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A few years ago, The New Yorker inaugurated a "Summer Fiction Issue." The latest model just came out, and it tells us something about the state of fiction and the culture at large. While the issue includes one story by an established writer, E.L. Doctorow, the centerpiece is a section headed "Debut Fiction," which features stories by four young writers. This is the second year in a row that the "Summer Fiction Issue" has focused on what the magazine's introductory note calls "debut writers."

Readers—and editors too, of course—are always on the lookout for fresh new voices. But when a number of writers are packaged as the Next New Thing, whether in a special section like this or in an anthology, one can't help but feel that the stories haven't been chosen simply for their quality as stories. The newness, the youth of the writers: those are the crucial ingredients, marketed as such. And beneath this ploy lies an anxiety that fiction, mere fiction, isn't a sufficient draw.

Such suspicions are confirmed and deepened by the layout of the issue. Each of the four "debut" stories is accompanied by a photo of the author. As you read the stories, you realize that the each author photo alludes to its story. Nell Freudenberger's story, "Lucky Girls," about an American woman in her early twenties who lives in India for several years and becomes the lover of a married man, shows the author (in her New York apartment, the caption informs us) kneeling on what looks like an Indian bedspread. Gabe Hudson's "Dear Mr. President," a story in the form of a letter (dated October 17, 1991) to then-President George Bush from a soldier who has returned from duty in the Gulf War with a third ear sprouting out of his ribcage on one side of his body, ...

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