We Are Needed

There was this short story in The New Yorker that I actually really liked. This is unusual because I tend to hate the fiction they publish. Here is the link to the story. It’s very realistic. People say it’s a typical milennial dating story but I’m way older than millennials, and I’ve been on that kind of date more than once. God, I hate dating. 

In any case, what’s really funny is not even the story but that it created some sort of a controversy because people thought it was a news story (or “newsy”, as a reader described it) and not fiction. 

And that’s the answer to why my profession is so important. The culture of reading and art appreciation needs to be taught. People can’t figure it out on their own because it’s a skill that has to be cultivated. 

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16 thoughts on “We Are Needed”

  1. You liked it? I found it unreadable. I ended by skimming it to see why it was getting so much attention because I just couldn’t manage to make myself read it. It was like Confessions of a Shopaholic or maybe Sex in the City without the lighthearted charm. A terrible mix of the of the pretentious and mundane.

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    1. As far as pretentious goes, I thought this story wasn’t too bad, at least nowhere nearly as bad as much of what passes for literary fiction these days. I keep telling myself that I just don’t have a sophisticated literary taste, that I must be missing something important in my brain as a result of having been a scientist for too many years, but I can’t help it: when someone subjects me to paragraphs upon paragraphs of thickly layered imagery (the stars! the sea! the cloudy skies! the exquisite pain and suffering for no real reason other than to show that the character is somehow very profound! the endless, unrelenting schmaltz!)and then it turns that the imagery is an end unto itself, that it never led anywhere, I want to punch someone in the face for wasting my time.

      I did think that “Cat Person” was quite realistic (in my youth, I’ve had my fair share of encounters I really didn’t particularly want, but it was far easier to get through with them then make a scene and upset the guy). I also enjoyed seeing Twitter go apoplectic over it (fatphobia! slut shaming!) because, as it turns out, most people can’t differentiate between a personal essay (creative nonfiction) and a short story (a work of fiction).

      Whoever says we don’t need the humanities is completely nuts. We desperately do.

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    2. “I found it unreadable”

      Thank you! I’ve started it a half dozen times and can’t force myself to suffer past the first few paragraphs. Maybe I’ll finally force myself today….

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    3. I wanted to shake the woman and tell her to stop being so paranoid and make all those stupid assumptions; she frustrated me to no end. And the man is no much better either (he’s worse, actually, but we discover that only at the end).

      An yet… I like this story, precisely because it doesn’t fall into the typical “Sex and the City” trap, where we are supposed to side with the protagonist, but makes the main character clearly unsympathetic. It’s a nice twist, because it shows how self defeating the woman’s behaviour really is, instead of portraying it as cute and wacky.

      The most realistic part -at least, the one I think it applies to most women- is the woman’s unwillingness to stop the upcoming sexual encounter because she thinks she’s at a point where it’s too late to pull back. Cue the awful sex.

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  2. “The culture of reading and art appreciation needs to be taught”

    Learning how to read journalism is important too

    “people thought it was a news story”

    There is so little nowadays that actually passes any muster as journalism that of course people can’t tell the difference between a fairly realistic short story and the gooey muck clogging up on “news” sites….

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    1. Very true. People will believe anything, just anything, if it feeds their confirmation bias. If somebody posts an article on FB saying “Trump caught on camera, raping bunnies in the National Park!”, I’m afraid crowds of people will repost it with a triumphant, “I told you so!”

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  3. Well, I finally read it — and learned, not to my surprise, that the New Yorker fictional prose is as non-interesting and non-clever as its cartoons (several of which are included with the link to the story).

    Not every “Cat Person” is an idiot. I own a cat, and so does your frequent reader Stringer Boy, with whom I have absolutely nothing in common except a love of animals (and neither of us seems to feel a need to anthropomorphize our pets like this story’s author).

    I’ve never been offered a seven-figure contract after selling any of my short stories, but if I considered any of them as bad as this story (ending with the insult “Whore” for no valid reason), I wouldn’t embarrass myself by submitting them for publication.

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    1. The story speaks to the experience of women. Of course, it’s quite incomprehensible to men. Which is precisely the problem the story points to. A woman who reads the ending, for instance, knows that this happened to her so many times. For no valid reason. And that recognition – the feeling of, hah, don’t I know how this feels – is why the story is successful.

      The part about cats is a metaphor. You can’t take it literally.

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      1. Concerning the “Cat Person” story: As you said, Clarissa, “The story speaks to the experience of women. Of course, it’s quite incomprehensible to men.”

        PAUSE HERE: [I wrote my reply to your article yesterday, and tonight is Christmas Eve — probably not the most sensitive time for me to respond. So If you choose to ignore my post, or to delay your answer, I’ll understand.]

        I’ve thought about your reply, which in effect says that a man can’t understand how a woman feels about such a situation, and it brings back a long-term memory of a foreign war movie that I saw way back in college when I was majoring in a foreign language. I don’t remember the name of the film, but here’s the plot.

        A young American soldier caught up in the European combat meets a lovely, desperate girl (French, I believe, but I really don’t remember), and they have a passionate night of love together. Then, like foolish adolescents everywhere, they pledge to somehow met again to be together forever.

        The ongoing war takes them apart, as the boy soldier does his duty, and fights all the way across France through the German defenses toward Berlin, and the left-behind-girl does what she has to do to survive: become a prostitute.

        A year later, after the war has ended in an Allied victory, the young U.S. soldier encounters the same girl again — but he doesn’t recognize her, because she presents herself to him only as a prostitute. Nonetheless. he tells her bout the beautiful love that he had with the special French girl that he remembers and loves so much, and the now shop-worn prostitute tells him that she knows his girlfriend (who she claims is still pure and longs for him intensely). She writes down the name and address of the soldier’s lost love, while he professes a strong desire to find her.

        They part, and the girl runs home to the address that she gave, and she wipes away her whorish makeup, and washes herself to make herself appear as lovely and innocent as the first time they’d met.

        In the movie’s final scene, the soldier pauses on a hilltop as his battalion marches away from the town. Another soldier asks him who the name on the piece of paper that he’s reading is.

        The boy soldier replies, “Just another whore,” and tosses the paper away as they continue on their march.

        (So perhaps the “Cat Person” tale isn’t quite as incomprehensible to this man as we both thought after I read it. And considering the 70-year-time-period between the writing — perhaps more universal than I’d thought.)

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