Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: “The New Yorker: Fiction”

Posted by Maximum Fun on 13th September 2009

When we think of short stories, we think of two settings. The first is junior high English class, in which we endured period after tedious period forced to decipher layer upon alleged layer of symbol and metaphor. What does the key mean? Uh… What does it mean when the wife raises the blinds? Er… What point is the author making by having the protagonist squint knowingly into the sunlight? Urm… Given state-mandated years of that treatment, it’s no wonder that even some literarily-minded students come up hating the things and the entire canon they form.

The second setting, the New Yorker, remains — at least to your Podthinker’s mind — perhaps the last mainstream provider of a steady stream of short-form fiction. This may just be the bias talking, but doesn’t the medium of podcasting constitute a pretty promising lifeline for the long-suffering short story as well? After all, people seem to enjoy hearing august personages read things out loud, and podcasting has become the most accesible means to distribute such experiences. These people specifically seem to like hearing stories, of which the magazine has direct access to an enormous archive containing some of the 20th century’s finest, most important examples of the form. And as far as august personages go, hey, it’s the New Yorker, the (usually) nonlethal bug zapper of the august personage.

Needless to say, then, that the intersection of the New Yorker‘s fiction section and podcasting [iTunes] [XML] merits a serious listen. Those listening for nothing more than a quality-controlled feed of brief audio fictions could hardly do better than this (though it must be said that they should prepare themselves for a once-a-month drip feed). The mix includes well-known classics along with oddball entries from the back pages and newish, relatively cutting-edge material as well. Think John Cheever [MP3] alongside Veronica Geng [MP3] alongside Max Fun favorite George Saunders [MP3].

But there’s a bonus! Reading these high-stature authors are not hourly-rate “voice talent” but other high-stature authors like Tobias Wolff [MP3], Joyce Carol Oates [MP3] and Jonathan Lethem [MP3]. Not only does each author read the story of their choice, they discuss it before and after with the host of the day, and not in an crammng-for-the-in-class-essay-on-the-key-blinds-and-squint-symbolism way, either. Being writers of fiction themselves, they know well just how much and exactly in what way one can discuss a story before seeming ridiculous. And above all, they realize to a person that pure enthusiasm for the piece of work, not brute decoding power applied to it, matters most.

The New Yorker‘s fiction podcast, like the New Yorker itself, whips up a reliably solid serving of content on a regular basis; time spent with what they put out never feels like time wasted. A thin release schedule and distinct lack of experiment and surprise may be the price one pays for those advantages, but this project still explores a rich possibility in podcasting, and if the New Yorker doesn’t quite want to push its boundaries, at least it very professionally lights the way for other podcasters to do so. Beats diagramming sentences.

Vital stats:
Format: short story read-aloud, plus discussion
Running since: May 2007
Duration: 10m-40m
Frequency: monthly
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Questions, comments, ideas, suggestions or threats for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]