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Thirteen Thousand Rats: Or, the State of Literature Today

Updated on September 6, 2008

I subscribe to The New Yorker. Here in the Ozarks this is unusual. A local educator who had volunteered to work with Bow on his English once remarked: "You always have such strange magazines lying around."

The New Yorker has great cartoons, interesting articles, and it opens a window on a world that is not available to me out here in the country. But the real reason I subscribe to the New Yorker is the fiction. And it's not exactly because I like the fiction. It's because I'm curious about what passes for good literature these days.

One day, I was leafing through the New Yorker when this illustration jumped out at me. It was of a man covered by white rats, and it went with a story entitled "Thirteen Hundred Rats". I said to my daughter: "Look at what they publish, instead of my stories!" My daughter turned to me and said: "Well, maybe you should try to make it more clear what your stories are about. For instance, this one is very clearly labeled. It's about thirteen hundred rats, so anyone who wants to read it knows right away what it's about. And secondly, there's a picture that shows very clearly what it's about. When you send in your stories, you should attach a picture that shows what the story is about."

I had to laugh. Yes, that would solve the whole problem!

My daughter's take on the issue was refreshingly simple. While she was mistaken about the mechanics of story illustration -- an accepted story gets an illustration; it doesn't get accepted because of an accompanying illustration -- she did have a point.

The New Yorker stories, no matter how well polished the prose is, are primarily concrete-bound. That is, the events of the plot don't seem to have an abstract theme that they are illustrating. So, in a way, what you see is what you get.

My own writing uses concrete events to explore abstract themes. It harks back to the prose of the 19th century, when plot and theme were closely integrated, and when a story wasn't really a story unless it had a beginning, a middle and end. The climax of the story would resolve both plot and theme, leaving one with a strong emotional and intellectual pay-off.

In contrast, the writing featured in The New Yorker tends to have straight-line plots that feature downward tajectories, little complication, and predictable endings.

For instance:

1. Bereaved husband buys a pet snake to relieve loneliness.

2. In order to feed the snake, he gets a rat.

3. Feeling sorry for the rat, he lets the snake die.

4. When he returns to the pet shop, he does not admit that the snake has died, so the owner sells him more rats, to feed to the snake.

5. The man is found dead several months later in a house swarming with rats.

If you think I'm kidding, follow the link to The New Yorker. You can read the story yourself. The question is: what is the reader supposed to make of this?

While "Thirteen Hundred Rats" is perhaps an extreme example of this, all of the stories in The New Yorker follow this pattern, to some extent. Annie Proulx is a great writer, in the sense that she is able to write page-turning prose with great descriptive power. But what does a typical plot look like?

  1. Two uneducated teenagers hook up, marry, and start a homestead.
  2. They are able to subsist on the land, but they get tired of it, and so the boy goes to work on a ranch as a hired hand.
  3. Meanwhile, the girl stays on the homestead alone in an advancing state of pregnancy.
  4. The baby is still-born during the winter, and when the girl goes to bury it, she attracts the attention of coyotes (or wolves) outside.
  5. The young man gets sick, and en route to a doctor freezes to death in a snowstorm.
  6. In the spring, neighbors discover that the girl was eaten by wild animals.

Most of the stories in The New Yorker have an unhappy ending, but that isn't the real problem. It's not tragedy that I object to. After all, one could write a story about Joan of Arc in which she gets burned at the stake in the end, and yet it wouldn't be a pointless story. It would be a story about heroism and the struggle of an individual for what she believes in.

We can sympathize with Joan of Arc, even though she does die in the end, defeated. But the peculiar effect of the The New Yorker stories is that we don't sympathize with the characters. We are almost being asked to jeer at them as they die alone in tragi-comic circumstances.

Perhaps the straight-line descending plot that The New Yorker favors does have hidden thematic underpinnings. One comes away from these stories disheartened, feeling that not only the characters in the story have been belittled and dismissed, but that maybe all of us can expect the same treatment.

I will continue to subscribe to the New Yorker, because it represents the state of our culture today. The writers they publish have great skill, and I look forward to the day when they are allowed to direct their energy to saying something worthwhile.

(c) 2008 Aya Katz

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    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Ryan, the issue is not optimism versus pessimism. It is not a happy ending versus an unhappy ending. The issue is whether we see people as heroic or not. The issue is also whether we think there could be a solution to our problems that would not be degrading, even if that solution is not found in the story in question.

      Greek tragedies are uplifting precisely because we do recognize the greatness and nobility in the tragic character. "We the Living", a novel by Ayn Rand, ends tragically for the heroine, but is not degrading to the reader.

      Everything being neatly tied up at the end, of course, has nothing to do with lack of profundity and everything to do with a well designed story. But being tied up neatly does not necessarily mean a happy ending.

    • profile image

      Ryan 7 years ago

      In my experience, optimism and profundity don't mix.

      Whether it's Dumas, Coelho or Austen (all of whom I abhor equally), I find a similar effect: an optimistic outlook that is the aesthetic equivalent of Aspirin.

      The ancient Greeks, such as Sophocles, seemed to grasp this. If everything is neatly tied up at the end, it gives the text a contrived quality that curls that my toes.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      China Man, thanks for your comment. In one sense, you are probably right that there is "nothing new under the sun" and even the best constructed new story will have some elements in common with pre-existing stories. Still, I write, and I have also read original, well constructed stories that are anything but old hat. As for bodice rippers, if they have something new to say, then they can stand with the best that the ancients produced, if they are also well written.

    • profile image

      china man 7 years ago

      The stories you outline would appear to me to be about modern society which is pretty much much at a dead end at the moment - while mindlessly exploring all the past avenues that have already been discredited. The hopeless characters would seem to reflect common enough thinking around at the moment, dead-end and hopeless. Writing beginning middle and end stories is also a form of retreating to the past (that has been discredited and is a literary equivalent of religious fundamentalism). We are all waiting for a new step forward so that we can write stuff about the detail of it, detail of new stuff that we don't have available yet. This 'looking back' is also evident in movies where remakes and going back to the childhood (or origin) of some superhero is popular.

      Having said that - there is also nothing wrong with beginning, middle and end stories, it is just that the content will, by definition, be mostly 'old hat' in some way; a more complex form of the formula 'bodice ripper'.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Franslovak, thanks for your comment. Your daughter Natalie may have a career in front of her writing for the New Yorker! My daughter is still ten years old, and I accept her suggestion that I label my stories clearly at face value. Even here on Hubpages, it is important to make it very clear what a hub is about by using keywords and a title that the search engines can easily identify. I've never written for Squidoo. It's nice if they write checks for small amounts. At Adsense, you have to make at least $100.00 before they cut us a check.

    • franslovak profile image

      franslovak 8 years ago from New Jersey, US

      I have never read New Yorker except the one time while waiting for a colonoscopy procedure. The stories remind me of my daughter Natalie and her essays while she was in high school. For some reason she always managed to kill me off in a car accident in chapter 2. She also killed off her mother and then as an orphan moved to Soho where she joined with her vampire boyfriend who promptly died of leukemia. Eventually she moved on and now she studies Political Sciences in Maryland. In other words don't feel too bad. Your daughter is very observant with that rat story. Somehow I feel that my daughter will end up working for the government which is pretty consistent with her stories from high school. Anyway good luck with Adsense. My last check from Squidoo was $0.35. Life is good.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Nick, thanks for your comment and for helping to revive this largely forgotten discussion. My synopsis, as you call it, is about the plot. I do realize that there is a "subtle theme" here, largely about the "unknowable" and mental decline and doom and the way we are not to trust our own minds and our ability to reason. I've taken literature classes just like the rest of the world. I know what we're supposed to get out of this. I'm just not buying. I have a different sense of life, and I look for literature that respects the mind, our ability to know and learn, and the capacity of man to live and die a hero.

    • profile image

      Nick  8 years ago

      I came across this thread (which is obviously quite dead) while looking up other interpretations of this story, and have to point out that you clearly didn't read the story very closely.

      Your bullet point plot synopsis is innacurate, most of the events of the story are supposition on the point of the narrator, we the readers have no real idea what happened. It's ironic because this story is in fact exploring larger themes (the unknown, rationalization, mental decline)you lament the loss of, yet apparently so subtley that you didn't even realize it.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Glassvisage, thanks for your comment. I don't listen much to the radio, either. As for music, my taste is unusual, too. I prefer filk music.

    • glassvisage profile image

      glassvisage 9 years ago from Northern California

      Interesting reason for reading the New Yorker :) I wonder about the state of many things today, especially music, and wonder if things are getting better or worse, generally... I usually can't stand to listen to the radio!

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Nets, a bullet point would probably be equally effective. I'm not trying to emphasize the number of plot points there. ;->

    • profile image

      Nets 9 years ago

      When you number the plot points, is it because it is, in fact, important to you how many plot points there are? It can't really be to emphasize the order of the plot points since that seems to be indicated by the order in which you write them down.

      Would your outline contain any less relevant information if you just put a bullet point at the beginning of each plot point?

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Nets, okay, you have a point. They are mid-way between synopsis and plot-outline. I kept the descriptions of the plots fairly coherent, so it would be more fun to read them. But I still managed to hit most of the important plot points. I'm not asking anyone to rewrite the New Yorker stories based on this rendition of the plots, so some bare bones clarity in plot description has been sacrificed to readability. (I don't guarantee that every sentence here constitutes a single scene, for instance, so in that sense it is more like a synopsis.)The funny numbers, however, help us to identify significant plot points.

    • profile image

      Nets 9 years ago

      I have a question. These descriptions of the New Yorker stories seem pretty coherent. So likely they are summaries and not outlines. If so, why do they have those funny numbers in them?

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks for the comment, Nicole. It's good to know that somebody else feels the same way.

    • Nicole Winter profile image

      Nicole A. Winter 9 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Great, hub, Aya Katz. I liked taking a look at your writing a great deal, too. It is interesting that the New Yorker tends to publish some of the author's pieces that they do, I find stories that have an unhappy ending to be tolerable only when we can feel empathy and care about the main characters, as you suggested.