Typical Tales

The creator of the litblog Years of BASS is preparing to read The Best American Short Stories 1981, which that year was guest-edited by Hortense Calisher. The collection includes 20 stories, a whopping nine of which were originally published in the New Yorker—a lopsidedness so pronounced that Calisher was moved to address it in her introduction:

Perhaps this is a good place to talk about the “typical” New Yorker short story, since the proportion of my inclusions from that magazine will give pain to some. There is no typical one, really, but I can describe what people think it is: a story of suburbia or other middle-class to “upper” milieu, which exists to record the delicate observation of the small fauna, terrors, and fatuities of a domestic existence, sometimes leveled in with a larger terror—a death, say, or a mortal disease—so that we may respond to the seamlessness of life, and of the recorder’s style. To move on casually from these stories, as we often do, is a guilt, since they are as often, if subduedly, about the guilt of moving on. Muted response is the virtue. Never break out.

From there, Calisher proceeds to deny the existence of this magical, melancholy creature, but it’s a notion that gets around. Searching on the term “typical New Yorker short story” (or “typical New Yorker story”) offers a range of opinions and complaints:

“The typical New Yorker short story provides a good example of the writer who possesses craftsmanship without insight. These stories are not works of art; they are studies, exercises, etudes, ubungen—yet occasionally they manage to approach art through sheer competence of technique, as though insight were created by skill.” —Critic David Daiches, circa 1946

“You know, the absolutely typical New Yorker short story—which is a mood piece where you have 12 people at a cocktail party, and you go to the cocktail party with them, and at the end of the story you know that some of them don’t get along with the others, and that is about all.” —Novelist and poet Diana O’Hehir in the Washington Post, 1984

[David] Leavitt‘s work adds to the typical New Yorker short story of understated upper middle-class suburban life the theme of homosexuality, a theme that has always been implicit in this subgenre. —GLBTQ.com online encyclopedia

[T]wo stories, by Seamus Deane and Lorrie Moore, respectively, are also the only two not set in the usual New Yorker short-story stomping ground of New York—or that acceptable surrogate New York, London. —Keith Philipps, The Onion

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
: I’ve had some of my stories rejected by the New Yorker before one was finally accepted. Actually, I didn’t really like many of the stories I read [in the magazine], but then I started reading more and found some things I did like. But, of course, I wanted to be published in it, and it was really nice. Because “Cell One” is a story I especially liked, and one that took so long to write, I felt, I don’t know, a sense of satisfaction.

Interviewer: And they pay well!

CA: Yes, they do, but even if they didn’t, it has so much prestige. The second story [“The Headstrong Historian”] I did not think was at all New Yorker material, so when my agent said she’d sent it there, I thought, why?

Interviewer: Maybe it’s not a typical New Yorker story, so you’re part of what’s changing their landscape.

Interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kenyon Review. 2009

This concern about the typicality of New Yorker short stories has a way of bringing out the inner sabremetrician in some, looking for trend lines in authors’ gender, country of origin, and so on. But this search for the typical short story has apparently been a source of amusement for the magazine’s keepers. In a 1994 story about life inside the New Yorker‘s fiction department, Roger Angell recalls an exchange with a reader:

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

Sturdily middle-class, troubled but not too deeply, suburban but urban as well, waspily making the rounds of the cocktail parties—when people talk about the typical New Yorker story, they may in fact be indulging a fantasy about the typical New Yorker reader.