I ask a friend for podcast recommendations to assuage the thudding boredom of stationary bike sessions, and the short attention spans of teenagers on long trips, who while away the hours with ears jammed with hearing-damaging earphones listening to stuff which I assume to be awful, as most parents unthinkingly do. Also, I recently took on an assignment which required 90 minutes of driving daily, and having exhausted the desperate efforts of SAFM and 702 and Power FM to hold my attention, am in need of more nurturing fare.
A literate friend of mine points me to the New Yorker Fiction podcasts – free and plentiful. Download onto my iPhone, plug in the Aux cable in the car (or one of at least 3 other easy electronic umbilicals), et voila – an embarrassment of riches.
But there is a difference here. Firstly, The New Yorker magazine has been, since 1925, the most prestigious publisher of short stories in the world. There was a time when a story in the New Yorker was the young writer’s slightly cracked door to the wider world of novelistic legitimacy. The story of the New Yorker editors (particularly fiction editors) are legend, and hold a great chimera for me – fiction between the thin, glossy and hallowed covers of this magazine meant greatness, and I remembered hungrily gorging on them in my two decades in the US (although I was less successful at fully understanding the droll cartoons, often beyond my cultural reference points).
So here is how it works. A famous current author is contacted by the New Yorker fiction editor, and asked to choose a short story from their voluminous archives, and to discuss the choice, then read the story, excavating it in glorious detail the nuances and textures and mysteries of the piece with the editor, currently one deeply impressive, intimidating and (if I may I be impolitic) sexy sounding Deborah Treisman.
Not any old excavation, mind you. The famous author and Treisman burrow enthusiastically and deep, turning over the meanings of sentences and and single lines of dialogue and minute descriptive details in a 10 minute orgy of literary analysis. Remember – the author chooses the piece to read, so it is not really literary criticism ( a scary field peopled by scary people) , but rather a joyous celebration of the wonder of this piece, and its author.
I have not done much reading of short stories. The exhausting investments that I have made in creating the substance for my own novels have kept me away from the bloody truth of a short story collection, which is that some author had to create a separate world, narrative, plot, characters about 10 times over, without repeating him or herself before publication. Too scary for me by half.
But I have a new appreciation for this genre now. In longer fiction, the margin for error is perhaps a tad larger. A less than perfect sentence, a slightly tinny line on dialogue can be subsumed into the service of the greater good, its influence of excellence or lack thereof diluted by shear volume of 80,000 words. Not so in the short story, where brevity becomes its own microscope, every sentence imbued with greater meaning, fighting for survival in a small pond of possibilities.
But having sat in silent awe of the NY Fiction podcasts, narcotisised by the pure and spangled talents of these authors ( I listened to Thomas Mcguane and VS Pritchett in the last 24 hours), and their gentle curators, I am sold.
If you love books, stories, writing – treat yourself – this is as good as it gets.