The New Yorker’s New Fiction
Would Eustace Say?
Bill Buford’s fiction choices have helped to define the new New Yorker,
New Yorker has been called many things: A high church, precise and beautiful,
the gentlest of magazines.
On a spring day six years ago, Bill Buford climbed 20 stories into the quiet, airy corridors of the 76-year-old magazine. He unpacked his belongings in a corner office and went to work.
In his first year, Buford printed a story in which a character masturbated on a beloved’s grave. Another story featured a sexual encounter between a poetry professor and a younger man. "He got up on his knees and, putting his hand on top of my head, asked me to go down on him again," one passage read.
Buford, a former boxer, a writer, a salsa dancer, received letters. Many letters.
"You are obviously a perverted sick man," one said. "It is not surprising therefore that the fiction you publish is repellent. I can’t read it without washing my hands afterwards. Your mind is obviously no more sophisticated than a testicle."
Buford recounted these experiences in an article he wrote for The Guardian of London. He noted that 50 times a year he published stories that "on the whole, do not deal with the behavior of the penis."
Yet he appeared to delight in the controversy.
There was some charm, Buford wrote, in the notion that "fiction, long considered the most marginal of magazine activities, has enough bite that it is making some people uneasy."
In Buford’s six years as literary and fiction editor at The New Yorker, he has continued publishing short stories with a bite. At times, he’s printed fiction that is erotic, immodest and provocative.
In the process, Buford has further opened the magazine’s pages to a diversity of themes, even as Bob Gottlieb relaxed restrictions on language in the 1980s, when he took over from William Shawn.
Buford also has transplanted some of the bold and gritty writers he favored at Granta, a literary journal he began work on 15 years ago in a hot attic above a Cambridge hairdresser. He turned the ailing publication into Britain’s premier literary journal. He did it by printing writers such as Jeanette Winterson, T. Coraghessan Boyle and Ian McEwan, whom he has now run in The New Yorker.
Buford has also offered his readers new, younger writers, such as Junot Diáz and Jhumpa Lahiri. And at the same time, he’s still printing New Yorker darlings, such as John Updike and Alice Munro.
As Buford enters his sixth year, he continues the complicated dance of extending the magazine’s borders for fiction and preserving its tradition for more than 800,000 readers who resubscribe every year at the astonishing rate of 78 percent, according to editor David Remnick.
On a gray, rainy afternoon, Buford sat inside his office on 42nd Street. Thick manuscripts coated his desk. Literary journals, books and newspaper clippings crowded all surfaces and shelves. A pair of boxing gloves, a present from Roger Angell, dangled from his closet door. Several national magazine awards rested on the windowsill.
Buford, a man of medium height and build with pensive eyes and a graying beard, leaned casually over his desk, his head cradled in his hands.
"Well, I get in about 9:30 a.m.," he said. "Then I procrastinate as royally and steadily as I can. Then I go to the fourth-floor Condé Nast cafeteria and get breakfast. Then I try to fill up my time so that I can go back down for a coffee at 11 a.m. Then I see if I can do email and go back for an early lunch."
Buford believes the fiction has changed since he joined the magazine. "I think it’s gotten a little more animated," he said.
One particular change is the in-house excitement for fiction, Buford said. One staffer is dedicated to creating excitement about fiction in the outside world, scheduling readings by writers and actors in clubs from New York to Los Angeles to London. Fiction is featured prominently at the yearly New Yorker Festival, where writers fan out across the city and read their work.
"There’s some excitement about fiction now," he said, leaning back in his chair. "It’s not fully my doing. It results from the interest that’s shown from the other people here. We’ve gotten a kind of buzz thing going from the fiction."
Buford said he’s also influenced the fiction by having about 15 writers sign agreements that reward them "modestly" for showing him their writing before they submit it elsewhere. Those writers include Richard Ford, Louise Erdrich, Amy Tan and Rick Moody.
Buford also has pushed the magazine to print young writers with diverse perspectives, particularly in its special fiction issues.
One such writer is Jhumpa Lahiri, who published her most recent story in the magazine on March 12 of this year. Titled "Nobody’s Business," the story features a Bengali woman named Sang, thirty and smart and pretty, a philosophy major from New York University. The story focuses on Sang’s troubled relationship with her boyfriend and her cursory interaction with her new roommate, Paul, who becomes strangely drawn into her experiences.
"The arguments started around Thanksgiving. Paul would hear Sang crying into the phone in her room, the gray plastic cord stretched across the linoleum and then across the landing, disappearing under her door," one paragraph read. The story, a combination of eruptive action and long, meditative moments, is indicative of Buford’s interest in young writers who view the world with an immigrant’s eye.
Junot Diáz is another writer that fits this category. From the Dominican Republic, Diaz had his debut in The New Yorker in the winter of 1995. "Introducing a new talent" was the announcement under his name.
In a brazen, sassy piece called "How to Date a Brown Girl," Diáz wrote: "Hide the picture of yourself with an Afro. Make sure the bathroom is presentable. Since your toilet can’t flush toilet paper, put the bucket with all the crapped-on toilet paper under the sink. Spray the bucket with Lysol, then close the lid."
Both writers are examples of new voices Buford and his fiction editors have discovered and launched into literary
success by printing their work in The New Yorker.
Some literary agents nevertheless believe Buford hasn’t opened the magazine enough.
"A lot of exciting young writers who don’t fit The New Yorker mold are going unnoticed by the magazine," said one who asked that her name not be used because she submits pieces to Buford regularly. "They don’t feature new voices, they don’t hear new sounds. I think the ghost of John Updike survives in there."
Buford disagrees. "Unfortunately," he said, "there are some angry assholes in this business. Sounds like sour grapes to me."
Another distinguishing characteristic of Buford’s fiction selection is his tendency to feature stories exploring monogamy, sexual relationships and dysfunctional sex.
One book editor characterized his style as "melancholy adultery in hotel rooms."
"There’s a much higher level of testosterone in the stories," said the editor, who also asked to remain nameless. "There’s a kind of intensely male sensibility, an edgy one, that’s coming out of the fiction more than previously. Even the women writers have it."
Buford also prints "more dirty words," the editor said.
Buford admits he had a reputation for printing "boy’s stuff" at Granta. He said he knows critics called the quarterly journal too male, too laddish, too rough.
Granta definitely featured more male writers, he said. But that was in part because more males were submitting good pieces, he said.
That’s changed, and the number of female fiction writers in The New Yorker continues to rise, he said. "It has been observed that this section of the magazine has one of the better gender ratios," Buford said.
In 1970, the magazine published 93 stories by men and 31 by women. In 1998, it published 27 stories by men and 19 by women. Remnick said the current gender breakdown for fiction is about 55 percent male and 45 percent female.
There is perhaps a degree of truth in what the book editor said about Buford’s fiction. Take, for instance, a story called "The Birthday Present," written by Andrea Lee and published in the Jan. 22 issue. It does, in fact, concern melancholy adultery, but in an apartment rather than a hotel room. The story is about a wife, Ariel, who gives her husband two prostitutes for his birthday, an act of both malice and intrigue.
"They were flashy, let’s put it that way," Ariel’s husband told her after the encounter. "The dark one, Beba, had an amazing body, but her friend had a better face. The worst thing was having to eat with them—and in that horrendous restaurant. Whose idea was that, yours or Flavio’s?"
And about the dirty words.
A story written by Stephen King that Buford published in the January 29 issue is about salesman Alfie Zimmer in a hotel room in Nebraska, contemplating suicide. He has a book of sayings collected over years of traveling the highways.
"‘Here I sit, brokenhearted, tried to shit but only farted.’ Everyone knew that one, but here was an interesting variation from Double D Steaks in Hooker, Oklahoma: ‘Here I sit, I’m at a loss, trying to shit out taco sauce. I know I’m going to drop a load, only hope I don’t explode,’" one passage read.
Yet Buford continues preserving classic New Yorker fiction. Two weeks after the Lahiri story ran, Buford printed one by Updike.
"The magazine is a powerful thing, a thing people cherish," said Vijay Seshadri, a former New Yorker editor. "You don’t violate it to any degree, no matter who you are. If you come to The New Yorker, you sort of take on that mantle."
That mantle changed significantly about a decade before Buford arrived. A former editor, Robert Gottlieb, a long-time Manhattan resident who always dreamed of running The New Yorker, opened the gates for certain types of fiction in the 1980s. He allowed profanity and references to bodily functions and sex.
During Gottlieb’s time, fiction writers such as Richard Ford, Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie and Julie Hecht were printed in the magazine. Some of the additions, like Hecht, fit the "classic New Yorker mold," Ben Yagoda wrote in his book, About Town.
Yet others, such as Ford’s "dirty realism," began to alter it.
"The fiction changed under the editors that preceded Buford," said Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, former daily book critic for The New York Times. "Gottlieb opened the door," another book editor said. "Buford really rammed through it."
Before he got there, former editor Tina Brown, who hired him, had reduced the amount of fiction to one story a week and pushed it to the back of the magazine, where it has stayed ever since.
Remnick has a hand in fiction, suggesting or vetoing pieces he doesn’t like, but leaves the selection mostly in Buford’s hands. "If I were making a commercial decision, to be honest, one would just not have fiction," he said. The magazine’s nonfiction pieces likely receive the heaviest traffic, not the fiction, Remnick said. "But I don’t care," he said. "This is not a magazine by poll or trying to imagine what the reader would like best or feel comfortable with. This magazine is an extension of what we like."
Buford says his fiction is guided mostly by his tastes. "I can remember in Britain in 1981, I had a feeling," he said. "There was a need for something that wasn’t there. I could almost articulate it. There was a need for a fiction that would renew one’s confidence in narrative, that could account for the limitations of narrative but still be narrative, that could take on bigger questions."
Writers were doing stories in search of stories in search of authors, he said, and he compared it to bald men fighting over a comb. "Then I remember reading Midnight’s Children, and it actually satisfied a specific appetite for something people weren’t doing. That’s one of the rare times I felt there was something I was looking for and it wasn’t there and it suddenly arrived and there’s this exhilarating moment and I got all excited and I jumped up and down."
Currently, Buford says, he’s not particularly gravitating toward any certain type of fiction.
"I don’t have a good feeling at the moment about what is distinguishing current fiction. I think we’re right in the middle of it," he said.