“That Notoriously Picky Publication”

by Henry Farrell on April 25, 2015

Gene Wolfe, from the introduction of his collection, Storeys from the Old Hotel:

Perhaps the best way to explain it is to tell you something about “In the Old Hotel,” a short piece you’ll read not far from the end. At about the time the winter of 1980-81 was fading, my wife Rosemary and I rode a crack train called the Empire Builder from Chicago (where we live) to Seattle and back. Sitting in the observation car in the back, I wrote six very brief stories. When we got home, I typed them up and sent them with no great hope to The New Yorker.

With no great hope. One tends to gamble with short pieces – if they are accepted, they will bring a noticeable gain in prestige; if they are not, little has been lost. All in all, I suppose I’ve submitted at least twenty stories to The New Yorker.

This time I got a surprise – one of the six, “On the Train,” had found a home; it’s still the only success I’ve had with that notoriously picky publication. Furthermore, the letter of acceptance revealed that the junior editor who had read all six had wanted to accept another, “In the Old Hotel,” but had been overrruled. Needless to say, “In the Old Hotel” at once became a great favorite of mine.

This is a very long winded way of saying that Gene Wolfe clearly cares about The New Yorker. Which makes it even nicer that they have just published a very good profile of his work and life. I’ve written about Wolfe before – if you like this passage you’ll very likely fall in love with his work, and if you don’t, then you probably won’t. Whichever way you end up, he has written many great books and stories, and I’m happy to see him getting a little of the recognition he deserves from a publication that he clearly values.



Shatterface 04.25.15 at 4:36 pm

I’m re-reading The Book of the New Sun now, having first read it as it came out in the Eighties.

It’s interesting that people pick up on Wolfe’s use of arcane words. As sf and fantasy fans we are used to encountering strange words, often invented for the work we are reading, but when a writer uses a real but obscure word they are thought to be ‘difficult’.


Doug 04.25.15 at 7:33 pm

Thank you for the pointer!


JimV 04.25.15 at 7:55 pm

Things have a way of not working out as I hope they will in his novels, which put me off at first (my first being “The Devil in a Forest”), but I have to love the characters and scenes he writes.


Doug 04.25.15 at 7:59 pm

That was lovely. I wish it had been about five times as long.


Stephen Johnson 04.26.15 at 1:57 am

Having n ever read anything by Wolfe, any suggestions for a start? Is Book of the New Sun a good choice?


dsquared 04.26.15 at 1:57 am

nothing like as picky as it used to be …

(sorry Henry, I couldn’t resist. Hopefully the spam filter will save me from my own disgusting vanity).


dsquared 04.26.15 at 1:57 am

Apparently it didn’t. Thanks for nothing, filter.


heckblazer 04.26.15 at 2:43 am

The Book of the New Sun is the first thing by Wolfe that I read, and it worked for me. If a four novel series is too much for you, I also really enjoyed the short story collection Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days. That has “Forlesen”, a story that still haunts me.

Relating this to the Sad/Rabid Puppies Hugo business, I’d note that Gene Wolfe is a devout Catholic and political conservative who is widely adored, praised by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. LeGuin, and as noted above just had a profile in the freakin’ The New Yorker.

OTOH, he isn’t really a Puppies author, both because of his complex, literary style and, to quote The New Yorker article:

“His narrators may be prophets, or liars, or merely crazy, but somewhere in their stories they help to reveal what Wolfe most wants his readers to know: that compassion can withstand the most brutal of futures and exist on the most distant planets, and it has been part of us since ages long past.”


ZM 04.26.15 at 3:03 am

dsquared – “nothing like as picky as it used to be …”

The day before your article they also published a nice obit for the actor who played Gilbert Blythe in the Anne of Green Gables miniseries – I only found out he died because of it. Maybe they are going for a more everyday approach now ;-)


Henry 04.26.15 at 3:38 am

Ooh – nice one!


Henry 04.26.15 at 3:40 am

That has “Forlesen”, a story that still haunts me.

One of these days I want to write my “Forlesen as an application of Meyer and Rowan’s argument about the role of ritual in organizational theory” post for all zero people who might possibly want to read it …


Tyrone Slothrop 04.26.15 at 4:25 am

Peace is a great place to start with Wolfe, being both one of his earliest and of his best. Gorgeous writing set to the service of Midwestern misdirection, mythology, memory, misplaced ovoid baubles, and perhaps even a murder or two arising from within the marescape Tang of expiation…


David 04.26.15 at 7:48 pm

Gene Wolfe is one of the few SF writers who can actually challenge the notion that SF is more about the present than the future. I read the Book of the New Sun series when it came out, and I had that wonderful feeling of having my brains extruded through my ears that the very best SF gives you. For once, a writer actually presented the very far future in a way that showed it would obviously be very different from the present, and not just the foreseeable near future with a quick coat of paint. Very few other writers can do this – M John Harrison in his Virconium novels, perhaps, and more recently, and in a quite different way, Hannu Rajaniemi.
The point about religion is interesting. SF writers who are serious about religion have access to a teleological habit of thinking that suggests the future will, indeed be different from the past, and for that matter that time itself is contingent, and will one day come to an end. If they are good (and I would add CS Lewis here) they can escape the usual limitations of traditional SF thinking about the future – more and bigger technology, but with people much like us.


matt w 04.27.15 at 12:08 am

Where to start with Wolfe: I’m not entirely on board with Wolfe, he’s obviously great sometimes but sometimes I find him infuriating in a not-good way. Which on the one hand might mean I’m not the best person to recommend a starting point, but on the other hand it might mean I am.

So: Personally I’d recommend the stories, and Peace. For the stories I’d start with The Best of Gene Wolfe. It has almost every story I’ve read that I thought should be there and few I didn’t. Start with “Forlesen” or “The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories” (that’s a story) or “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” or “The Eyeflash Miracles” or “The Tree Is My Hat,” or well, there are lots of good ones. If you want an collection that isn’t a best-of, try The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, which has three of the ones I just mentioned, and “Tracking Song” which is the one I wanted to be in the best-of, and other good stuff.

Peace is in some ways more accessible than some of his other stuff, though it’s of course also a complete mind screw like all of his other stuff. It’s very far from traditional SF/F tropes–on the surface it’s a naturalistic memoir, sort of–which is I think good for him.

Book of the New Sun just takes on too much of the bad fantasy clichés for me, in particular most of the main female characters made me cringe the second time through. It really does have a lot of extraordinary things in it though, like the passage Henry links in the original post. But it also brings Wolfe’s characteristic discontinuity of storytelling much closer to the surface than Peace does, which might be frustrating for first-time readers. (That is: The first time you read Peace you might think that you can understand some of what’s going on.)

Speaking of which, a request to Henry: Years ago, probably at least ten, you had a post where you mentioned your theory of what had basically happened in Peace in the comments. It may have been on Gallowglass, even. Do you know where it was? After I read Peace the first time I looked for it, but I couldn’t find it. I know I’m supposed to be taking notes and figuring out the hidden connections but I feel like I would do that more productively with some hints.


JakeB 04.27.15 at 1:19 am

I second mattw in that The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and other stories is a great collection, although so is Endangered Species.


JakeB 04.27.15 at 1:19 am

Damn you italics.


matt w 04.27.15 at 2:28 am

Whoops, The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories doesn’t have three of the stories I mentioned, because I forgot to mention “The Death of Doctor Island.”


ZM 04.27.15 at 3:06 am

(Off topic – Sorry dsquared – many congratulations on the publication of your article! It was interesting, I never would have thought that the New York pensions fund would be of a higher value than the Australian Future Fund and just a bit smaller than Singapore’s national investment fund.

I think the New Yorker must just be getting up to date with things – the actor that played Gilbert Blythe always took the bus from Canada to New York saving on GHG from aeroplanes . I would be interested if you had ideas you could post on how the finance industry could be regulated to be more sustainable , especially with regards to climate change and getting big investors to divest from fossil fuels and invest in RET and other sustainable investments.)


heckblazer 04.27.15 at 4:10 am


I can’t truthfully say I’m waiting for it, but I would read such a post. It at least sounds like a plausible topic.


James Nostack 04.27.15 at 4:37 pm

Can someone please explain to me that extended parable in the New Sun books, involving the giant that is also a Civil War-era gun boat in the archipelago, and what in the world was happening there? Because pretty much everything else in those books, I sorta understood, but that was extremely confusing.


Leopard Messiah 04.27.15 at 4:58 pm

Wolfe reminds me of Cormac McCarthy, combined with Jack Vance. Not sure why this profile is “very good” however, outside of existing at all; “the Battle of Plataea, a Greco-Persian War skirmish” almost made me stop reading. The linked article about Michael Moorcock also struck me as weak.


e abrams 04.27.15 at 9:08 pm

you do get the joke ?
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1996/06/10/joseph-mitchell, a collection of his was up in the old hotel


Dudimus Prime 04.28.15 at 7:25 am

Re: the story about the gunboat, it seems to be a mashup of the myth of Theseus and the Battle of Hampton Roads – somewhere along the line, people got the Minotaur and the Monitor mixed up, and started to think that those two events were actually one and the same. IIRC there are also some veiled references to aquastors, which seem to be commonplace in the story’s setting. I can’t remember if there’s any significance to the story beyond that.


Sean Sullivan 04.29.15 at 7:59 pm

The other hidden pun: the hero of the Minotaur/Monitor story is the corporeal dream of a student—that is, a Thesis.


Lars 05.01.15 at 12:21 am

@ 20
Just to add what preceding commenters have said – Wolfe also appeared to have thrown in a sidelong mild satire of those who take forever to finish off their postgraduate degrees – that whole bit about the “many-coloured hoods”.
I have no idea of what could have suggested this to him.

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