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Meakin Armstrong: Just Ignore That Damned New Yorker List

June 17, 2010

Over at Guernica, we were happy to see two of our fiction writers—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Rivka Galchen get the blessing from the fiction papacy at The New Yorker. But personally, I find this whole thing annoying.


meakin_armstrong-small.jpgWhen The New Yorker released its list of the anointed—the Twenty Under 40—there was a polite round of nods and claps.

Writers who weren’t included in it moaned on Facebook. Many, apparently, knew they’d been under consideration for months—only to be turned away after having been through the emotional meat grinder.

Over at Guernica, we were happy to see two of our fiction writers— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Rivka Galchen get the blessing from the fiction papacy at The New Yorker. But personally, I find this whole thing annoying. Am I the only one who thinks The New Yorker shouldn’t be doing this?

The New Yorker is unquestionably a great magazine, but a significant part of its greatness is that it outlasted the competition (the magazine began as a rip-off of the long-defunct Judge in 1925, its appearance wasn’t an innovation). Back in those glory days, the Saturday Evening Post published Fitzgerald, not The New Yorker. Hemingway worked for Esquire, not The New Yorker. In the 1960s, Esquire and New York led the way on New Journalism—again, not The New Yorker.

Today, of the general interest consumer magazines, only Harper’s and The Atlantic are still publishing fiction. The New Yorker keeps the top fiction writers on retainer though, giving themselves right of first refusal. They control the field. Worse, they seem to be (mostly) excerpting fiction from big, well-known writers with big, well-known books.

The New Yorker is lauded for keeping the literary flame alive. I think it’s quite the opposite. They are maintaining a flame, sure—but one that’s eating all the oxygen in the room.

They aren’t taking risks. They would be taking risks if we didn’t know what to expect— from them; will their next-published story be something experimental? Wildly funny? Full of life but maybe a bit sloppy? No. It won’t be any of those things. Especially, it won’t be sloppy. Instead, it will be delivered to the reader in the same manner as the rest of the magazine: entombed in airtight phrasing, disconnected from most people’s day-to-day lives.

The New Yorker is lauded for keeping the literary flame alive. I think it’s quite the opposite. They are maintaining a flame, sure—but one that’s eating all the oxygen in the room.

Over time, the online fiction world will hopefully level the playing field (we’re the Protestants, if The New Yorker is Catholic; we each have a different approach to what we feel is Heaven).

The online world has many different sites, from Juked to Frigg to Wigleaf and The Collagist—on to many, many others I’ve never even heard of. There is no leader in this online world, acting pompously as though it were saving all of literature (although one journal likes to think it’s the papacy of the online set—you know, the one that charges you $20 to read your work).

That’s the way it should be. Back in those glory days, that’s the way it was; The New Yorker had competition. It didn’t kill if you weren’t in there. I hope it becomes that way again. Because The New Yorker sure as hell isn’t saving literature. It just isn’t.

So back to this list . . . Who is The New Yorker to make any declarations?

(Full disclosure: I used to work at The New Yorker. But I left on good terms and anyone who knows me, knows I’ve said these things for years—even the first time TNY ran this list, eleven years ago.)


Bio: Meakin Armstrong is Guernica’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @meakinarmstrong.

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