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, is accompanied by a photo showing Hudson writing at a table in park, with a gas mask at hand and toy plastic soldiers deployed on his notebook. (Hudson's story, which might be labeled a Kafkaesque satire, implies that contrary to the official U.S. position, Saddam Hussein did in fact employ biological weapons in the Gulf War.) You get the idea.
Shades of Dave Eggers, yes, and the jokey, self-referential mode he supremely exemplifies, found at every turn these days. But what about the stories themselves? Oddly, given the stature of The New Yorker and the immense field (one imagines) from which the editors had to choose, the stories are barely mediocre. I haven't yet mentioned Jonathan Safran Foer's "The Very Rigid Search," narrated by a Ukrainian who is serving as the guide for a young American Jewish man (who, in another dazzling stroke of self-referentiality, just happens to be named Jonathan Safran Foer: clever!) searching for a village where his grandfather lived before the war, and where he alone of the Jews in the village escaped a Nazi raid. The shtick of this story is the Ukrainian narrator's butchered English.
And finally there is "The Husbands," by Erika Krouse, told by a woman who has taken her sister's husband—among many others—as a lover. "I like to sleep with other women's husbands," the story begins. "I try not to like this. It's not a healthy thing to do, either mentally or hygienically. I see a shrink. I see a gynecologist. But then I sleep with the husbands anyway."
Taken as reports from a certain narrow but influential slice of young Americans, these four stories are depressing, not only for the moral chaos they take for granted but for the slackness of the tellling. They could be brutal or tender, of the Devil's party or God's, funny or not—they could be anything you like, but to work as fiction they would need to have qualities that these four stories conspicuously lack, beginning with a feel for the heft and rhythm of words.
Summer Fiction Issue? No. It's a debutantes' ball, a marketing tool, a happening. You want real fiction, you'll have to look elsewhere. Whatever happened to The New Yorker?
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Visit Books & Culture online at BooksandCulture.com or subscribe here.
The New Yorker's site may or may not still have excerpts from its fiction issue online.
Books & Culture's literature area has more on fiction trends—and includes an exclusive novel only available on the magazine's Web site.
Dave Eggers, referenced above, is editor of McSweeney's, which has its own fiction pieces. He's also the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but that's a nonfiction work so it probably shouldn't even be in Related Elsewhere. In fact, Dave Eggers is only mentioned in passing above, and it doesn't seem fair to give him all this space in "Related Elsewhere" and no space at all to the authors who actually appear in The New Yorker fiction issue, does it? Still, these are "debut fiction" authors who don't have much about them online, while Dave Eggers is bordering on overexposure. It's really easy to find stuff about him online, so that's why he's the one to get a link.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Saint Teddy? | Yes, Roosevelt paid the usual presidential respects to Christianity, but didn't show much explicit personal devotion to it. (June 11, 2001)
History Bully | Christian scholars speak not-so-softly over a big sticking point: Theodore Roosevelt's faith. (june 4, 2001)
'Taken Up in Glory' | The Ascension has been forgotten in many Protestant churches, jettisoning an essential part of the Christian story. (May 21, 2001)
Who Won? Who Cares? | Skip the latest ballot reviews and read Italo Calvino's brilliant election novella "The Watcher." (May 14, 2001)
Infamy Indeed | John Gregory Dunne suggests imperialistic Americans got what they deserved at Pearl Harbor. (May 7, 2001)
Rantings of a Not-So-Primly Dressed Person With Too Much Time | The Chronicle of Higher Education infuses some not-so-subtle bigotry into its fetal-tissue research coverage. (Apr. 30, 2001)
Big Numbers, Big Problems | Christianity is in the midst of a massive global shift. But how much of a difference is it making in its new homelands? (Apr. 16, 2001)
DiIulio Keeps Explaining, But Is Anyone Listening? | At a media luncheon in Washington about Bush's faith-based initiatives, answered questions get asked one more time. (Apr. 9, 2001)
Public-izing Faith | Recent articles in Touchstone, Commonweal, and The New York Times serve as reminders that faith is not merely "a private thing." (Apr. 2, 2001)
How Can I Keep From Singing? | Arne Bergstrom has looked suffering square in the eye all over the world. Now he sings about hope. (Mar. 26, 2001)
To Poland, for an Evening | Once in a great while, a film like Kieslowski's The Decalogue discovers how to transport an audience. (Mar. 19, 2001)
Examining Peacocke's Plumage | The winner of the 2001 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion rejects everything resembling Christian orthodoxy, but that doesn't stop him from co-opting the language. (Mar. 12, 2001)