The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” short story issue has generated lots of comment, much of it in the why-wasn’t-so-and-so included? category, some of it in the why-wasn’t-I included? category, the best of it in the (sorta) latter category and self-deprecating in a satiric way. And, of course, there was some that made no sense at all.
While we loved and marveled at most of the stories — okay, we saw Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly” as a gimmick built on two pronouns and misleading in its intent to impart double meaning (and we love Foer’s novels) — we couldn’t help notice that none of them addressed the day’s biggest issue: the economic downturn and its effect on the lives of everyday, let alone well-off Americans. Sure, Salvatore Scibona’s “The Kid” gives us an American soldier who orphans his foreign-born child after an ill-advised marriage. And ZZ Packer’s “Dayward” uses Reconstruction-era black children to suggest modern-day lessons. There’s certainly poverty and displacement there. But where are the stories of a struggling middle-class? Where are the stories of homes lost, incomes destroyed, the frustrations of futile job searching, the loss of love and respect and the psychology of imposed failure? Where are this generation’s Steinbecks, Orwells, Algrens, Zolas, Lewises, Faulkners? Are we so afraid of class distinction in this country, of making someone who’s still comfortably positioned uncomfortable, that we can’t even acknowledge what’s going on right before our very eyes?
Almost all of these tales are about difficulties in relationships. Nothing is more damaging to relationship stability than economic failure and displacement. Can the most common story of our time also be the most ignored?
It’s true that this New Yorker issue included only eight of the 20 stories. We’ll be looking closely through the others for a contemporary realism that deals with more than the frustrations of party anxiety among the Hollywood wannabe set or the professional-class’ social climbing and the Porsche mechanics they left behind. Great literature, literature that changes culture and political direction, has always portrayed the struggles of common people in difficult times. The characters –and subjects — in the contemporary stories here may be what we’ve come to accept as common people. But there is no sense of what the greatest recession since the depression is doing –specifically and in detail — to their lives. Certainly there are writers out there adressing these subjects (and no, I’m not one of them…shame). Where are the publishers with the guts to get them in print?–Cabbage Rabbit