Jimmy Beck’s open letter to The New Yorker’s fiction editor

Please read Jimmy Beck’s open letter to Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker:

I’m sure it’s comforting to rely on the old standbys. I mean, why burrow through all of the flotsam and transom when you can just pick up the phone and say, “Hi, Alice, whaddaya got for me?” And why not? She’s Alice Munro, for God’s sake. To have her, Updike, and William Trevor on speed-dial must be an enormous comfort. And then you have the younger guns at the height of their powers: Boyle, Chabon, Proulx et al. They may not always hit home runs, but they’re just about impossible to strike out. They are, to use your emeritus colleague Roger Angell’s vernacular, the ’27 Yankees.

I’ve met you only once and can’t presume to know you, but I think it’s safe to say that you are a very smart, self-aware person. A realist, not deluded. You know that people say The New Yorker is a dinosaur, that there are so many other literary magazines, that the web has democratized fiction, that Maxwell Perkins and Bill Maxwell are dead and they were the high watermark yada yada yada. Fine. Let them say that. But I say without irony that you are still fiction editor of The New Yorker. You are still the arbiter, the tastemaker, the one who has the final say about what is good in American writing. Hundreds of thousands of people go to their mailbox every week and see a name next to a story and understand that that story and that name have traversed all of the editorial obstacles to find their way into The New Yorker. The New Yorker, dammit!

All of which brings me to the April 12, 2004 issue and a story called “The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation” by Ann Beattie. I confess that I’ve tried to read a few of Ms. Beattie’s previous stories in the magazine but have been largely unsuccessful. This story would have been no exception, but I chose to use it as an analytical opportunity. To see how the sausage was made. When I was getting my MFA, we were told to think of questions we might like to ask the author as we read. I always found that suggestion helpful, but in this case, I don’t give a rat’s patootie about what Ms. Beattie has to say. Rather, I am curious about you and your staff’s editorial process. So, if you’ll indulge me, let me ask you the questions I might have asked her: Why was it necessary to use the present tense? Why is 90% of the story written in dialogue? Why is there so little in the way of dramatic scenes and exposition? Is this story–a mother and daughter kvetching at each other told from the ostensibly sympathetic daughter’s POV–not so familiar as to be a cliche? Is there some novel twist or imaginative use of language that makes this story transcend its premise? Why are the pop culture references–SUVs, Igby Goes Down, Susan Sarandon, Joan Didion–sprinkled about in such a facile, The-Way-We-Live-Now way? Why are they flat on the page, as though the author is content to use whatever is at hand rather than trying, as Pound implored us, to make it new? Why is the banter so banal and narcissistic? Why is there no evidence that these characters are alive and that they love each other, even beyond the sarcasm, which of course we all understand to be a potent signifier of something deeper?

Yes yes, of course I am asking why you chose to publish this story. And yes, perhaps on some level the subtext is “Why this dreck and not my masterpiece?” I am sure you get plenty of explicit versions of that question, too. But, at the risk of indulging my own form of post-Beattie narcissism, I’d like to think I’m getting at something more substantial. Although we writers would like to demand fairness, we know that that’s not possible. Most of us who are truly trying to do good work are not naive about the way the world works. But, whatever magazine editors think of our writing, we do want to know that those at the biggest and best have got their Hemingway-approved shock-proof shit detectors cranked up to eleven and are deploying them with fervor. When a story like “Rabbit Hole” consumes ten pages in your magazine, it is not the that-shoulda-been-me sensation that stings–let’s face it, that cow is way, way out of the barn. Rather, we are irked by having to confront the reality of the broken shit detector….


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