The Birth of “The New Yorker Story”

In The Birth of “The New Yorker Story, Jonathan Franzen first describes the magazine’s most famous and influential period:

It was also in the fifties that “the New Yorker story” emerged, quite suddenly, as a distinct literary genus. What made a story New Yorker was its carefully wrought, many-comma’d prose; its long passages of physical description, the precision and the sobriety of which created a kind of negative emotional space, a suggestion of feeling without the naming of it; its well-educated white characters, who could be found experiencing the melancholies of affluence, the doldrums of suburban marriage, or the thrill or the desolation of adultery; and, above all, its signature style of ending, which was either elegantly oblique or frustratingly coy, depending on your taste. Outside the offices of The New Yorker, its fiction editors were rumored to routinely delete the final paragraph of any story accepted for publication.

The creation of a recognizable literary ‘style’, led by Cheever and Updike, became a stereotype (at least a stereotype in my mind) about “a New Yorker story”:

But it was “the New Yorker story,” as it developed in the fifties, that became the model for aspiring writers, because it seemed to be the key to getting into the magazine, and by the seventies the model was so dominant that it generated mockery and backlash. Too many stories about mopey suburbanites. Too many well-off white people. A surfeit of descriptions, a paucity of action. Too much privileging of prose for the sake of prose, too little openness to rougher energies. And those endings? A style repeated too often devolves into a tic. After Shawn retired and the magazine’s fiction section became more of a free-for-all, more multivalent and multiethnic, the “New Yorker story” began to look like a form in well-deserved retirement—a relic of an era when subscribers had still had the patience and the time, in New Canaan, in Armonk, on a beach in the Hamptons, to read slow-moving stories in which nothing much happened at the end.

And, with Philip Roth, we have the grand entrance of the Tribe, finally allowed into the Country Club (even though they had, and have, plenty of their own):

Finally, at the end of the decade, Philip Roth storms into the magazine with his early story “Defender of the Faith.” Loosely written, lacking in vivid description, linear in plot, unambiguous in ending, “Defender” is the least New Yorker story in this volume. It’s a story in a hurry to get somewhere, because its author himself was in a hurry. Roth had discovered such a large and untapped store of fictional fuel—had found in himself such a capacity for honesty about the American Jewish experience, the self-hatred, the tribal loyalties—that his stories came out of him in a rocketlike jet.

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