In the middle of June, I went to Hunter College Writing Center’s Summer Symposium in NYC. The highlight of this event was the keynote speaker, Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor of The New Yorker. She was funny, self-deprecating, witty and a pleasure to listen to.
After her talk, I stood on line to meet her. (Full disclosure: She was the reason I went to the symposium.) She took her time with every person who waited to speak to her. I told her I taught as many New Yorker stories as I could and one of my favorites was “Cat Person,” which she ran in the December 11, 2017 issue. She asked what it was like to teach it and how my students had reacted to it. Coincidentally, one of my NYC students was standing on line behind me, and Deborah turned to her and said, “Are you here to complain about your teacher?” I could have found things to talk to her about for at least ten more minutes and had to tear myself away so my student could talk to her too.
Below are some highlights from Treisman’s talk. I typed as fast as I could and tried to record her verbatim. She opened her talk by saying she would discuss the history of fiction at The New Yorker and what it was like to edit fiction at The New Yorker. Afterwards, she took questions. The questions are in bold.
"Everyone has an opinion on what a New Yorker story is. Traditionally, it’s been written by a famous established writer. Or it ends abruptly or with an epiphany. Or it’s domestic women’s fiction or it’s bad boy fiction or it’s men’s mid life stories or they are exotic stories written by immigrants…everyone has an opinion about this.
"There is no one category for the stories that we publish. We publish anything from William Trevor to George Saunders to Zadie Smith. A story needs to have a beginning, it needs to have an ending and we hope that it has a middle and beyond that anything is possible.
"The other thing you run up against in the The New Yorker, which has been around since 1925, is the weight of its history. For over last 93 years the fiction department has fostered the careers of Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Edwidge Danticat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Karen Russell and so many more. They come to the magazine directly or through agents, friends, and the infamous slush pile. The magazine goes out to millions on line, the largest audience for fiction in the world.
"The magazine rejected stories by Flannery O’Connor, JD Salinger, Phillip Roth and William Styron. Richard Yates had a rejection letter hanging on his wall from The New Yorker, 'Never darken our door with your sentimental fiction again.'
"Roger Angell rejected Ann Beatty. He told her she was writing more form than substance. In a letter to her he wrote, “What I most admire is your wit and quickness and self assurance.’ He rejected 13 of (Beatty’s) stories. The tone of his letters goes from nice to less nice. ‘Your writing is controlling and personal…’ He accepted the fifteenth story she submitted. It’s an object lesson in not taking rejection personally and maybe listening to criticism sometimes or doing your own thing and not giving up.
"Once a story is accepted, some things are radically rewritten, characters can take on a different shape,. It’s almost always a very enjoyable collaboration with writers. Usually the most successful established writers are the most open to suggestions and to fixing things…
"Short stories are fact-checked. We had a story by a Hollywood writer, he wrote about a character putting Smuckers grape jelly on eggs. Our fact checker said Smuckers doesn’t make grape jelly, it has to be Welch’s.
"Editing fiction in magazine form can be a thankless occupation, They come to you and you try to nurture and bring out what’s best in them. When you do a great job, the writer gets the credit and when you do a bad job you get the blame for ruining stories.
"I’ve worked several times with Don DeLillo, lovely to work with. One time his agent sent me a story. She said, 'Don won’t discuss his punctuation, it’s his punctuation, and it’s going to stand.'
I said, “Can we discuss the words?”
“Yes, that’s fine.”
"Sometimes people have an absolutely firm attachment to what they have on the page. I’ll make a slight prod and say not sure this scene should be where it needs to be…
After her talk, Treisman took questions from the audience:
Do you ever publish stories by people who have never been published?
"It certainly happens once or twice a year someone gets in (who has never published). 20-25% of stories are published by people who’ve never been published by The New Yorker. To find someone who’s never published anything is quite hard since people will get published in college and literary and quarterly journals before sending to us…
"We had a viral piece of fiction, last December, story called “Cat Person.” It had 5 million views on our website. The author (Kristen Roupenian) had published in an online zine only. The relationship (in the story) starts through texting and then goes quite wrong, and can be excruciating to read. I read it and it makes your skin crawl in a way. So much miscommunication between these two people in the midst of sex and you want to get out of that room, and I thought, that’s an incredible reaction for a piece of fiction to inspire. Rather than publishing and thinking, 'That was pretty good,' I’ll publish the one that makes me uncomfortable and was effectively written. If it was poorly written you wouldn’t reach that point of absorption. It was a fact of timing and when I first read it, it was before Weinstein and me too and when it came out we were in the midst of that. Everyone was geared up to think about the nature of consensuality. A few weeks later, I went to a literary festival in India. The first question in Mumbai was, ‘Tell me about Cat Person!’ It’s satisfying to see fiction have that kind of reach."
Should you submit a cover letter and a CV along with a submission?
‘In the cover letter, you can say nothing and just say, ‘Here’s the story.' You don’t need to give a CV. We don’t pay any attention to the cover letter. That’s the easy answer. Don’t give a long description of the story, we just want to read the story."
What is the longest story you'll publish?
“Usually, it’s very hard for me to get a story into the magazine that is longer than 7,000-8,000 words. Under 7,000 words is the best way to go. “
Are you publishing a lot of fiction by people outside of US?
“There’s a huge vibrancy in fiction from people who are from around the world, it’s about half of what I see."
Are you publishing a lot of 'immigrant fiction?'
"People will say there as a defining voice of the magazine. You can point to Updike and Cheever, at the same time, you can find a lot of any one thing if you look for it. One thing that has changed in the last 25 years is there is more fiction in translation than we used to have. When the magazine started it was called The New Yorker and it was focused more locally, but wherever there is a prevailing style, it doesn’t really prevail….
What did you think about Francine Prose's letter to The New Yorker about the story by Sadia Shepard:
"Francine Prose wrote a letter about Sadia Shepard, basing her story, Foreign Returned, on Mavis Gallant’s short story, 'The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street.' Fiction writers are magpies, Sadia took a story set among white American expatriates in Geneva and wrote a story about Muslim immigrants in Connecticut in the Trump era. I’m a lifelong worshipper of Mavis Gallant and what she can do with short stories. I didn’t think her original story had been damaged in any way and remained in its sacrosanct space but Francine Prose is entitled to her response too. Lorrie Moore rewrote a Nabokov story. Nathan Englander modeled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank’ on Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’ I love these echoes in the world of fiction, I love when stories talk to each other."
Do you publish very short fiction?
"In print we have limits in what we can do. We can’t do a story that is shorter than 1,200 words. The way the magazine is laid out, we can’t have a piece of fiction that is less than a page, can’t do that in print. I don’t want to set up a hierarchy between print and website. What I can do online only are stories that I can’t do in print, might be something I really like, in that category falls very short fiction. Last summer we did series of flash fiction, one piece a week, online only and we're doing it again this summer."
What do you read for pleasure?
“I’m reading while thinking, ‘Can this work for the magazine?’ At the same time I do read a lot of novels, we do run excerpts from novels, very often by page 20 I can see I’m not going to be able to take anything from this novel and I still can’t stop, so at that point it’s that pleasure."
Are all submissions read?
Note: Treisman's mother, Dr. Anne Treisman, was a well-known psychologist, who taught at Berkeley and Princeton.
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