Sooner Or Later
When you start a career as a writer, you believe that there is an order to things. A ladder you will climb, passing rungs others have passed, slowly, with patience, until you reach the top. I’m happy to admit that my view of this ladder has changed. In fact, I no longer believe in a writer’s career ladder. Anything can happen. It’s the world of art, after all, and increasingly open and in flux.
Still, it did unsettle me to see “Alan Bean Plus Four,” a story by Tom Hank’s in the October 27, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. I’ve submitted many pieces there, myself, with no success, though some were returned with kind and encouraging words. You have to have a really good story to get through their gate. You also need something of a track record, a little name recognition, if you will, something in your bio that readers of the magazine understand means that you’re not a newbie, someone’s pet editorial project. It really helps if you have at least one published book to your name, or an agent with solid contacts.
I’m not upset that Hanks is an actor turned writer. It’s okay to dip your toe into more than one artistic endeavor. Writers paint, photographers write, dancers sing – you get the point. There’s no rule against multi-tasking.
The problem is that his story stinks. I’ve read quite a number of pieces in The New Yorker that didn’t seem all that hot, or interesting, but they had some literary merit. Hanks’ piece doesn’t. It’s silly, contrived, and conceited. The reader is supposed to find it cute that it quotes directly from the movie “Apollo 13.” Hanks the writer parrots Hanks the actor. Isn’t that clever? No. It’s stupid, and insulting to every writer who takes very seriously the goal of putting words on paper, or on screen, to create worlds that are not only plausible, but compelling. Now, I don’t fault Hanks all that much for writing a bad story. It happens. We’ve all written them. But I do fault The New Yorker for publishing it.
What on Earth were they thinking? No pun intended here – the story is about four friends who blast off into space, circle the moon, and return unscathed. But seriously, did the the magazine’s editors just abandon all standards of quality? Obviously. Maybe they want to boost their sales a little. Maybe they’re not getting quite enough advertising dollars as we hurtle into the holiday season.
Whatever their reason, it’s going to be a little hard for me to view The New Yorker as a serious literary venue after this. And as for Tom Hanks, I hear that Alfred A. Knopf is bringing out his short story collection, apparently called Type(writer) Casting. Isn’t that something? You write – and publish – one really lousy story, and then one of the “Big 5” publishing houses offers you a book deal.
Well, some of us lead charmed lives. And while that’s all well and good, sooner or later Mr. Hanks is going to have to stand alongside the rest of us and be judged on his words, not on his movie roles. Only time will tell. But I think that story will be a better one than “Alan Bean Plus Four.” Of that I have no doubt.