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TAKING IT IN THE SHORTS:

THE GREATEST STORY NEVER SOLD

by David B. Comfort

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The Montréal Review, September 2012

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"The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness,

nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there.

K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness."

Franz Kafka, The Castle

***

Castle dwellers refer to their humble publication housed in the upper reaches of Si Newhouse's Condé Nast Tower in Times Square as "The magazine." The 48-story high-rise which inspired the architecture of Battlestar Galactica, boasts a state-of-the-art air filtration system and a labyrinth of high-tech manuscript-fed recycling chutes. Below The magazine reside Architectural Digest, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Golf World, GQ, Mademoiselle, Vanity Fair, and Webmonkey.

The New Yorker's founder, Harold Ross, a high school drop-out from Aspen, Colorado, had defected from editing the satirical Judge magazine, The Onion of its day. He envisioned a publication not geared to "the old lady in Dubuque," but to a more urbane, discriminating audience. Ross won Algonquin Vicious Circle members on the idea, plus his poker partner, Raoul Fleishmann. The yeast heir provided $25,000 seed capital, followed by another $400,000 before the enterprise broke even.

The debut issue of The magazine was published on February 21, 1925, a year before the publication of The Castle and two years after Kafka's death (1). Its contributing editors included Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and other Algonquin regulars.

Their captain, Ross, a literary autodidact and punctuation stickler, was a workaholic. He left the Castle, then on West 43rd, only to play cards with the yeast baron around the corner at the Algonquin's Inside Straight Club. Described as "a passionate, reckless gambler," by his editor Brendan Gill (2), he once lost $20,000 to Fleishmann at backgammon in a single night. In the habit of doubling down when losing his shirt, Ross would exclaim like Dostoevsky, if not the ghost of Kafka, "I'm cursed! Something I did to God!"

Gill described his boss as "an aggressively ignorant man" who loved pranks. More than once he had been the target of Ross's sugar cube wrapper spitballs blown across the dining room. A mischievous pyromaniac, he also amused himself by throwing lit matches, and once ignited a flapper on the dance floor. When firing an employee, however, the venerable editor-in-chief was more circumspect. According to Gill, he would first confiscate "a writer's typewriter, then his pencils and paper, and then his desk and chair, reducing him by stages to a condition of journalistic paralysis." For Ross, the most fireable offense in his administration was not incompetence, sloth, or stupidity, but disloyalty. For him, loyalty, wrote Gill, was "a form of consenting serfdom."

Despite the intellectual exertions of Ross's team, The magazine was regarded as "middle-brow," overshadowed by the older and more venerable Harpers and Atlantic. Ross's assistant, Katherine Angell White, the Eleanor of Aquitaine of the operation, changed that with the 1940 Short Stories from The New Yorker. The anthology helped popularize Thurber's "Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Cheever's "Enormous Radio," as well as Jackson's "The Lottery," and it went on to become an eagerly anticipated publication.

Katherine was the wife of The magazine's editor, E.B. White, co-author of The Elements of Style. White's friend, James Thurber, called her "the fountain and shrine of The New Yorker." Ross had started her at $25 a week but, finding her indispensable immediately, he doubled it to $50 her second week. Among other things, she had a unique talent for dealing with difficult and/or drunk talent, such as John O'Hara.

The New Yorker never published Hemingway, Steinbeck, Joyce, Faulkner, Wolfe, and other icons. Still, during the Ross/White dynasty, The magazine graduated to become the, if not The, premiere highbrow weekly boasting regular contributions by many of America's other great short fiction artists. But not a few were denied immediate admission to the Castle.

It rejected all of Salinger's submissions, 1941 through 1945. These included fifteen poems and seven short stories -- "Lunch for Three," "Monologue for a Watery Highball," and "I Went to School with Adolf Hitler," among them. It had tentatively accepted "Slight Rebellion off Madison" just before the war, but scrapped it after the Pearl Harbor attack a month later since the story focused on "the pre-war" jitters of a kid called Holden Caulfield, the future cultural icon and hero of The Catcher in the Rye. At last, in 1948, Salinger stormed the Bastille with his day-at-the-beach suicide story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." Subsequently, the magazine ran twelve more of his pieces but he was still not spared the ax. Truman Capote, a former gofer for Ross, reported that in Salinger's post Franny and Zooey reclusive period he had submitted five or six novellas all of which were turned down. (3)

In spite of being an editor, James Thurber had to pay his dues, too. The humorist was rejected twenty times before he broke in with an allegorical vignette about a man caught in a revolving door. His cartoons had been accepted earlier after E.B. fished them from a trash can.

John O'Hara holds The New Yorker's record for most stories published: 225. (4) Nevertheless, he too suffered occasional rejection. The notoriously thin-skinning author of Butterfield 8 kept a stiff upper lip until Brendan Gill panned his otherwise well-reviewed novel, A Rage to Live. O'Hara informed editor, William Shawn, he would not write a single word more for The magazine until Gill's empty head was delivered to him in a basket. Shawn, though he carried a hatchet in his briefcase in case of an elevator breakdown, declined to do so. So the National Book Award winner wrote nothing for the next five years except -- with more than his usual dose of spit and vinegar - Farmer's Hotel (1957).

The New Yorker's most prolific contributor could only take consolation in the fact that his detractor was himself only batting 500 at the office: during his sixty-year tenure, Gill had submitted sixty pieces and half had been turned down. "The painfulness of being rejected never grows less," he wrote. "In our hearts, we are all six years old."

Brendan's memoir was a good-natured and gently satirical review of his colleagues. But euphemism abandoned him in some cases. He called O'Hara -- whose work supposedly became the paradigm for "The New Yorker story" -- a "difficult" megalomaniac. He said Thurber was "malicious" because "other people's miseries made his happiest times." And he made mention of Katherine White's "indomitable competitiveness." Though Gill emphasized that she was Ross's "intellectual conscience" and "beautiful" besides, her son, Roger Angell, told him that his book had made her cry for two days.

In retaliation, Ms. White waged a "strenuous campaign of falsehoods" against him, said Brendan. She and his other targets clearly hadn't expected such betrayal from a Yale man (one of the many at The magazine), much less a Skull & Bones member. Outside the Castle, the unwashed seemed to have no problem with this. Here at the New Yorker spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list in 1975.

***

The Ross/White Dynasty gave way to the golden Shawn era, followed by the Gottlieb, then the Brown, bringing us to the current Remnick administration. The magazine has become politicized and au courant, but in some respects remains the same.

So, after eighty years, fiction writers at the Castle doors with battering rams, grappling hooks, and the next "Enormous Radio" still ask themselves:

What on earth is "A New Yorker story"?

Katherine White is credited for developing the signature phenomenon. To this day, no one knows quite what she had in mind, except that it involves rarified language, quirky character and a casual plot. But not always.

In-house editors have graciously tried to tackle this question, including the matriarch's son, Roger Angell, the baseball Balzac, now a nonagenarian.

In the end, the dauphin and his court have resorted to the ontological argument: a New Yorker piece is what's in the New Yorker. Indeed, many pieces - whether fiction, humor, investigative journalism, criticism - have the uncanny quality of having been composed by the same writer.

"They've got layers upon layers of editors over there, and they're always second-guessing one another," a regular contributor told Salon on the condition of anonymity. "Even the shortest pieces I write go through about seven editors, and at the end of all that I can often barely recognize my voice in the article." (5)

Since only a zen answer is possible for What is a New Yorker piece? a more practical question: What does it take to get into the New Yorker and what are the odds?

First, the odds. Twenty years ago, fiction editor, Chip McGrath, said the magazine received about 400 short stories per week and published one or two from the slush pile annually. At this time, they were publishing two stories (occasionally three) per weekly issue, or 112 per year. So, calculating at 1.5 acceptances for 22,400 yearly submissions, the outsider had a .0000669% chance of entering the Castle.

Today's fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, has not revealed current body count. Outside source estimates vary from 2,000 to 4,000 per month. (6) So let's say 3,000. Since the Tina Brown reign, only one story is run per issue, not two. So, calculating at 1.5 acceptances for 36,000 yearly submissions, the outsider now might have a .0000416% chance of breaking into America's last premiere short fiction venue. Except Brown's fiction editor, Bill Buford, admitted to taking nothing from the slush: so, during his tenure in the eighties and nineties; chances were .0000%

Who are the other 99.9999% to 100%?

The writers on the Castle's tennis ladder.

At the top are Nobel or Booker recipients, some deceased. Next, come the Franchises: Munro, Trevor, Boyle, Erdrich, Saunders, Proulx etc. (7) At Rung 3, are the MFA wunderkinds and up-and-comers from Knopf and FSG. Below them are the Ivy League staffers and fact-checkers for The magazine itself. At Level 5, are those recommended by those above or their acquaintances. And, holding anchor are the annual 36,000. The Lotto players.

New Yorker paper rejections, now effectively extinct, came in several varieties. For bad stories: an unsigned card with the monocled dandy inspecting the butterfly. For not bad: same form, signed Sorry . For marginal: Sorry, thanks. For good: Sorry, thanks, try us again. For excellent: Sorry, thanks, but my story beat yours.

For e-submissions, now the rule, no Sorrys, LOLs, or Thx anyways. No reply at all. The materialist author prefers the old pink slip with postmark proving that his story was sent and actually existed as dark matter in the Castle's space/time continuum. But even during the Bill Buford '90s, Sterling Lord Literistic president, Philippa Brophy, herself complained: "Sending stuff to him was like sending stuff to outer space." (8)

Awhile ago, when a piece was accepted, this is what happened according to former editor, Renata Adler: "When we did buy material from young or unknown writers, then delayed publication for months, even years, the morale and then the work of those writers declined. It is often said that no matter how adverse the circumstances, real writers write. It is not always true. The magazine . was beginning actually to destroy young writers by raising their hopes." (9)

Thankfully, this hardly ever happens any more with the tennis ladder. (10)

***

The New Yorker is said to have an archive of unpublished stories which would take ten years to exhaust. Still, Ms. Treisman - the 2012 Maxwell E. Perkins Award winner -- recently assured a Wall Street Journal interviewer that her staff continues the noble enterprise of reviewing new unsolicited material in order not to discourage the next Carver.

In 2003, however, she was more candid, if circumspect, when Book Magazine asked if she had actually rescued anything from the slush. 'Someone who's submitting themselves directly to the fiction editor probably isn't all that savvy about publishing," she replied. In short: No. But in 2010 when asked on The New Yorker's own interactive site (11) if the magazine had ever published an unpublished fiction author, Ms. Treisman revealed herself to be the consummate fiction lover after all. "Yes," she replied. "Many times."

Featuring younger talent, the magazine released the modestly titled Future of American Writing collection in 1999 and, in 2010, 20 Under 40, Stories from The New Yorker. In her introduction to the last, Ms. Treisman said the 20 writers chosen were those "we felt were, or soon would be, standouts in the diverse and expansive panorama of contemporary fiction."

What does this mean, specifically?

The editors identified some of the characteristics they found in the short fiction or novel excerpts chosen: (12)

. a freshness of perspective, observation, humor, or feeling

. a stealthier buildup of thought and linguistic innovation

. a mastery of language and of storytelling

. a palpable sense of ambition

In choosing the hundred-and-fifty young writers to be reviewed, Ms. Treisman said she and her staff not only consulted with established authors and academics, but with "the street." Indeed, the 20 chosen were a mixed bag. International diversity was worthy of the UN: in addition to Americans, there was a Nigerian, a Peruvian, a Latvian, a Chinese, an Ethiopian, a Yugoslavian, a Russian. Professional experience was also richly varied. There was a film director, an immunology premed, an oncology premed, a derivatives trader, two Harvard Divinity students, and a bricklayer.

Academic background also varied: there were MacArthurs, Guggenheims, and MacDowell Fellows as well as PEN/Faulkner finalists, and many MFAs. Again channeling Pinocchio, Treisman told the Stanford Art Review that she never asks for academic credentials but "sometimes I know someone has been in a workshop because he's been referred by a professor." (13)

The 20 Under 40 compilation was criticized for being narrowly focused on insiders already on the fast-track for coronation. Lee Siegel called the list a "junior pantheon" and "an artistic affront" proving that "fiction has become culturally irrelevant." (14) Of Siegel, The New Yorker's own David Rieff wrote: "To read him is to be reminded of what criticism used to aspire to in terms of range, learning, high standards, and good writing and--dare one say it? -- values."

Since the most common charge against both the compilation and the weekly magazine itself is that it is inbred if not hermaphroditic, The Wall Street Journal asked Ms. Treisman for an example of a truly unknown fiction writer she had recently published. The name was on the tip of her tongue: Jim Gavin. His story, "Costello," had appeared in the December 6, 2010 issue. She pointed out that Gavin was a plumbing salesman with no agent. But his plumbing experience turned out to be vast: he was a Stanford Wallace Stegner Fellow who transferred to the Boston University MFA program and became a lecturer there.

But the autobiographical "Costello" was indeed about his earlier incarnation as a Renaissance LA plumbing parts salesman. The week before the story ran, Treisman interviewed her slush discovery for the magazine's online Book Bench. Calling himself a toilet salesman "dilettante," Gavin said he'd been hired by his father, "a plumbing lifer," but had lasted in the business for only two years.

"Relying on nepotism seemed shameful at first," he went on. ". But one thing you find out pretty fast about the plumbing world is that everybody is related to everybody else. Because of this, and the fact that your livelihood depends, literally, on shit, a certain kind of humility and humor presides over the industry."

Luckily, publishing, even at the Castle, is like the plumbing business too.

In 2002, Dana Goodyear published more poems in The magazine than anyone else. She was editor-in-chief David Remnick's twenty-five-year-old assistant.

The year prior, "Lucky Girls" appeared in its 2001 Debut Fiction edition. It was written by Goodyear's fellow assistant, 26-year-old Nell Freudenberger. She went on to receive a six-figure offer from HarperCollins for a short-story collection she had not yet written.

Today, equal opportunity editors have made breaking into The New Yorker easier. The writer can submit a cartoon caption. The contest, which preempts cronyism by excluding employees, draws thousands of entries per week. If yours is the winning caption, you may not find your fiction in The magazine's annual anthology, but will have at last entered the Castle with a signed copy of the cartoon.

So, at least where humor is concerned, The magazine has become far more open-armed. While attending college in the Forties, Flannery O'Connor submitted many cartoons. All were rejected. (15)

***

David B. Comfort has published four bestselling nonfiction trade titles, three from Simon & Schuster, the last, in 2009, from Citadel/ Kensington. He has been a finalist for the Faulkner Award, Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren, America's Best, Narrative, and the Pushcart Prize. David B. Comfort's short fiction has recently appeared in The Evergreen Review and The Cortland Review.

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(1) 1,500 copies were printed, few sold.

(2) Brendan Gill, Here At The New Yorker (New York: Random House, 1975)

(3) Kenneth Slawenski, J.D. Salinger: A Life (New York: Random House, 2010)

(4) Cheever is #2 at 119, Updike #3 at 104.

(5) www1.salon.com/june97/tina2970625.html

(6) 2,000: Crain's New York Business. 4,000: The Morning News

(7) Of the 514 stories published in the last decade, 215 (42%) were written by 28 writers. (The Millions, January 4, 2011)

(8) "The Gatekeeper For Literature Is Changing At New Yorker." David Carr & David D. Kirkpatrick. New York Times. October 21, 2002

(9) Gone. The Last Days of the New Yorker (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999)

(10) For her Princeton senior thesis, Katherine L. Milkman -- a Top 200 U.S. junior tennis player -- completed a statistical analysis of 442 New Yorker stories, 1992 to 2001. She found that those about male characters supported by females predominated, and that major themes revolved around "sex, relationships, death, family and travel."

David Carr, "New Yorker Fiction, by the Numbers," New York Times, June 1, 2004

MobyLives 2002 survey, conducted by Dennis Loy Johnson, found that 80% of New Yorker pieces are by men. ("The Talk of the Rest of the Town")

In an American Scholar article, former New Yorker editor, Frances Kiernan, stated that women were "unfairly neglected" particularly under Buford who seemed to prefer "guy stories." In defense of her predecessor, Deborah Treisman, told the New York Times : ''There are certainly voices that appeal to Bill that don't appeal to me, although I think the gender issue is barking up the wrong tree.'' She insists that fewer women submit.

(11) "Ask The Editor Live: Deborah Treisman," The New Yorker online, June 7, 2010.

(12) Talk of the Town Comment, June, 14, 2010.

(13) SAR Interview with Deborah Treisman. June 8, 2012.

(14) Lee Siegel, "Where Have All the Mailers Gone?" New York Observer, June 22, 2010

(15) Christina Gumbar, Great Women Writers, 1900-1950 (Facts on File, 1996)

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