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New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Man in the Woods" by Shirley Jackson

Issue: April 28, 2014

Since I've been reviewing the New Yorker short fiction (a little more than a year now) this is the second previously unpublished Shirley Jackson story that has appeared in the magazine. Jackson died in 1948 and apparently left a ton of unpublished work to the Library of Congress (or something). Her family have since gone back and published posthumous collections of these short stories. Apparently, there were even more stories left in the Library of Congress collection, because the family are still publishing them.

I'm sure Shirley Jackson fanatics (is there such a thing?) simply tremble with delight every time a new story collection or a new story gets "discovered" in her papers and published for the first time. But I'm of the opinion that some stories are best left unpublished.

This story is packed with (mercifully) oblique references to myths and fairy tales, and is even structured like a fairy tale, as a young man lost in the woods discovers and old stone farmhouse with old people in it, and stuff happens.

Shirley Jackson: Definitely could've passed as a modern-day literary hipster
You don't have to be hyper-literate to catch and understand all the references in this story, but it would help. And frankly, there's almost nothing that pisses me off more than fiction written for the literary 1% who have read and memorized every book on the face of the earth and giggle with impish glee because they "get" it. It's elitist and offensive to the art of story-telling. If you want to go prove how intellectual you are and how many books you've read, go write literary theory. I'm not saying that's precisely what's going on here; some of the references aren't that hard to catch but I'm confident I didn't even get 50% of them.

Instead of writing a catalog of literary references disguised as a short story in order to prove how smart you are, how about, um, WRITING A GOOD STORY. Which this was not. But I can't blame Shirley Jackson for this...far from it! She never tried to publish this story during her lifetime and for good reason: it sucks! She was probably just goofing around, doing a writing exercise that she never thought would see the light of day; something which all writers do and have done since the beginning of writing, I'm sure. And yet, along come her children, 60+ years later, digging through her unpublished works even further than they already have, to air-out her dirty writing-laundry.

The lesson here: Just because a writer is famous -- or once wrote something good -- and died young, doesn't mean everything they wrote needs to be published. At some point, how about we let Shirley Jackson's reputation and her extensive, existing body of work (from before and after her death) settle and speak for itself throughout literary history. Mmm'kay?


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