The New Yorker Fiction Podcast has been going since December 2006. There have been 52 so far, with a new one appearing online every month. Each podcast follows six clearly defined stages:
1. Theme tune [bum-bum-bu-bum, bum-bum-bu-bum, an earworm that has become a Pavlovian trigger for mental salivation].
2. Intro from The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, stating the name of the story from the New Yorker’s archives, the author of the story, the New Yorker contributor who has selected the story and a snippet of the contributor reading it.
3. Brief discussion between Deborah Treisman and the contributor about the story (Why did they select it? Where did they first come across this writer? etc).
4. Contributor (or, in a few cases, someone else) reads the story.
5. Longer discussion between Deborah Treisman and the contributor about the story, often covering any connections with the contributor’s own work.
6. Credits and another dose of bum-bum-bu-bum.
1. To promote the podcasts in general – they’re great, especially if you like to get out of a short story, kick the tires and look under the hood.
2. To promote the best podcasts in particular – if you're only willing to risk downloading one episode, make it one of the ten below and it should be worth your while.
3. To show, in a roundabout way, my tastes in short fiction at this point in time (I’ve listened to all the podcasts in the last 6 months or so) which might then illuminate other things I write about books and short fiction on this blog (or, heaven forbid, my own fiction).
1. Quality of the story
2. Quality of the discussion (a close second, especially when it's a story I've read before)
3. X-factor factor (usually relates to hearing one writer I like/admire talking about another writer I like/admire, or the fact the podcasts brings to my attention a writer I wasn’t aware of or hadn’t got around to reading yet)
4. Quality of the reading (not all writers are born to read aloud).
Bonus criteria: No writer can have more than one story in the top ten. Just coz.
1. Paul Theroux reads Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Gospel According to Mark” (listen here)
A student stays with his uneducated cousins on the pampas. They have long since lapsed into illiteracy. When he starts reading to them from the family Bible, he is elevated to dangerous heights in their eyes...
I tried reading Labyrinths while I was an undergrad, but felt more muddled than inspired by stories like "Library of Babel". Perhaps it's time to return to Borges, because I found "The Gospel According to Mark" simple, sharp and memorable.
2. Julian Barnes reads Frank O’Connor’s “The Man of the World” (listen here)
A young boy who has trouble getting beyond the surface appearance of things, spends the night at a friend's place to catch a glimpse of the young couple next door...
I've read several of O'Connor's stories (he pops up a lot in anthologies with titles like 'Great Short Stories From Around the World'), but hadn't come across this story before. I wonder why, since it is perfect in almost every way.
3. Donald Antrim reads Donald Barthelme’s short story “I Bought a Little City” (listen here)
The narrator buys Galveston, Texas and sets about making some changes...
Classic Barthelme. Outlandish conceit with stylistic implications. No word seems out of place. A close second is Barthelme's "Concerning the Bodyguard", read by Salman Rushdie, which is told almost entirely in questions. Rushdie's reason for chosing the story is probably the best response in all the 52 podcasts (he's spent his far share of time with bodyguards), but it's Antrim's voice and the opening line, "So I bought a little city," that shades it.
4. Richard Ford reads John Cheever’s short story “Reunion” (listen here)
A son meets his father for lunch in Grand Central Station. In him, he sees "my future and my doom"...
I'm a sucker for father-son stories. This one is so concise, so patterned, so understated, so heartbreaking. It's one of the podcasts I have listened to multiple times and quote sometimes in bars to the bemused faces of everyone else ("Two Bibson Geefeaters").
Cheever’s “The Swimmer", read by Anne Enright, is another great story and podcast. Very different from "Reunion", much more to chew on, more metaphysical, but "Reunion" is a five minute wonder and gets my vote.
5. Cynthia Ozick reads Steven Millhauser’s “In the Reign of Harad IV” (listen here)
The King's miniature maker's pursuit of excellence takes him beyond the what the eye can see...
This is an interesting podcast. Ozick's reading is stitled and can be hard to get into, but her poetic advice to readers more than makes up for this. Millhauser's story is itself a perfect miniature of an antique, magical world. A kind of "The Emperor's New Clothes" from the tailor's perspective, except there's no shortage of skeptics here.
6. Joshua Ferris reads George Saunders’s “Adams” (listen here)
The narrator finds his neighbour, Adams, looking in the direction of his kid's room in his underwear...
I love me some Saunders. "Adams" isn't my all-time favourite of his stories, but it's good enough to make it onto this list. In fact, it works better aloud than on the page (all the talk about "wonking" Adams). Much credit to Josh Ferris' reading. Ferris' "The Dinner Party", read by Monica Ali, sadly suffered the reverse fate: a story I loved when I first read it in 2008, but it felt less fresh when hearing it on the podcast. Thems the breaks.
7. Tobias Wolff reads Stephanie Vaughn’s short story “Dog Heaven” (listen here)
Reflections on life growing up as a kid on military bases, featuring a talking dog...
This podcast brought Stephanie Vaughn to my attention. Such a rich, intricate story of childhood. As Wolff comments: it's a kind of childhood that I haven't read about before.
8. Tobias Wolff reads Denis Johnson’s “Emergency” (listen here)
The narrator and a hopsital orderly get mashed on mystery pills; meanwhile a man walks into the emergency ward staffed with a knife sticking out of his eye...
Wolff couldn't choose between Vaughn's story and Johnson's, so he twisted Deborah Treisman's arm and got to do two podcasts. Well, I don't blame anyone because I have trouble choosing which story/podcast I prefer. Unlike "Dog Heaven", I'd read "Emergency" before, first as a set reading in an undergrad writing workshop, then as part of Jesus' Son. It's a great story and stands up well in this new environment.
9. Sam Lipsyte reads Thomas McGuane’s “Cowboy” (listen here)
A ranch hand with a shady past finds a steady job where they ask no questions...
I read this as part of the anthology Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work, which I reviewed for The Listener earlier this year. At the time, I'd started working my way through the podcasts, but hadn't made it to Lipsyte's reading. Hearing it again soon helped highlight the great tenderness at the story's heart and cemented its place in my top ten.
10. Louise Erdrich reads Lorrie Moore’s short story “Dance in America” (listen here)
A dance teacher stationed in the midwest goes to dinner with an old friend and his new family...
What am I thinking? This story needs to be higher. This is a story I'd tell people to read if they needed to be won over by the short story form. Same goes for the podcast. But what stories can it leapfrog? Ask me again in a couple of months and this might be number one... For now, it's number ten and only just edges out the honorable mentions: Jennifer Egan reads Lore Segal’s “The Reverse Bug” and Thomas McGuane reads James Salter’s “Last Night.”
So, that's my top ten. What's yours?