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The New Yorker fiction podcast: how it’s great and how it could be improved

I was having some difficulty with radio reception on my bike a few years ago so I switched to prerecorded music and podcasts. This American Life is the best, but if I’m going a lot of places I can exhaust the supply of recent episodes. For awhile I was listening to Wait Wait which is just fine (the live show is fun too) but after awhile became too much same old same old. Recently I’ve been listening to the New Yorker fiction podcast, which is just great.

The New Yorker fiction podcasts have a pattern. A current New Yorker fiction writer reads a story published in the New Yorker that was written by someone else. Sometimes the story is decades old, sometimes it’s recent. The episode starts with the New Yorker fiction editor discussing the story with the guest, then the guest reads the story aloud, then there’s more discussion of the story.

I like about a third of the stories, so what I’ll do is start listening to an episode, then I might listen to it all the way through, or I might skip it and go to the next one, if the initial interview or the story itself is just too boring. (Just my take; I recognize that a story that I find boring, others might love.) The stories with cute fabulism, or the ones that take place in 1950s rural Ireland, those I usually skip.

But one in three isn’t bad. Sometimes the stories are old favorites like The Lottery—which I’d read many years ago, but only when hearing it aloud did I realize how much it was about sexism—other times they’re new discoveries for me. Also, some guests are particularly fun to listen to.

The discussions are often really interesting. Lots of back-and-forth, and the editor/interviewer, Deborah Treisman, has good thoughts and also keeps the conversation moving along. I like how the conversations go on two levels: the craft of the writer and the world of the story. There are lots of discussions along the lines of, Why did character X do action Y? What is going to happen next? How would character Z react under certain circumstances? And so forth.

The only way I think these conversations could be improved would for them to be occasionally critical.

I’ve listened to dozens of these episodes, and they’ve all been relentlessly positive. Guest after guest says how they love the story, how the author is so brilliant, etc etc etc. Never a critical word.

Celebration is fine. But writers, even celebrated New Yorker writers, are just people. Their stories are not perfect. Or, even if the stories are perfect, they can still be poked.

For example, the most recent episode I listened to was Roddy Doyle reading Lorrie Moore. I liked it. I’m a Lorrie Moore fan, and I’d never heard Doyle speak: he had a great accent and was really thoughtful, an excellent choice to read and discuss a story. Moore’s story, Community Life, was thought-provoking and funny, and it featured an appealing female character who was a bit of a victim and had to deal with an unappealing man. This happens a lot in Moore’s stories, and I would’ve liked to to hear Doyle and Treisman discuss this: Not just how great Moore is, but did she really have to make this character, too, a passive victim? Did she always have to do it this way? Does Moore weaken the story by stacking the deck, as it were, by making her female character impeccably moral and her male character a bit repulsive?

Similarly, I’d be interested in hearing the same discussion, in reverse, when they discuss a John Updike story. Updike presents the male perspective, where the man is always the hero. Even when the male character behaves badly, you’re still seeing things from his perspective, and, arguably, the female characters aren’t fully real. With Moore it’s the reverse: it’s always a sane, funny, sensitive woman having to deal with the brutish men in her life. That’s fine—it’s her perspective, and if Updike can have a successful career with his view of the world, Moore’s entitled to hers too. You might as well criticize Philip Roth for writing about Jews from Newark, or criticize Philip K. Dick for never writing a book without a strong measure of paranoia.

I want to hear a more critical discussion because I think it would be more interesting, to not just say what the story did right but to also consider how it might’ve been different, and even better, in some way. The point is not that Moore, or Updike, or whoever, should’ve written it differently, it’s just to explore possibilities. Some of this exploration is limited by the restriction to only say positive things.

In any case, I’ll keep listening.

P.S. In the never-gonna-happen world in which I get to go on this podcast and pick my favorite New Yorker fiction story, I’d pick something by Malcolm Gladwell. Not really. That was just a joke. Actually, my favorite New Yorker story is Adam Gopnik’s The Musical Husbands.

19 Comments

  1. gec says:

    Sounds like a fun podcast, I suppose we all now have ample time to check it out :-[.

    I agree considering alternatives to the story could be interesting, but I worry that in many cases it could boil down to my least favorite type of criticism in which the critic declares, “it would have been better if only the author had done X.” This type of criticism presupposes that the author’s goals are the same as the critic’s and ignores the other constraints the author had been working to satisfy. And these aren’t just technical constraints, often pulling on one thread in the story unravels another (e.g., maybe Amanda should have saved Charlie but this wouldn’t be consistent with how Amanda’s character was developed and would require fundamental changes throughout). Basically, talk is cheap—it’s easy to say how you would improve a piece of writing but hard to actually accomplish.

    But, of course, talk is what podcasts are literally about, and the fact that there’s stuff to discuss means this could, indeed, be fun to hear intelligent and full-hearted people argue about; so that’s good!

    But second, my distaste for the “author should have done X” style of criticism pertains to manuscript reviewing as well—except in the case of clear technical mistakes (poorly specified models, experiments that don’t correctly realize the theoretical constructs the authors are interested in) it is generally more helpful to say, “this didn’t work for me” or “this didn’t seem to fit” and let the authors address those problems in their own way (or fail to do so) rather than try to invent an ill-informed solution.

  2. jim says:

    Selected Shorts has tons of great stories, beautifully read mostly by Broadway actors.

    Here’s the audiobook that has Updike’s essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”, originally published in the New Yorker. One of the best stories I’ve ever heard.

    If you’ve ever listened to a David McCullough read, you know good writers aren’t always good readers! :)

  3. Ben says:

    > In the never-gonna-happen world in which I get to go on this podcast

    Oh wait I just read that again. Have you asked? Dr. Oz gets his own TV show! Seems like you could get on the New Yorker pod.

  4. Nice post. I haven’t been able to make non-fiction audio work for me, but I suppose there’s hope.

    What caught my attention was this sentence; “The only way I think these conversations could be improved would for them to be occasionally critical.”

    For whatever reason, it strikes me that the ‘culture’ of the Web seems to have originated in Lake Wobegone, where everything is not just good, but Ever-So-Much-More-So good. Not adhering to that orientation is one of the things that makes this space worthwhile. And 1- and 2-star reviews on Amazon much more informative.

    Cheers.

  5. Terry says:

    The New Yorker is a real treasure. So much of the writing is just enormously skillful and a delight to read. All of it, including the non-fiction article in each issue. Sometimes the sheer skill makes an article worth reading even if the subject itself isn’t very interesting.

  6. Terry says:

    The only way I think these conversations could be improved would for them to be occasionally critical.

    I’ve listened to dozens of these episodes, and they’ve all been relentlessly positive. Guest after guest says how they love the story, how the author is so brilliant, etc etc etc. Never a critical word.

    On the other hand, only people who are going to read and enjoy a story are interested in a deep discussion of the story. People who won’t like a story need only a warning to not read it with maybe a short explanation of why. Therefore, if there is a non-trivial group of people who will enjoy a story, the discussion should be tailored to them.

  7. CraigM says:

    The New Yorker has another fiction podcast, The Writer’s Voice, which has authors reading their own work, but no discussion.

    While I enjoy the familiar voices of high-profile actors reading fiction on NPR’s Selected Shorts, sometimes they do so well that their voice subsequently replaces the author’s in my head – for example, after listening to “The Moons of Jupiter” several times over the years, I now subconsciously hear Holly Hunter’s voice whenever I read Alice Munro. While it is a nice voice and a nice accent, it generates a certain amount of private cognitive dissonance reading this most Canadian author with a Georgia accent. On the other hand, writers are generally much better with a keyboard than a microphone, and many of the stories on The Writer’s Voice fall flat. I listen to podcast fiction to deal with a sleep disorder, so boring isn’t necessarily bad, so for me the uneven vocal acting technique of the authors isn’t much of a drawback. You can always skip to the next story if it isn’t engaging.

    As a timely example of a good story that benefits from the author’s voice, I think T.C. Boyle’s “The Fugitive” (about TB quarantine, not coronavirus) is still up from 2016. He is a great writer and an okay vocal actor.

  8. zbicyclist says:

    1. I love this podcast.

    2. I like The Writer’s Voice as well; it’s probably too much to expect an author to explain/discuss their own work, though. Have to look up that T.C. Boyle episode.

    3. Picking a story in order to be critical of it sounds like something Dorothy Parker might do. (In fact, there’s a reference to this sort of behavior by Parker in the episode “Andrew Sean Greer Reads Dorothy Parker”.)

    4. I know that witty takedowns aren’t what Andrew has in mind here, but remember the marketing angle to this: the podcast is supposed to reinforce the New Yorker branding as a source of wonderful, classic short stories and top writers. And the writer who’s reading them is supposed to pick a story that they particularly like and want to discuss. So things are pretty much guaranteed to have a positive slant. Plus, the authors (mostly) aren’t college professors who do literary criticism.

    • Andrew says:

      Zbicyclist:

      Sure, but just to clarify: I’m not saying that people should be looking for stories to criticize. What I mean is that, even if I pick one of my favorite stories ever, I still might find some things about it that I can question. I have no problem with the positive slant; I just found it a bit wearying when the comments are 100% positive, with all sorts of things about how brilliant the author was, etc. An author can be brilliant but still there can be questions to ask.

  9. Ryan says:

    Speaking of podcasts, we were excited to feature Susan Gelman’s research on Parsing Science a couple of months ago. Her recent work on generic language in science publications is very interesting. Good listening for an upcoming bike ride.

    • Andrew says:

      Ryan:

      Yes, Susan’s work is excellent. I followed your link and clicked through to the research article, which had this interesting line:

      Using generic language is especially problematic if authors overgeneralize from small or unrepresentative samples.

      Which reminded me of this email discussion I had several years ago with a prominent psychology professor at a renowned East Coast university (not Columbia) who thought it was “absurd” to criticize a psychology paper for making generalizations from unrepresentative samples. Those generic statements are just so appealing!

      • Ryan says:

        This situation is especially problematic when “Indeed, despite a near-universal tendency to report empirical results in generic terms, over 70% of the papers we sampled supplied no clear information about participants’ race, SES, or language, consistent with other findings in the literature” (from general discussion section). Not only are the generalizations derived from unrepresentative samples, the samples are routinely not even described in the most general terms by the authors.

        Her paper gives hope for PNAS, though PNAS articles were also included in their sample of articles.

        Wonderful research, and she explains it so well. It was a great pleasure to learn from her.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        The link from “thought” doesn’t work — goes right back to this page.

  10. Brian says:

    Andrew,

    “A Very Fatal Murder” is an excellent podcast.

  11. aok1425 says:

    I think part of the reason why they’re not critical is that it’s difficult to “make it” as a writer. So they want to support each other, and not say anything negative. I recall John Updike saying that when he had to review a book he didn’t like, he asked his editor to have someone else review it.

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