MATTHEW DAVID BROZIK: I had zero idea who David Rakoff was before he died. I had read his New York Times magazine “Lives” entry, but that’s all… and I’d had no idea at the time that he was anyone well known. This happens to me often, and I wonder what it means, especially when it’s someone in the humor-writing field who dies, given that I have one or two toes dipped in that pool myself. And then, when someone well-regarded does die, what should my reaction be? If I’d never read any of his or her work before, should I now? Or should I instead focus my already multi-fractured attention on living humorists (or what have you). I might argue that it makes more sense to put off reading the work of the deceased, because it won’t make a difference to them when their work is gotten to, if ever. On the other hand, living writers need our attention now.
I’ve long thought that The New Yorker (specifically) does a disservice to living fiction writers when it publishes a “new” piece by a dead writer, even if that dead writer is much beloved. I realize, of course, that the magazine’s decisions should be dictated by the preferences of its readership—to the extent that the editors know what the readers want—but it always gives me pause when the fiction in an issue is a newly discovered piece by, say, Updike… when there are thousands of living writers whose careers could be given a huge shot in the arm by having work appear in TNY (assuming, of course, that it’s of the highest quality). Is that just the embittered fiction writer side of me thinking, though?
MOLLY SCHOEMANN: I had a similar reaction to Rakoff’s death. My coworker IM’d me about it, and I had to google him, which made me feel kind of lame. I read a lot of humor and I’m huge into NPR so it was kind of a shock to me that here was this talented humorist I knew nothing about. However, when it comes to whether or not I’m going to read his stuff, when I think about it, it doesn’t matter much to me whether he’s dead or alive. I have lots of favorite living authors, but I’ve let very few of them know how much their work matters to me (possibly this should be remedied), and my awareness of whether or not they are living does not affect how much I enjoy their work. When I read someone’s writing, they are alive to me in my head in that moment, as strange as that might sound, and that’s all I really need to appreciate their words.
I definitely have a bit more of a conflict when it comes to the situation you mentioned, in which a widely-respected magazine publishes a ‘newly-discovered’ work by a deceased author. While I’m sure the piece is always very good, I also wonder whether the magazine isn’t perhaps making this choice based in part on the well-known name of the author, and the instant draw for readers that it will bring. Granted, I can kind of understand that as well, given the cutthroat print magazine industry right now. But as you mention, there are droves of talented other authors out there jumping for the enormous chance to be published in those same magazines, and thus that spot does not get to go to someone talented and alive who would appreciate it a lot more than someone talented and dead. Then again, I wouldn’t want to say that just because someone’s dead, their work should not be disseminated any longer. So I guess I can see both sides of the issue.
Still, it reminds me of the weird betrayal I felt when The Pale King was nominated for a Pulitzer. Almost as though the committee was saying, “Hey, living writers? Even dead guys write better than you! Ahahahaha!” Something about that seemed unfair.