Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The New Yorker, Winter Fiction Issue

The Nobel Lecture
by Orhan Pamuk;
The Bible
by Marguerite Duras;
On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan

When I can, I try really hard to read my New Yorkers from cover to cover. It is a rare occasion when that happens. The fiction section gets me every time. Most of the time, I just don't get New Yorker fiction. It just never goes anywhere. At the end of a typical New Yorker piece I always feel as if I've wasted ten minutes of my time reading great writing that has absolutely no point. And it is great writing - that's undeniable. But what I want is a story. I get bored with reading great writing just for the sake of great writing. I read because I love a great story just as much as I love great writing - maybe more.

But occasionally, I try. I do try. I started with Orhan Pamuk's 2006 Nobel lecture "My Father's Suitcase." It was an amazing contemplation on the writing life; on how writers are shaped by their country and culture, and how they shape the world around them with their words. There are some wonderfully crafted sentences that clearly express the reason why he was the deserving recipient of last year's Nobel Prize for Literature. A sentence like, "A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is," will have me thinking for hours. That sentence is just one of many that will get written on an index card for further contemplation.

The one thing that troubled me about Pamuk's piece was that it made me question why it seems that great writers are always unhappy, depressed, and/or addictive. At the end of a beautiful paragraph on why he writes - why we all write - Pamuk says, "I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy." Is tortured unhappiness a job requirement? I understand that great writing can come from angst and pain but does that disqualify me, the chronically content and generally well-adjusted, from writing the kind of literature that will win me a Nobel Prize? I sincerely hope not.

"The Bible" and "On Chesil Beach" was typical New Yorker fiction fare, i.e. a supermodel all-dressed up with nowhere to go. "The Bible" I found bearable simply because it had a short running time of two pages. "On Chesil Beach" on the other hand, was too long with a running time of nine whole pages and ends right at the moment when things are starting to get interesting. Whatever my problems with Chabon's Thrilling Tales, Chabon and I certainly agree that the now-popular in-the-moment revelatory fiction "pieces" are an annoying turn-off for readers like myself. Maybe it's an acquired taste but it's one that I will gladly do without.