The Thing with The New Yorker
I used a short break from the hustle of everyday routines to pore over a heavy pile of unread New Yorkers. Flipping through almost ten of them back to back got me thinking about the magazine itself. Besides, the time to renew my subscription is coming up, so one of the main issues here was this: Should I renew it?
I subscribed to The New Yorker almost a year ago. I celebrated it on the blog as a great literary decision. It was—you get access to wonderful stuff, in both fiction and nonfiction. There’s no doubt that TNY’s coveted fiction slot has hosted great authors and great pieces. And the nonfiction is often dazzling and thought provoking. And yet…
Someone, an editor, told me recently that she abandoned weekly and daily publications because she felt just too guilty about not reading them properly. Magazines inevitably started to stack up. That made me realize that my own pile was not (just) a matter of my own inadequacy in fixing my schedule, but of an honest difficulty in managing the massive amount of reading material that’s available every day (from mailing lists to newspapers to magazines) while having a job and a family. Don’t forget chores, errands, and writing. I remembered that something like this also happened when I subscribed to The Economist a few years ago. I let the subscription die off because of the guilt of not reading the novella-sized magazine that sprouted in the mail every week.
So that sense of surfeit is one thing that weighs on the issue of whether to renew the subscription. There’s more. Without a doubt, each edition of TNY has very good articles. When Gawande, Gladwell, and Menand write, I turn to them at once. The “books” pieces are generally quite good, with several books on a same subject reviewed by an expert. But not all of the articles in TNY spark enough interest for me to read them through. Do I really want to negotiate an eight-page article on buying swimsuits this summer? Or four pages on wrinkle treatments? Even when I like the subject—say, the somber elephant trade—, come on, 21 crammed pages about it? (I'd rather wait for the research to improve and read a book on the subject.) What I end up doing is starring three or four articles from the table of contents when I get the magazine, and reading those.
Then there’s the problem with the fiction piece. Cliff Garstang, on the blog Perpetual Folly, writes weekly comments on TNY fiction, and some of them have become discussions about how disappointing some of the pieces have been. A bunch of novel excerpts pose as short stories, and I get the impression that sometimes the interest in promoting a book or an author trumps the commitment to publish a powerful short story. Many of the fiction pieces are not very good. Of the ten I read over the last couple of days, I wouldn’t describe a single one as great fiction. (I’ll post a barrage of short comments on them later.)
So where does all of this leave me, in terms of the question I asked at the beginning? Difficult choice. The editor I mentioned earlier had a practical way out of this mess: buy the anthologies at the end of the year. Their editors go through the trouble of sifting through the massive haystack and finding the best of the best. That’s not a bad call. The Best American Short Stories volume generally has a fair share of TNY stories, and its readers therefore don’t have to suffer through the feebler ones carried by the magazine. Then there’s the O’Henry volume, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Nonrequired Fiction, Best American Science Writing, and a long list of titles that cover both fiction and nonfiction. Sticking to those produces an unwieldy stack of its own, but at least you’re getting what a big group of people considered superlative. That’s probably better for the clutter at home, for the environment, for the guilt of not being able to wade through each new issue on time.
And what about TNY itself? If everyone turned to anthologies, the magazine would go under. Sure, that’s painting an unnecessarily dire portrait. At 85, the magazine is hale enough to survive even the current economic crisis. But they could come up with good ways to accommodate different kinds of readers. An online subscription helps with the clutter and the environment, but you’re still stuck with the guilt of a deluge of reading material.
I would readily accept a middle way: charge me a modest fee for every article I read—25 or 50 cents a pop, for instance. Plus, give me access to it for a year, along with the chance to save it and print it. That way, I can choose what I’ll have access to. Some people turn to Perpetual Folly for an assessment of a story before reading it on TNY, so if a story does pique your interest (if it’s not a bland novel excerpt, for instance), then you’ll pay a quarter or two for it. You can even keep an open tab with your credit card. This may even make TNY editors more self-conscious about the fiction they publish: is this good enough for readers to pay for it on its own? I know, this makes it sound too simple, and the whole publishing industry is coming to grips with the effect of free Internet access. But I for one would go for this kind of deal.