I felt a sense of relief when I opened up to the T.O.C. of the latest issue of The New Yorker and saw—under Fiction—Roberto Bolaño’s name. The previous two issues featured Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and John Lanchester (and before them, upon taking a second look at my back issues: Etgar Keret, Margaret Atwood, Nathan Englander, César Aira and Alice Munro).
I’d never heard of Sayrafiezadeh or Lanchester. (I’m probably late to the party here; it’d be par for the course, etc.) As a consequence, I had a strong, capricious kneejerk feeling that The New Yorker was tending toward the, well, underwhelming. How about another story from George Saunders? (Even though he just had one published recently.) How about Sam Lipsyte? (See George Saunders comment.)
And then it hit me and I became sad.
Not because the writers I seem to like reading most weren’t in the two most recent issues—for that, I simply began to feel childish and, honestly, a little dumb. I felt sad because I realized I’d just been guilty of being both a literary snob and a hypocrite. I felt sad also because I’d quickly dismissed two writers I’d (honestly and apologetically) never heard of. I felt like a hypocrite because I’m usually among the first critics of The New Yorker for never printing fresh new voices [like Joseph Michael Owens(?)].
Truth be told, there are very few things I wouldn’t do to be published in The New Yorker. I say “very few” only because there might be things I’m not willing to do, but I simply can’t think of any right now. And who would any of us be kidding, really? Few people outside of Amy Hempel would pass on a chance to see their name in that famous typeface.
Because here’s the (oh so very obvious) thing I realized: the stories I dismissed out of hand must be pretty darn good to even have made it into the magazine in the first place. The other thing I realized is that I can be kind of an asshole reader some times.
Perhaps I give myself too much credit for checking out as many indie lit. magazines as I do. I mean, there are plenty of fresh voices in in those, right!? But, similarly, I’m guilty of many times doing the same thing with the indie lit. mags as I am with the more prominent publications. I tend toward automatically seeking out the writers I know and, oftentimes, skip over writers I’ve never read before. And that bothers me.
Over the past two years, I’ve gotten to know—at least on a regular email, Twitter and/or Facebook basis—a good deal of the editors of the indie lit. mags I enjoy reading. Why should I ever second-guess anything that’s printed in [PANK], The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, ElectricLiterature, Bartleby Snopes, et al? They’ve never lead me astray. I think it comes down to another obvious realization, which is we can never hope to read everything we might want to. It’s simply impossible (see link below).
So then maybe I’m only partially a snob like the snooty-countenanced gentleman above. Maybe I’m not alone in this selective reading M.O. But the more I think about it, the more I realize I should probably be more (or at least as) excited about seeing authors like Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and John Lanchester in The New Yorker as I am about any of the other writers I mentioned in the first paragraph. In fact, here, NPR’s culture critic Linda Holmes says, “It’s time to face facts: your time is better spent deciding how to choose what to read than bemoaning you can’t digest it all.” Which, while nice to hear, doesn’t completely alleviate the guilt and wishful thinking (respectively).
Fortunately, it seems like a fairly easy fix, namely by actively seeking out those writers I haven’t read before—at least for a time—and dedicating myself to discovering some new voices. Though, admittedly, even after coming to this epiphany, I still felt like I should probably come clean (in this post) about passing up stories that are probably most definitely totally worth reading.
So anyway, in a nutshell, there you have it.