In last night’s John Malcolm Brinnin Memorial Event, “The Inside Story: Fiction at the New Yorker,” a revealing conversation unfolded between Daniel Menaker and James Gleick through historic anecdotes, textual analysis, and plenty of juicy bits.
“Was there allowed to be sex?” Gleick asked of stories that ran during Menaker’s decades-long tenure as a contributor and editor of fiction, alluding to the magazine’s restraint, especially under William Shawn, its second editor. “No,” said Menaker. From the long pause that followed, the crowd erupted in laughter, and the literary code-cracking continued.
In a candid and witty tone familiar to readers of his 2013 memoir My Mistake, Menaker chronicled his sometimes bumpy ascent at the New Yorker, where he was hired as a fact checker in 1969 and stayed for the next twenty-five years. With the support of William Maxwell—and input from other crucial characters, including Roger Angell, Robert Gottlieb, and Tina Brown—Menaker grew as an editor, eventually helping to shape the work of some of the twentieth century’s most influential writers. This year’s KWLS panelists Ann Beattie and Antonya Nelson were among them, along with Mavis Gallant, David Foster Wallace, and Alice Munro.
Of Munro, Menaker said, “She was the best: delightful, very flirty, and very open to editing suggestions and sure of her responses.” George Saunders—found in the magazine’s slush pile by Menaker’s then-assistant—”was a real breakthrough” in the New Yorker‘s shift away from a snobbish emphasis on purely realistic fiction, in Menaker’s words.
During his time at the New Yorker, fiction editors often cut final paragraphs because they trusted the reader, who didn’t necessarily need to be told the ending, Menaker explained. “Sometimes writers need help doing what they want to do,” he said, both in terms of adding to and subtracting from stories.
Despite the sometimes pejorative interpretation of what “a New Yorker story” is, stemming from those truncated endings and other signature characteristics, Menaker is optimistic about the future of fiction at the magazine. Though it has lost some of its literary centrality to a range of publications, from the Paris Review to Tin House, the New Yorker doesn’t just reflect changes in fiction—it defines them, he said, especially as it moves forward with a focus on “conscious internationalism.”
Asked by Gleick about today’s supposedly shrinking attention spans for literary fiction in the face of technological development, Menaker expressed no worry. In the tradition of Chekhov, we still have writers like Alice Munro, Ann Beattie, and Antonya Nelson working in the short form, he pointed out.
Recalling a lunch conversation with Nelson that very afternoon, he described asking her as a lover might, “How was I?” She said nice things, and he was pleased. Finally, the audience could know with certainty: Now that is a New Yorker story.