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I propose a new category: works of fiction that originally appeared in The New Yorker that later took on a life of their own apart from the magazine. Criteria for inclusion in the group would include authentic fame, to the point that people uninterested in or unacquainted with the magazine would still have heard of it or might have some well-defined attitude towards it. Revelation that the item originally appeared in The New Yorker might come as a mild surprise.

A relevant anecdote: when I was in college (this was in about 1990), I was chatting with a friend of mine, a decidedly unliterary type, a poli-sci major who later went into finance. He was telling me about this great sci-fi story he had once read, about this contraption that could insert people into novels. About halfway through his account, my face took on a look of bemused recognition. Once he was done, I said, “You know who wrote that story? Woody Allen.” I can still hear his delighted hoot of astonishment in my mind.

This sort of thing represents a tremendous accomplishment for a work of fiction, I think. Indeed, it’s arguably close to the highest “social” accomplishment that a work of fiction can attain, that it nevertheless affects people who don’t even care about books that much. You can be sure that you’ve entered the social network at large when your song is converted into Muzak form for consumption in supermarkets, you know?

For the same reason, I think the list of such works is very, very short. There’s a danger here of “merely” listing very often anthologized works, but suffice to say there’ll be some overlap. The two criteria, “taking on a life of its own” and “people would be surprised by New Yorker origins,” are not at all the same thing, so some may qualify on one but not the other.

Here’s my list in progress, in chronological order:

James Thurber, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” March 18, 1939
James Thurber, “The Catbird Seat,” November 14, 1942
J.D. Salinger, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” January 31, 1948
Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery,” June 26, 1948
John Updike, “A&P,” July 22, 1961
Woody Allen, “The Kugelmass Episode,” May 2, 1977
Philip Roth, “The Ghost Writer,” June 25, 1979
Raymond Carver, “Where I’m Calling From,” July 19, 1982
Annie Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain,” October 13, 1997

Almost all of Salinger’s stories have become part of the culture at large, even as any informed reader knows where they first appeared. Updike’s story is much anthologized, but I don’t know how much ordinary readers care about it—I think it’s a legitimate criticism of Updike’s outsize reputation (obviously quite deserved) that he has never created a fictional character with half the popular currency of, say, Portnoy. (Rabbit? Maybe. But Rabbit is not a creature of The New Yorker, alas.)

Can you think of any others? I can’t, but I’m sure there are plenty of good candidates I haven’t listed so far. Did any of Nabokov’s stories acquire its own fame at large? Irwin Shaw? John Cheever? John O’Hara? What stories have taken flight, like Charlotte’s baby spiders, far away from The New Yorker?

—Martin Schneider


“Girls in Their Summer Dresses”!

“The Swimmer” by John Cheever

You guys go on with your fiction… how about Rachel Carson? Her 3-part Reporter at Large series in June 1962 was “Silent Spring”and it pretty much began the eco movement. She wrote about man-made pesticides getting into the soil and water. It was her reporting that got DDT banned.

I like the “Swimmer” one a lot; I think that makes it.

Granted, Kevin, but it’s not difficult for nonfiction pieces to secure a spot in regular discourse. Every Sy Hersh article becomes an occasion for much discussion even by people who never look at the magazine. That is very seldom true of short stories.

We’ll do a post on super-influential reporting sometime; Carson will surely place high.

Mmm. Just read “Girls in Their Summer Dresses.” So very good.

I think anything that became a movie or play counts, so the play that was based on an Andy Borowitz Shouts would make it. I vote for including Shouts under fiction as we consider this list, because it basically is, right?

I think I’m going to drive you crazy, Martin, but I’m submitting The Addams Family and the animated Unicorn in the Garden and Little Kings. Not to mention “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” and Steinberg’s “View of the World From Ninth Avenue” (and all its variations).

How about Eustace Tilley, who’s fictional, himself? He’s got a whole life beyond the world of the magazine, but not, I guess, apart from it. And I’m surprised Kevin didn’t argue for at least several Dorothy Parker contributions, from “Résumé” (“You might as well live”) to “Big Blonde” and other fiction, much anthologized (or is it? Kevin?). And at least a few Raymond Carver, William Trevor, and Lorrie Moore stories have an active life outside the circle of people who first read them in the magazine, judging from the number of times that Google searches for them lead people to this site. Also, no J.D. Salinger or Eudora Welty?

And add Hiroshima to the list of nonfiction that became its own phenomenon. I’m sure I’ll want to argue for Nicholson Baker, too. Let’s include, on that list, any piece that spurred some kind of recorded action, like a protest, a law, a resignation. Oh, and In Cold Blood, of course! (Stephen Jay Gould and Oliver Sacks may make an appearance, too. And probably John Gunther.)

My pièce de résistance for now: the John O’Hara stories that inspired Pal Joey! And the story that became (or the excerpt from; I better look this up) Pnin! I guess The Orchid Thief doesn’t count by these criteria, since it’s clear in the movie that Susan Orlean is writing for The New Yorker.

my sister eileen, life with father, and some very, very good roald dahl.

Kudos to ken for reminding me about Dahl; I hadn’t realized so many of his good stories appeared in The New Yorker.

Hehe, Emily’s quite right, that comment does drive me a little batty. But it somehow manages both to derail and to elevate the thread all at once. And I can’t really argue against any of them. So well done!

(But I did address Salinger. )

Oh, and as for Carver, I mentioned him too and, looking at the CNY, I think it’d be hard to argue for any of his other stories as having the kind of lasting impact that “Where I’m Calling From” does. If “Cathedral” or “A Small Good Thing” or “So Much Water So Close to Home” had appeared in The New Yorker, well, they’d probably’ve been on my original list.

I’m addressing these all piecemeal, but Pnin is an interesting case; I did consider it. The trouble with Pnin, in my view, is twofold. First, it’s a series of stories that (I guess) was released as a single book, which makes it complicated, I suppose. Second, I think of Pnin as something that’s more referenced than read.

However, this is to set a pretty high bar. People do know about Pnin; it makes the grade.

This is an interesting thought. I’m young and haven’t been a new yorker reader for very long, so it’s cool to see some history of the magazine and what it’s contributed to literature. I knew about the Salinger, but didn’t know Woody Allen was first published there. (I love Side Effects). I’m wondering about your mention of Portnoy, though. Did Updike also use that name, or are you thinking of Phillip Roth and ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’?

Glad you’re enjoying it! I wish you years of pleasure plumbing the magazine’s depths.

As for Portnoy: no, I meant Roth. I’m saying Roth is capable of creating a character as accessible as Portnoy, but Updike, for whatever reason, never did that.

I was surprised to see The Ghost Writer; it’s my favorite Roth, just about, but I don’t think it had the sort of pop culture fame that Goodbye, Columbus experienced. Perhaps I’m missing why you would have excluded that one. (I’m skimming this somewhat quickly, in a burst of multi-tasking.) Goodbye, Columbus became a film, of course, with songs by the band THE ASSOCIATION, including the single, GOODBYE, COLUMBUS.

I love these kinds of lists and thank you for this and other posts.

Louis VeneziaAugust 27, 2007

Now I’m wondering if you chose The Ghost Writer because it is the first of so many Zuckerman stories. That’s brilliant.

Louis VeneziaAugust 27, 2007

I’m not really sure why I chose “The Ghost Writer.” I wish I had been being as smart as your justifications would imply. The obvious reason I left out “Goodbye, Columbus” is that it didn’t appear in The New Yorker. “Defender of the Faith” was the early Roth that did appear there, so the question becomes, Does the relative fame of “Defender” (having appeared in the “Goodbye, Columbus” collection that put Roth on the map) trump “The Ghost Writer,” which may not be “popular” but is still singular in Roth’s oeuvre? I don’t know; “Defender” is great too but people know it all that well.

You said it yourself: it’s your favorite Roth. It might be my favorite Roth, too. You get extra points for that sort of thing. Since Roth doesn’t publish in The New Yorker all that terribly often (although over the years, it does add up), it still surprises me that “The Ghost Writer” appeared there.

What a fool I’ve been! I assumed “Goodbye, Columbus” appeared in the magazine. Perhaps a new category… pieces we thought were introduced by The New Yorker, but weren’t. Forgive my mistake. And thanks again for the great list.

I love “The Ghost Writer.” I guess all writers do. But I also think it could be a great story for young people. I certainly wish I had found it earlier than I did.

Louis VeneziaAugust 27, 2007

An eminent personage who knows his New Yorker adds:

“Zooey”? “Franny”? Barthelme’s “Snow White”?

I don’t know specific titles, but surely some of Dorothy Parker’s stuff was first published in the NYer?

Emily WilkinsonAugust 27, 2007

Barthelme was the name I thought I’d be springing on y’all. I was stunned when I found out, years back, how much of his stuff had appeared in the magazine. I wouldn’t be as surprised if they published him today, but he’s the exact opposite of the traditional New Yorker story of decades ago.

James: I totally agree. I didn’t realize how often (Donald) Barthelme’s stuff appeared there either. If I told you that The New Yorker has published 60 of his stories over the years, would that surprise you? The actual number is 120. (His brother Frederick had 23.)

I’m looking now at a August 28, 1965, story by Donald called “Snap Snap.” I quote from the NYer abstract: “This piece begins with 23 quotations from TIME and NEWSWEEK in which a person has ‘snapped’ a remark.” I love that! So yes, he doesn’t exactly seem like he’s doing the typical Cheever-ish meditations on alcoholics in the suburbs.

I need guidance on Barthelme, as it happens. Anyone care to compile a short list of his top NYer stories? Hint, hint.

By the bye, I totally agree that “Franny,” “Zooey,” and all of their “Carpenter” friends make it.

This is a great list in the making. I remember the New Yorker having a cartoon book, have they ever done a fiction anthology? Is there a recent one? If not, they might think about it. It worked for Playboy— for both the interviews and the Sci-Fi. (I have the Book of Playboy Science Fiction on my shelf. It contains some great writers like, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., J.G. Ballard, Stephen King, and Ray Bradbury. If not for this book, I wouldn’t have had the chance to read these stories… except that many of them were reprinted elsewhere.)

There have been surprisingly many such collections of stories in the past, Bryan. Check out these eBay auctions:

Link 1 Link 2

Here’s an interesting-looking one with poems:

An anthology of best NYer fiction since 1925 would be amazing, of course. Even one of the best stories since 1990 or something would be good. I suppose there are a lot of fiction anthologies around now, maybe that’s one reason they don’t do it today, the gap in the market got filled up.

Borges’ “The gospel according to Marcus”
I was amazed that it was first published in the NYer, I heard it recently on the fiction podcast –it’s amazing

I am pretty sure some of the Pal Joey letters originally appeared in the New Yorker. I dare say the stories’ adaptation as a musical will long outlast that of “Brokeback Mountain.”

Richard RabicoffMarch 25, 2008

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