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What Goes In The New Yorker — A New Feature

It arrives at my house every Tuesday, and I ought to ignore it. The subscription is free, replenished yearly for my absentee landlady by some unknown donor who seems to think filling her friend’s vacation house with unread copies of a weekly magazine is a thoughtful thing to do.

I’m too lazy to find other reading material, so I carry the week’s copy around in my bag until the next one arrives. If I don’t also have a book at the time, I read everything, from Talk of the Town to The Back Page.

I believe your reading diet influences your writing. I think reading the New Yorker every week has a stultifying effect on mine, both in terms of style and the subjects I choose to contemplate.

Bear with me; I know I’m being really picky to turn up a free subscription to a well-thought-of literary magazine, and I know not everyone thinks the effect of the magazine is detrimental. A former ward of mine from the writing workshop would fall into the latter category, a high school senior named Branden who prefers to go by “God.”

Every time I talk to Branden he’s having some kind of histrionics about not being published yet. His usual routine includes lamentations about Joyce Carol Oates (“Damn you and your publishing-two-novels-a-year!”) and some sort of yearning for a regular gig at the New Yorker. Try as I might to point out that your name has to be John Updike or Haruki Murakami to get into the New Yorker regularly, and that it’s really a good idea to try getting your name known in some other publications first, like Ploughshares or, say, Hanging Loose, Branden isn’t placated.

What Branden, like so many other kids trained to salivate when confronted with prestige, doesn’t know to admit yet is that institutionalized prestige makes things bad. There’s been some real stinky prose in the New Yorker lately, riddled with cliches and adjective-laden prose. They even used “flaunt” instead of “flout” a few weeks back. I wouldn’t complain, but the New Yorker is the publication which is always snide about publications that make mistakes like that, so you’d think they’d be more careful. They can do these things. They set the standard, and if they want to rest on their laurels they can.

Style aside, the content of the New Yorker has been stereotyped to the point of utter predictability for years, as underlined by the 1986 parody Snooze. (I don’t want to hear anything about Tina Brown making it better, or Tina Brown’s departure making it better. I don’t even want to rehash my gripe that she made the publication into a literary ambulance-chaser — “hey, we’ll do Princess Di’s death — only we’ll have SALMAN RUSHDIE do it! People under sixty will actually buy the issue off the newsstands!”) If you read the New Yorker for long enough, you know exactly what you could and couldn’t pitch successfully to the editors.

I’ve made a game out of figuring out what will and won’t go in the New Yorker. For example:

  • Anything which deals with an unsolved puzzle in medicine, preferably one which plagues people over sixty. Not acceptable if the problem is fatal.
  • Family histories, but only if you are from South America. No overt sexuality. Better if your last name is Als or Garcia Marquez.
  • Parody is great for Shouts and Murmurs. Stick to tried-and-true topics, like junk mail or prep-school admissions catalogs.
  • Fishing, no more than one article a week. Delving into trivia; possible topics include rod manufacture, hip-wader manufacture, dam construction, gill aerodynamics, fishing hat aerodynamics, conservation (no wilder-eyed than Walden), thickness of fishing line, silt. Pace of article must not approach the swimming speed of actual fish, not even slow ones.

The goal, ultimately, is to stretch these rules to the limits of sense and figure out how to spin topics the New Yorker would never cover (Hooters, extreme freestyle walking, pollution in Greenpoint, crocheting?) for a successful pitch.

For the benefit of the youngsters, I’d like to open up the comments on this article to further, nuanced exploration of what will and won’t get into the the New Yorker. Add your rules below.

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