>The New Yorker: "The Use of Poetry" by Ian McEwan

>The contributor notes for this issue tell us that McEwan has a new novel, Solar, due out in the spring. And while once again the editors don’t tell us this, the fiction appears to be not a short story but an excerpt, or perhaps an extraction, from that novel. The “story” deals with a Physics Nobel Laureate whom we first see as an infant, although the events in these pages cover the time when he is an undergraduate at Oxford first becoming interested in the “physics of light.” Through a lot of exposition—there’s very little scene in the story—the reader learns about Michael Beard’s parents (he’s an only child, his parents’ marriage was loveless, his mother, who died of cancer, had a series of affairs), and then his arrival at Oxford. He meets Maisie—the first in a string of wives—and pursues and ultimately seduces her by digesting the work of Milton, the subject of her own studies. Unconventionally, for the time, they marry, but are already drifting apart and by the end of this excerpt she leaves him and the reader is a left with a flash forward to Michael attending her funeral.

So, this is decidedly not a short story, and although the book seems appealing (more than McEwan’s last book, On Chesil Beach), there isn’t much point to this excerpt. Having said that, the quotations from Milton seem far more relevant to the protagonist’s study of the “physics of light” than he seems to realize, and so the piece is interesting for that: “thou Celestial light/Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers/Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence/Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell/Of things invisible to mortal sight.”

There isn’t much point in analyzing the story further, since it isn’t a story, but it is fun to see this glimpse into the forthcoming novel.

December 7, 2009: “The Use of Poetry” by Ian McEwan

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  1. >Why the hell do publications (I think Paris Review does it too) publish novel excerpts as short stories, without disclosing that they're excerpts? It's a very annoying practice.

  2. >I don't know. It bugs me, too. At least in the case of TNY they don't call them stories. The magazine publishes "fiction" . . . But it seems to me that readers, knowing that something is an excerpt, may approach the work differently. Often I get to the end of one of these things and think, "What the hell?" And if they told us an excerpt, and we like it, maybe we'd be inclined to buy the book when it eventually comes out?

  3. >I believe a novel excerpt made it into the Best American Short Stories once.

    Disneyland by Barbara Gowdy, I believe. Great "short story" that I've never forgotten. Never read the novel though.

    I don't know the world of literary magazines but could it be (and this is a wild guess) that there is a desire to avoid embarrassment or other difficulties if the novel remains unpublished, unfinished, or published without the excerpt?

  4. >Paul,
    I don't know the story you refer to, but I'll try to look for it. Sometimes pieces of a novel make a very successful short story. If you look at the submission guidelines for many literary magazines, you'll find that they welcome novel excerpts IF the excerpt stands alone. And most magazines don't care, because of this, whether the novel eventually is published or not.

    The New Yorker, on the other hand, isn't publishing excerpts from novels that aren't going to come out–they are part of the publicity machine for forthcoming novels, and the excerpts are placed with them largely (solely?) for the purpose of drumming up interest for the novel that follows.

  5. >Cliff,

    Thanks for the info.
    The novel I referred to is called something like "Fallen Angels" or "Falling Angels", but the short story is called "Disneyland."

    If I remember rightly, the BASS publication policy is that novel excerpts are not (knowingly) considered, but Barbara Gowdy's work was said to be so exceptional that they made an exception for her (the introduction said that, if I remember rightly.)

    Paul Epstein

  6. >Thanks again Perpetual Folly for letting me know that the New Yorker fiction is an excerpt. In the past I've been "burned" by reading a novel and coming across a section that is very familiar – not a good feeling in my book. And yes, a lot of the excerpts left me with a "and…?", which does not translate to any desire to buy the novel. JUST TELL US IT IS AN EXCERPT!!!!

    So now I've learned to research before I read a "story" in the New Yorker. Usually anything by a name author is part of the publicity merry-go-around and I'd rather let it spin without me.

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