevant. A person might write a story about a severely overweight woman, and how people react to her appearance. In this context, it is surely interesting and relevant to note whether the author is an overweight female and perhaps reflecting in a memoir/autobiographical mode, or one who is considered beautiful and is exercising empathy and imagination about a character who has a very different life. Similarly, if the “I” character has a different gender to the author, that is usually (and rightly) mentioned in reviews (if not obvious from the author’s name). But your comments on appearance, in context, seem utterly bizarre. She’s similar to Bender — they’re both small and somewhat pretty brunettes [to summarize]. Surely, everyone besides yourself is thinking “What??”
I totally agree with you that your comment on the appearance is only a tiny part of your review. It may be frustrating (although you didn’t explicitly say so) that so much of the discussion of your review is on this one sentence, with so many of your own thoughts and insights going unaddressed. But this is universally what happens when a person causes offence (whether the offence is justified or not) on grounds of gender/race/sexual preference/disability or any protected characteristics. In fact, even more generally, it’s what happens when a person causes any type of offence. Among people who remember McEnroe’s outbursts, how many know anything else at all about the matches where the ranting took place? They just know the few seconds of McEnroe’s shouting.
You have demonstrated emphatically why we need women to contribute to these discussions. Your forceful denunciation of introducing appearance into considerations of stories blows away all the previous tepid disagreements. I was going to write something mild, as I said earlier, but now I feel there is no need.
Also I love your rhetorical flourishes: “a staggeringly tone-deaf demonstration of the insidious tentacles of late capitalist patriarchy.”
Yes indeed, and I tried to help with this (encouraging women to contribute) by informing the author about this thread.
(So far, to no avail, though).
Your explanation to Sean is exactly what happened and what happens a lot. I think Dentata is right in that maybe if we weren’t a patriarchy then maybe the whole me too movement wouldn’t have emerged into existence or needed to. She seems to imply the Mookse is too patriarchal or more women would write comments but it’s not like that never happens. That’s great you informed the author that women aren’t writing comments but it just shows how difficult it can be for authors to grab any particular demographic’s interest enough although many women might have read “Out There” and liked it but didn’t feel any need to comment at all. But if enough people read it, she can probably get more short stories published in good venues and if she is working on a novel, she will have already established a core readership for when it is published.
Larry, I agree with your post. But, just to be clear, it isn’t quite accurate that I “informed the author that women aren’t writing comments.” Rather, I informed the author about the existence of this thread. It was nothing but a link to the thread with a comment that I find this forum interesting. Her response was to object to Sean’s original post, as previously discussed. I think it is true that this forum has a shortage of female commentary. I’m not sure what can be done about it, but I don’t think this gender imbalance is inevitable. For example, the Facebook forum (which I’m part of) for discussing the Netflix show “The Affair” is overwhelmingly female, even though the show itself has about a 50/50 representation in terms of gender (no genders other than male/female are represented on the show.) Dentata’s response seems to attack all of us, not just Sean, so I’m not sure I fully understand her because I’m not sure what I’m doing (or saying) that is wrong.
Thanks for clarifying that you only notified Kate Folk of the existence of this thread. I think the key to Dentata’s anger at us might reside in her reference to patriarchy, specifically the way anything a man writes or says is more highly valued than anything written or spoken by a women just on a gender basis. That is not always true about comments concerning a short story because anything anyone sees in a story is not necessarily gender-based or influenced. But she must believe that any viewpoint a guy expresses must be gender-based in that it is colored by his attitude towards women not having the worth that that a guy has (even if he unaware he even has this attitude). So anything a woman wrote would automatically be considered less worthy than what a guy wrote. So she goes to the other side of that to argue that whatever a guy writes is poisoned by his gender dominance over women in our society. This is all hypothetical and maybe too literal an interpretation of the reasoning behind her apparent hostility although anger often lacks any easily seen reasons. Or maybe she is reacting to something we don’t know about that may have happened to her in the writing world. The other thing might be that Kate Folk writes about trying to have a fulfilling relationship with the enemy who is male and incapable of ever becoming a suitable partner because in society his gender is dominant. Women then almost by definition become submissive if they have anything to do with men and are better off existing by themselves because they won’t be minimizing their own capability by considering themselves less valuable than men. Women can feel that no matter how good a man may be towards them in any relationship or marriage, they will still always be exploited or used or taken advantage of in some way. And because our society is patriarchal that that occurs in each and every aspect of life. There is a Hindi film called “Thappad” or “The Slap” in which a married woman trying to help or protect her husband gets slapped by him in front of everyone at a party. He is too concerned about his own image as a husband and father to realize how damaging that slap was to her own sense of self worth (both towards him and too herself). The most damaging realization is that because society is a patriarchy, it made it okay for him to have slapped her. Or at least would never be considered a valid reason for her divorcing him. I think the tiny part of Sean’s comment about Kate Folk’s appearance was considered “a slap” to Kate by Dentata and clear evidence of how patriarchy functions in our society. And Kate Folk may have perceived it as a slap as well. And the worst part of it is that just like the husband in the film, it wasn’t the sort of slap that Sean intended. So that may have something to do with why she doesn’t like the guys’ comments on this thread.
How does that Hindi film a bout the slap play out?
How the Hindi film plays out is that after the slap, the wife plays back in her head, all the things she has done for her husband and all their loving moments together which we have seen minutely detailed in the first part of the film. And she decides, though pregnant with his child to pursue a divorce though not asking for any alimony or anything from him (her lawyer, a woman, can hardly believe this). The wife simply tells her she wasn’t brought up that way. Family is still hugely important in India so if she divorces him, he will be a social pariah to both their families and in the larger community but he still wants to raise his child. So the divorce is granted on irreconcilable differences. And after that, he comes to her and finally apologizes for the slap and how much it hurt her sense of self-esteem. And further, he says that because she decided not to go with him to be the Managing Director of a large company in London, that he gave up this once-in-a-lifetime job with the company and just wants to live with her and raise their child. But it is too late. She has come to a new realization of her innate sense of self-worth and decides to continue her life without him.
very powerful. although I wonder about the eonomi feasibility of her decision.
Actually the film didn’t really ever directly address the economic feasibility of the divorce. But she and her husband seem to be upper middle class and living in one part of a separated townhouse duplex in a nice part of Delhi. One of the most touching scenes in the film is when her father tells her it is not important whether she is right or wrong, that he will always support whatever she wants to do. So we can only try to figure what actually happened. Also, the husband moved out of the house after he was served the divorce papers and begged for her to allow him to move back in with her so they could raise their baby. So I think she was still living there at the end of the film and finally feeling free, full of a better sense of self respect. In upper, middle or working class Indian families the baby is the most important focus of the family. In so many Hindi films if the father thinks it’s his child, he will do anything for that child and for the mother as well because she is the mother of his child. So I’m thinking (making this up) that he calls up her younger sister and says don’t tell his wife but he will pay the rent or the mortgage on the duplex. In Indian families, the oldest male is supposed to pay for everything (found this out from reading about it in the novel, Sacred Games). So the father would probably pay for everything. But the husband would ask the younger sister to find out what all her older sister needed and he would probably picked out the hospital and made the arrangements for when she went into labor. Of course if she found out, that might change everything. But I’m glad you brought up the economic feasibility because that could be the driving force behind a good sequel. But it would need to be the same director, same screenwriter(s), same actors whole same crew continuing the same story. And it would need to be more like the third and fourth hours or second part of the first film rather than a sequel sort of like the first and second parts of Sacred Games. Tapsee Pannu, the actress playing the wife, has said in an interview that she really wanted to do this film because of something that happened to her that she refuses to talk about if ever asked during a video interview. Her career is reaching higher levels of achievement and her films are grossing high (though the film’s run was curtailed with the pandemic) but probably had at least a 3 week run in India and overseas. She is perhaps the most successful woman of the newest generation of Hindi film stars. So there will probably be a sequel. Thanks for wondering about the economic feasibility of the wife’s decision.
After all this discussion, I think Kate Folk’s “Out There” is an excellent portrait of how treacherous and empty our society has become, which is valuable, but not necessarily the most fun thing to read even if very well written.
Thanks for the info about the Hindi film. Economics is of course a major part of freedom, for both men and women. Virginia Woolf’s ext4ended essay was published as “A Room of One’s Own”, but her requisites were actually a room of one’s own and 500 pounds a year.
You’re welcome. Excellent Virginia Woolf reference.
Notice the order of those; room is first than the money. What is 500 pounds these days, $1,200 or $1,300? Hopefully the protagonist in Kate Folk’s “Out There” will continue to have her own place and the ESL job if a relationship doesn’t pan out. Both the main characters in the story had such high expectations and high standards and yet were sometimes superficially remote or had petty grudging disrespect for one another’s alleged flaws so much that short term it amounted to little more than a mediocre time pass. So sad and only more of the same to look forward to.
the reference I read said that 500 pounds in 1928 money would be 30,000 pound stoday.
The ending to this story has a lot in common with Alice Munro’s Corrie and Chinelo Okparanta’s Benji (and probably much other fiction, besides). The outcome that is supposedly to be feared the most becomes, after reflection, the outcome voluntarily sought by the protagonist. It’s a very predictable ending, and I’m surprised no one else said that the ending is cliched or predictable. I don’t know whether this wasn’t said because people don’t agree with me, or because it felt overly harsh to criticise a New Yorker debut in that way. Besides the ending, it has lots of strengths — good insights, well-drawn characters, and the concept of “blot” is a very clever and imaginative one. My first reaction was that this was a slang word I didn’t know. I was surprised when I googled “blot” and found that the only reference to this meaning of “blot” is in this story. It’s a fine achievement, overall.
Thanks for converting the 500 pounds into how many pounds it would be today. Totally agree with Paul Epstein that “Out There,” is a fine achievement. As to the ending, it was probably the only ending there could be unless she wanted to throw in a twist that, depending on how believable, might have questioned the literary realism of what occurred prior. The blot is a nice symbolic active image for any fakeness, deceit or dishonest scheming in the partner or any person one may be talking to in any kind of relationship. People get punked and they now they also can get blotted, sad how we now seem to have to give any sort of treachery some sort of trendy name to make it more regretably acceptable if uncomfortable after having occurred.
I loved this to begin with – the voice of the narrator was excellent – but it seemed just to become a conventional story about an unsatisfying relationship, with vaguely sci-fi trappings. However, I thought the ending was good in that there was no acceptable solution, just a compromise. It derives a lot of its effectiveness from the conceit, even though the conceit doesn’t have much of a role to play in the middle of the story.
On a separate note, I wonder whether the New Yorker is trying to replicate the success of the (very good) Cat Person – I feel like I’ve read so many dystopian/high-concept stories about dating apps and technology in general. Or does it just feel like there are ‘so many’?
I don’t think you are imagining it. I too feel like there are many of those stories. It may be that the magazine is trying to replicate their success. Of it may be that female writers are tying to replicate that success, just as so many female writers are writing stories in the “Gone Girl” genre. Thank god for Arundhati Roy and other non-US writers.
Vagina Dentata, Mine grew teeth just reading comments in this blog. There used to be interesting, careful exegeses of each story by someone named Betsy (I don’t know whether or not she was small and frizzy-haired), but more recently the content has frequently consisted of people decrying the New Yorker’s choice of stories to publish, suggestions as to what they should be publishing if they were as discerning as the person posting, and even, occasionally, someone telling an author how HE would have written the story if only. I want to say here that the I believe The New Yorker publishes stories that they think the are worth reading, and I’ll stand by that. Stories (and maybe comments in blogs) have merits that appeal differently to different readers, but bloviating critiques persist here that assume universal agreement about what is fiction, what is reportage, what is worthwhile, I still read this site because often there are sensitive analyses, and I thank you, Trevor, for publishing it. If we ever return to Life As We Knew It, i am going to teach this particular story because despite its science-fiction taint (what, me prejudiced?), I think it is well-constructed, and above all, engaging. I’m delighted to learn about the author’s original use of “Blot.” My general question to my students is “how does the story work?” and that’s what I’m always trying to find out here and in the other criticism I read.
“How does the story work?” I’ll drink to that as a good starting point for analysis and understanding and appreciation of fiction.
I might have read one Betsy comment and she was great and would give the stories a close reading. And William always seems to give stories a close reading and often notices what others may have missed. Another lady besides Betsy signed her comments as Reader. She would provide a woman’s perspective that provided a different look from how men view certain situations. The New Yorker publishes stories that reflect the New York Literary Scene’s perception of the best short stories for right now. No matter which writers and writing is trending or who the best writers are, everyone likes different writers for different reasons. The New Yorker is much more inclusive of emerging writers than it used to be but some of these stories are criticized for not being to a high enough standard especially to purists who only want to spend time reading only the best. But I miss Reader’s comments and wish other women would comment as well. Guys are renown for sometimes displaying a very reduced range or spectrum of perceptive capability. There are women whose perceptual capacity or capability seems almost infinite on a higher aesthetic such as the sensibility of Virginia Woolf. I agree with you how the story works is the most important thing. What are the elements of craft involved? It’s said that very few women or men read short stories any more and that most authors use their short stories as baiting for a multi novel book contract. Also I am not sure but the number of women who are editors, literary agents or publishers of large or small imprints far outnumber the men although it always seems the men seem always more celebrated. I am glad short stories have never totally disappeared although the venues for publishing them seem fewer. Thanks for your thoughts. The Mookse is at its best with a wider range of commentary and some women centric stories don’t really get as much careful consideration of what is going on in the story if a male comment seems to have missed the finer nuance taking place outside of the limited focus not very well utilized. At least we know there will be more women protagonist short stories so hopefully with what Betsy and Reader and you write concerning them will better help us to understand how they work.
Thanks for bringing Betsy into the conversation, Madwomanintheattic! I also look back fondly to when she was regularly posting her thoughts on The New Yorker stories. Alas, I think that time is gone. However! At present she is still a art of our posts on Alice Munro. You can see her thoughts on “Queenie,” posted just last Friday!
I agree with Larry that there have been many who have come and gone over the years who have contributed a great deal to the site (along with many who are currently contributing thoughtful (and I mean that both ways) comments these days. I hope when people do drift away from here they do so because they have other things to do, and not because they don’t feel welcome. Unfortunately, I know that is not always the case.
I agree that this site has its seasons where comments, usually here in the The New Yorker threads, are unwelcoming at best, even for me. It’s usually due to one person digging in their heels with an offensive comment and refusing to hear what others are saying in response. My preference has been to allow folks to comment, so plenty are posted that I do not endorse. I know that sometimes is not the best approach, particularly when my life is busier than it used to be so I’m not commenting as much to address concerns. One of the individuals you referenced — David, who used to comment here regularly — is actually the only individual who has ever been blocked from the site. While he engaged with the stories in ways that were usually insightful and invigorating, and I know there are people here who miss him, he was also responsible for making many people feel unwelcome, or at the very least uninterested in commenting further. It may have been later than it should have been, but he was blocked from my Goodreads site quite some time ago and then from this site last September. Because that happened on a side thread, I doubt many here saw my comment to him. Looking back at it, I think what I wrote to him is a good reminder to me of how I’d like to facilitate conversations:
I’ll try to do better at making this place welcoming, but I don’t mind a bit of jabbing either. Vagina Dentata’s comment, after all, is a broadside jab that I don’t think accurately addresses most of the comments and commenters on this thread.
Anyway, Madwomanintheattic, I also always love it when you comment. Thanks!
Splendid response. Grateful as always. Madwoman
I was thinking about “Out There” again and the single professional lady and her perspective boyfriend. I like the story better when I think of it as a microscope or detached telescopic view of a woman and a man trying to establish a more lasting relationship on very vague somewhat superficial tenuously shared realities. She was a little turned off by an earlier guy who felt that everyone has value when she felt that was not true. Which bothered me until I thought of how society judges us even starting in elementary school, into high school and even university. Any ancillary issues like drug use or goofing off in any way you lose points. Maybe one of the best parts of this story is how women and men have to post alluring identities online no matter how torqued up to get an audience with each other. The protagonist seems to not have fully established her own individual identity by herself so that possibly being alone because her boyfriend found her lacking. I like the part where she wanted to tell him something about herself for which she thought he might not be interested. And she starts talking and he shuts her off. He seems like such a nothing hamburger of a guy that she enjoys to a point, physically and mentally but they seem only adept at zeroing on each other’s evaluated inadequacies. He seemed so politically physically correct even to food preferences yet so lacking in anything longer lasting. There was also the curious paradox of walking around in a desexualized no clothes state whereas in old school choice of clothes expresses individuality and sometimes a bit of emotional or aesthetic sensibility. There is this reductionist communal existence that is either very progressive or very regressive in that either gender always ends up stuck alone after temporary bits of shared togetherness slightly reward extreme effort and she and he are always having to start out again on the drill. A sensitive male bot seems like the best alternative but depending how he is programmed, her satisfaction will always be lacking somewhat as with the real thing because of always having to detach from someone who maybe just lacks a little too much from what the woman was looking for. I think of this one line from James M. Cain’s last novel where the almost destitute cocktail waitress has a great interaction with a wealthy single drinks customer but at the end of the chapter she says, “I wish I liked him better.”. I admire how Kate Folk deftly updates that sentiment in the me too feminist internet dating mileu.
When Kate Folk, author of “Out There,” objected to a comment or the very small part of a Mookse comment relating to her appearance, she seemed to be alluding to how in the book industry an author’s appearance can be used for the not so subtle intent of minimizing their ability. I don’t think that was Sean’s intent but it seems that throughout the book industry a certain preference for a certain kind of appearance can be used as both a prediction of a female or male author’s success potential as well as minimize their ability by infering that appearance has more to do with getting published than a writer’s mastery of her or his craft.
I was reading an article entitled “Young and Adorable” in POETS & WRITERS magazine written by Miciah Bay Gault whose debut novel, “Goodnight Stranger” was published last year by Park Row Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. She wrote how a “stylish and charismatic” writer whose novels she admired: “Then tilted her head to the side and studied me. ‘You’ll be successful,’ she said. ‘You’re young and adorable.’
What Folk and Dentata object to, is partly what Gault sees as a kind of really bad double bind:
“Being ‘young and adorable’ could get you noticed as a woman writer, but it also infantilized you. It denied you power and agency. It was a way in, but one that dismissed your work and positioned you as innocuous.”
There is the example that Albert Camus has always sold many more books than Jean Paul Sartre because he was handsome and much better looking than Sartre. That is a stupid hidden standard. If someone writes really well, look at the writing and don’t look away at something else that has nothing to do with the writing.
It’s similar to acting in that casting directors give actors roles based on how they look rather than how well they can act. And the picture flops. When the acting is really really good, the film does well. With good writing an author builds an audience. What I think Dentata is objecting to is the questioning or introduction of doubt to a writer’s work based on their appearance. Sean did not intend that but it apparently does occur in the book world, in the acting world and in other areas of life and makes it more difficult for really great writing or any really great desirable result to emerge.
Those are all good thoughts, but the appearance conundrum is nothing new. Input “beautiful people sociology” in your browser and you will see a whole field of social psychology studying the notion that beautiful people have an edge because ordinary people gratuitously attribute many positive attributes to those who look good. Probably women benefit from this more, but it is not gender specific. I don’t have sympathy for those who whine about being favored because they are young and adorable. They should take advantage of the opportunities afforded by their appearance to show that they are good writers.
I agree with you an aspiring writer should take advantage of anything that will help them get published. Even if the publisher assumes their writing will be innocuous but still worth a one book deal. If they are good writers it will be enough to get them launched and on to their second book.
After a long time, I really liked a New Yorker story! I thought that the heroine will turn out to be a rare female blot, trying to snare unsuspecting real men- the ending was tamer than I expected.
I used to comment regularly on these posts, and enjoyed comments from Trevor & Betsy as well as Sean H, Roger, Madwomanintheattic, Ken & other regulars. I stopped commenting on this blog after a few run-ins with David. I thought he considered the blog’s comments section some kind of a personal fiefdom, and in a couple of these run-ins, I felt I was probably the more abrasive one, and felt the blog could at least do without my negativity, so I stopped. I still stop by whenever I like a story, and find the comments are very insightful and make me feel I haven’t read the story well, or compel a second/third reading. I feel it is unfortunate he has been banned, but I am sure Trevor would have tried a lot to moderate his comments and done this as a last resort.
I do hope Kate Folk comments directly on the blog, as Petina Gappah did, as did another author a long time ago. It is always very interesting to get the author’s perspective, particularly on such a well crafted story.