If you’re a fiction nerd/longform culture-feature fan/general literary enthusiast, you’ve probably worshipped (or at least recognized) the great literary talent discovered and cultivated by The New Yorker, America’s most well-respected weekly literary journal. Some of contemporary American lit’s most beloved authors began their careers as guest writers for the mag–and if they weren’t featured, they wanted to be. Today, we say happy 89th anniversary to one of the greatest outlets for essayists, cartoonists, authors, psychologists, comedians, pop culture icons, and, sometimes, the upcoming writer to publish their work. New Yorker, we love you. Here are some of my favorite pieces published over the last 89 years.
Shirley Jackson, Colloquy
Shirley Jackson is a master at weaving the disorienting and creepy into very ordinary circumstances, and it makes her work superbly disturbing in the most likeable way possible. Ex: one of her short stories released along with The Lottery features a happily engaged woman who eagerly awaits her fiancee’s return home after work. But he never shows up, and the story ends as the woman passes by a man who resembles him on the street. This is her hallmark style: close the piece quickly enough to leave the ending up to the reader.
Colloquy, the page-long work of fiction published in the New Yorker in 1944 features a woman at the doctor’s office who’s on the verge of a mental breakdown. She questions her doctor incessantly about political jargon and the state of the human mind, complaining all the while of her husband’s alleged mental degradation. But her hysteria leads us to wonder, unsettlingly, if it’s her with the mental health problem.
Oliver Sacks, A Man of Letters.
Sacks is a British neurologist responsible for publishing some of the most fascinating studies about people with sensory issues: people who associate sounds with colors, for example, or shapes with words. In A Man of Letters, Sacks describes the case of a man named Howard Engel-a former novelist-who woke up one morning unable to read his newspaper because the characters all looked like “Oriental” manuscript.
The fascinating part of Sacks’s studies, though, aren’t in the nature of the work itself–it’s the way in which he describes them, melodically, toeing the line of deliberate enchantment with the condition. He writes with respect (dare I say deference?) to the brain, explaining it in lamens terms to the reader while maintaining stylistic clarity and scientific integrity. It’s fascinating, beautiful, and enchanting. #TeamSacks
Susan Sontag, Writing Itself: The Letter Scene.
Sontag is an expert at making conversation with the reader: her words are “cozily aligned with loneliness,” reveling in “lavender-scented fields” near a coastline. At least, according to Sontag.
This semi-experimental work of fiction toys with the structure of a play, separating her narrative into different acts but disregarding the standard dialogue present in a five-act. Honestly, it’s one of those things that’s difficult to explain unless you know what I’m talking about, so just find the damn thing online and read it. You’ll be glad you did.