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.