The New Yorker study

Here’s the requisite link to that New York Times article about Katherine L. Milkman, the Princeton student who “mathematically analysed the selection of short fiction for the New Yorker.”

Ms. Milkman, who has a minor in American studies, read 442 stories printed in The New Yorker from Oct. 5, 1992, to Sept. 17, 2001, and built a substantial database. She then constructed a series of rococo mathematical tests to discern, among other things, whether certain fiction editors at the magazine had a specific impact on the type of fiction that was published, the sex of authors and the race of characters. The study was long on statistics and short on epiphanies: one main conclusion was that male editors generally publish male authors who write about male characters who are supported by female characters.

The study’s confirmation of the obvious left some wondering why Ms. Milkman, who graduates this morning from Princeton with high honors, went about constructing such an intricate wristwatch in order to tell the time, but others admire her pluck and willingness to cross disciplines in a way that wraps the left and right brain neatly into one project.

What interests me most here are the quotes in response to Milkman’s study from Deborah Treisman, Roger Angell, Bill Buford, and Charles McGrath.

Treisman: “She gives you a new way of looking at these stories which would not have occurred to me. Do I walk away thinking, ‘Now I have to think about gender and race and location in selecting stories?’ No.”

This remark is dumbfounding. I suppose Treisman means to imply that she selects the very best stories, period, regardless of gender and race and location. But I don’t see how it follows that thinking about gender and race and location will somehow interfere with that selection process. After all, choosing the “best” story is a very subjective thing. It’s not a horse race. Stories written by men, about the concerns of men, don’t automatically cross the finish line first. Someone has to decide they do. How would it hurt to be mindful of your magazine’s historical biases? I honestly don’t get it.

Angell: “Some unpublished writers are going to read this and say,’I now know what I have to do to get published in The New Yorker,’ and it’s not helpful in that way. In the end we published what we liked.”

I doubt a study like this will influence unpublished writers any more than the magazine itself does. I’m pretty sure that’s what unpublished writers always try to do whenever they submit a story to a magazine — they attempt to submit the kinds of stories they believe the editors will like. And what kinds of stories do the editors seem to like? The kinds of stories they publish repeatedly.

Buford: “As a fiction editor, you are really on the receiving end of other people’s agenda. You choose from what you are sent.”

Yes. And what will you be sent? Exactly the kinds of stories you have repeatedly chosen to publish.

McGrath: “I think that it really suggests that it is best for editors not to think too much about what they do.”

Again, I’m dumbfounded. There are very few things about which it is best not to think too much — and short stories are definitely not among them.


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