Culture industries increasingly use our data to sell us their products. It’s time to use their data to study them. To that end, we created the Post45 Data Collective, an open access site that peer reviews and publishes literary and cultural data. This is a partnership between the Data Collective and Public Books, a series called Hacking the Culture Industries, brings you data-driven essays that change how we understand audiobooks, bestselling books, streaming music, video games, influential literary institutions such as the New York Times and the New Yorker, and more. Together, they show a new way of understanding how culture is made, and how we can make it better.
—Laura McGrath and Dan Sinykin
“View of the World from Ninth Avenue” is a famous New Yorker cover, from 1976. Illustrated by Saul Steinberg, its lower half features a meticulously detailed aerial view of Manhattan’s Ninth and Tenth Avenues, with the Hudson River cutting a thick horizontal line over the city grid; above the river, squeezed into the cover’s upper half, is the rest of the world.
New Jersey figures as a barely there brown stripe. Beyond Jersey are a handful of monuments scattered across blank space the color of wheat, which is labelled, seemingly at random, with an assortment of American place names: “Los Angeles,” “Chicago,” “Utah.” In the distance, the Pacific is a thin, pale-blue strip that gives way to three undifferentiated white hills labelled “China,” “Japan,” and “Russia.” The rest of Europe and Asia are missing; Africa is conspicuously absent. The cover’s warped vision of the world is a visual representation of a longstanding joke: New Yorkers see the rest of the world as a mere suburb of the city.
The New Yorker’s own relationship to geography has shifted over time. When the magazine was founded, by Harold Ross, in 1925, it aimed to be “a reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life”—one that was “avowedly published for a metropolitan audience.”1 But, for the bulk of its life, the magazine has worked to cast a far wider net. Around 1945, it began regularly featuring dispatches from foreign countries, in its “Letter from” format. In 1946, the magazine published John Hersey’s landmark “Hiroshima,” marking the beginning of a slew of watershed publications attending to geopolitical affairs. Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” for instance, was published in 1963, while Jonathan Schell’s “The Village of Ben Suc” appeared in 1967. The magazine had seemingly traded in crude cartoons and a metropolitan ethos for decidedly cosmopolitan credentials.
But what of the New Yorker’s fiction section? Did it transform alongside the rest of the magazine, shifting from a metropolitan to a global imagination? And, if the magazine’s cosmopolitanism is reflected in this section, how so? Has it been textual or metatextual? When you dive into the data it’s clear that the New Yorker fiction section offers a view of the world that is skewed. This view is not provincial, in the strict sense, but it endorses a very narrow vision of cosmopolitanism, one that perpetuates a flat view of the world.
The history of the New Yorker is mysterious and mythologized. For all the magazine’s cultural cachet, so much about its history, and its selection and publication process, remains unknown. The New Yorker has never published a masthead; it is difficult to find a definitive or official record of, say, the magazine’s fiction editors outside of the letters, interoffice memos, and financial documents that comprise the magazine’s archive at the New York Public Library. Deborah Treisman, the current fiction editor, has mostly maintained this air of secrecy. One thing that is known about Treisman’s selection process, however, is her commitment to internationalism. Her tenure was expected to usher in a wave of “more global, less Eurocentric stories.”2
Indeed, Treisman, under whose auspices the magazine published its first and only “International Fiction Issue,” on December 26, 2005, notes that she takes great pleasure in introducing American audiences to international writers who have not previously been translated into English. When Horace Engdahl—a member of the Swedish Academy, which selects the Nobel Prize laureates in literature—called American writers “too insular,” Treisman responded to the charge perfunctorily: “As for insularity among American writers, I have yet to encounter any.”3 Her cosmopolitanism, however, happens at the metatextual level. Treisman’s vision for a more cosmopolitan magazine apparently consists of diversifying the roster of contributors; she isn’t necessarily concerned with how these writers imagine the worlds and peoples they write about.
The New Yorker’s founding document, its prospectus, suggests that the magazine aims to reflect metropolitan life to its audience—but texts do not benignly or mimetically reflect places, whether these are familiar metropoles or distant lands. Descriptions of space are mediated by all kinds of individual biases, systemic prejudices, and political motivations. Literary descriptions of places create “imagined geographies,” a term coined by Edward Said to refer to the way xenophobic and racist perceptions of a country, people, or culture arise out of textual representations, and the way these erroneous perceptions can become fixed in Western imaginations. The impressions imagined geographies leave are sticky, stubborn, and have violent material consequences on the lives of racial and ethnic “Others.”
The generic techniques of fiction are especially well suited to the creation of rich imagined geographies because they provide writers the latitude to envision faraway places without constraint. Given these politics of space, what geography does the fiction of the New Yorker imagine?
At the magazine’s inception, in 1925, the fiction section was a hybrid of different genres, including miscellaneous pieces that straddle the line between prose, verse, and visual art. The section only began to cohere circa 1945. Around the same time, the magazine began to regularly publish fiction by a small subset of authors. Between 1945 and 2019, the magazine published 7,451 stories by 1,493 different authors, but 4,398 of these stories (more than 66 percent of them) were written by just 149 authors (less than 10 percent of the total pool).4 Many of these 149 authors have become synonymous with the magazine, and their work has come to define a dynamic New Yorker fiction tone and style, characterized by ironic detachment and a meticulous, if somewhat overbearing, attention to facticity.
These writers—whom we might call “the New Yorker 149”—can be grouped into a couple of cohorts. First, there are the humorists of the magazine’s inception: S. J. Perelman, Calvin Trillin, James Thurber, H. F. Ellis, and Veronica Geng. Next, there are a handful of international writers—Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov—whose translated stories appear in the magazine beginning in the late 1960s. Meanwhile, John O’Hara, John Updike, John Cheever, Alice Munro, and Mavis Gallant make up the house writers of the New Yorker’s “golden age.” They are followed by the emergence of a younger generation of regular contributors, including Antonya Nelson, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders. The most recent cohort includes Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Lethem, Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, Allegra Goodman, and Yiyun Li.
Nearly 40 percent of these authors are women. But there is little racial diversity to speak of in this list: Zadie Smith and Jamaica Kincaid are the only Black women whose fiction has appeared regularly, while Yiyun Li and Haruki Murakami are the magazine’s only regular fiction contributors of Asian descent. Junot Díaz and Jorge Luis Borges are the only Latinx authors in the list. There are no authors that identify as African American men. Treisman’s insistence on internationalism has not led to broader national representation: the majority of authors on this list are American or British.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, identifying every location mentioned in the 4,398 stories published by the New Yorker 149 in the years from 1945 to 2019 shows that most are in the United States.5 Thus, within that crucial 66 percent of the New Yorker’s fiction during this period, the United States overwhelmingly dominates.
This statistic, while useful, doesn’t tell us much about how writers imagine the United States. A country might be mentioned several thousand times, but that count alone would not tell us if it is evoked using different locations. In analyzing this data, a country’s diversity score is calculated by determining what percentage of all unique locations accounts for that country’s unique locations. For instance, a total of 2,373 unique locations are mentioned across all 4,398 stories, including countries, cities, states, and neighborhoods; of these, 1,163 are in the United States, giving the United States a diversity score of 49 percent. In this 66 percent of the New Yorker’s fiction, not only is the United States mentioned much more frequently than any other location, it is also referred to using more than 1,000 different place names, almost half of all the unique locations I extracted from the data.
Neither raw counts of locations nor diversity scores can tell us how much granularity there is in the references to places within a country. For example, we might wonder whether, when the United States is mentioned, it is evoked more often through references to “the United States” and “America” or through mentions of specific states, cities, or neighborhoods. To get a sense of the geographic scale of the places mentioned, I assigned each type of place (whether a nation, state/province, city, or neighborhood) a value between one and four, before taking a weighted average for each country, to arrive at a granularity score. The closer this score is to four, the more likely it is that this country is referred to through larger geographic divisions, like country or state. If a country scores closer to one, it is more likely to be evoked through references to smaller constitutive parts, like cities or neighborhoods.
Plotting these two scores gives us a sense of what the imagined geography of each country in the corpus looks like, in terms of variety (how many different ways a country is mentioned) and granularity (whether these evocations are more likely to be small scale or national).
As a baseline, the United States has a granularity score of 2.39, which tells us that its literary geography is skewed toward a metropolitan imagination than a national one. This makes sense, given that locations in New York State alone account for nearly a fourth of all American locations.
Most countries (with the exception of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) have extremely low diversity scores, which is why they cluster around the bottom of Figure 1. More than 60 percent of the countries mentioned have a granularity score above three, meaning they are referred to most often by country name. Mali, Honduras, Sierra Leone, Guatemala, and Bahrain, for instance, all cluster at four, because they are only referred to by country name. The other cluster, at two, indicates that many countries are referred to through mentions of a single city—usually, the capital or the most populous city. This is the case for Croatia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, which are evoked through references to Zagreb, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and Aden, respectively.
In other words, New Yorker fiction isn’t insular in the strict sense of focusing solely on American places. Yet, the magazine’s fiction does tend toward a nefarious form of insularity that perpetuates monolithic views of many of the countries it evokes. In other words, even when a country other than the United States is mentioned, only a handful of different place names are used in reference to the country. Figure 2, a magnified version of the bottom half of Figure 1, shows that the New Yorker’s fiction does not look much beyond the United States—and, when it does, it effaces significant intranational difference or variety.
Such a narrow view is illustrated by how China is imagined in New Yorker fiction. China is referred to 435 times, accounting for roughly 1 percent of all geographic locations mentioned in the nearly 4,400 stories surveyed. These references are composed of only nine distinct place names: China, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Suzhou, Lhasa, Nanking, Beijing, Kiukiang, and Penglai. In terms of granularity, China scores 3.4; it is most often referred to in national terms, even though it is roughly the same size as the continental United States and its regions and cities are culturally and geographically varied.
Many of the countries that score relatively high in both metrics are the usual suspects—the United Kingdom, France, Italy—with one exception. There is an outlier that has a relatively high diversity score and that outperforms the United States in the granularity measure: Ireland. A former colony, whose landmass and population are significantly smaller than those of the United States, Ireland boasts a granularity score of 1.875. The country is mentioned using 77 unique locations, placing it in the top five most diverse countries in the corpus. There are many plausible reasons why evocations of Ireland are both diverse and granular, but one striking detail stands out. Of the 176 stories that mention Ireland, 135 are by Irish writers—the likes of Edna O’Brien, Roddy Doyle, and William Trevor.
By comparison, of the 213 stories that mention China, only 10 are written by an author of Chinese descent. All 10 are by Yiyun Li.
Zooming in on the stories that refer to China offers an alternative explanation for the lack of diversity and granularity in the country’s treatment: most of these stories evoke China in reference either to American politics or to travel from China to the United States. This is the case in stories such as Garrison Keillor’s 1972 “US Still on Top, Says Rest of World,” in which Keillor invokes the victory of the United States over China in the fictitious “Earth standings” in order to satirize President Nixon’s rhetoric of American exceptionalism. In the same vein, brief references to China occur in John Cheever’s 1962 “A Vision of the World,” as the protagonist dreams of flying from the US to an island in the Pacific, over the coast of China.
What little diversity there is in mentions of China arises from older stories by authors with vexed political ties to the country: John J. Espey, who was born in Shanghai to American missionaries; Emily Hahn, an American who lived in China for many years and had a long affair with a British Intelligence officer stationed there; and Shirley Hazzard, an Australian American who spent her teenage years in Shanghai and Hong Kong as a spy for the British Combined Intelligence Services. These older stories offer a more diverse geography of China, then, but it is one acquired through the vestiges of imperialism.
Given the expectation that Treisman’s tenure would feature a more global New Yorker fiction section, it is puzzling that this monolithic view of China persists into the 21st century. The tendency to represent China in national terms recurs in Li’s stories. Her fiction imagines Asia in relation to diasporic identity. In “All Will be Well” (2019), she writes of a character’s family becoming “boat people, migrating from Vietnam to Hong Kong, to Hawaii and later to California.” In “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” (2008), a character leaves China “for America right after college, a move intended to claim a place for himself—a whole continent, in the end, as in twenty years he had drifted from New York to Montreal, then Vancouver, and later San Francisco.” These short excerpts are indicative of a broader pattern in Li’s work. In her stories, the geographic attention paid to North America far outstrips the attention paid to any East Asian country, in terms of both diversity and granularity.
In the limited oeuvre of the New Yorker 149, then, we see a shift from a relatively diverse (though still quite limited) representation of China—one tainted by imperialism—to a literary geography of the country that hides behind pretensions to globalism while remaining steeped in a provincial American exceptionalism.
The impressions imagined geographies leave are sticky, stubborn, and have violent material consequences on the lives of racial and ethnic “Others.”
The results gleaned from the New Yorker data reveals that the relationship between an author’s demographic information and the places they write about is not clear. This may seem intuitive, but it runs counter to what editors at the New Yorker—including Treisman and Erin Overbey, the magazine’s former archive editor—believe about the relationship between demographics and internationalism in fiction.
In 2021, Overbey tweeted a series of diversity statistics about the magazine’s publication history. Her tweets painted a damning picture. The institution, perhaps, is not overtly racist. Yet its largely white masthead, Overbey shows, has led to the egregious exclusion of Black, Asian American, Latinx, and Indigenous writers, as well as women’s voices.
Overbey’s statistics make no mention of the fiction section, but it’s tempting to see the case of Ireland’s imagined geographies as bolstering her claim about the importance of demographic diversity. It might encourage editors to think that national identity categories necessarily translate to increased or more ethical geographic attention. But, even if one were able to establish a causal relationship between author demographics and the content of fiction, that argument would risk devolving into the language of essentialism. The case of China shows that richer geographic attention arises from contact, and that there is no direct correlation between fixed categories of nationality and a rich imagined geography.
Thus, the prescience of Steinberg’s famous cover of a New Yorker’s skewed vision of the world is not merely the outsize importance he grants to New York City, but also the schematic way he depicts other countries. For all the ironic self-awareness this cover suggests about the New York–centrism of the magazine’s readership, it is, in fact, emblematic of the fiction section’s myopia.
In the aggregate, the fiction the New Yorker regularly publishes provides a partial and limited view of the world. This view remains stable even during Treisman’s tenure, despite the expectation that she would build a more international fiction section. Studying the magazine’s literary geography shows that New Yorker fiction represents only a particular strain of literature—one with surface-level pretensions to cosmopolitanism, rather than genuine global engagement.
Imagined geographies create forms of relation between the reader and a faraway place and its peoples. These relations can be antagonistic, as Edward Said’s study of Orientalism shows, but they can also be instructive, compassionate, or empathetic. Treisman intuits this much when she suggests that the mission of fiction is informational and humanitarian, and that its goal is to allow the reader “to see and empathize with the unfamiliar.”6 That the New Yorker should publish fiction that provides a more representative view of the world and informs readers about unfamiliar places is not just an aesthetic imperative, then—it is an ethical one, too.
With thanks to Aley Eladawy, Heather Rogers, and Andy Perluzzo for their work building the corpus.
Correction: October 14, 2022
An earlier version of this article stated that Yiyun Li was the magazine’s only regular fiction contributor of Asian descent, but left out Haruki Murakami; it also stated that Junot Díaz was the only Latinx regular contributor, but left out Jorge Luis Borges.
- “Prospectus – The New Yorker,” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 30, 2022. ↩
- David Carr and David D. Kirkpatrick, “The Gatekeeper for Literature Is Changing at New Yorker,” New York Times, October 21, 2002. ↩
- “Questions for Deborah Treisman,” New Yorker, December 12, 2008. ↩
- While the fiction of these 149 authors spans the entire date range, it’s most concentrated in the years between 1945 and 1990—in part, because the magazine standardizes the fiction section around 1990, publishing only one or two stories per issue. In the last 30 years, the magazine’s fiction editors have made a concerted effort not to publish an author more than a handful of times each year, even if they are regular contributors. ↩
- To begin to assess the imagined geographies of the 4,398 stories these authors published in the New Yorker between 1945 and 2019, I used a computer program called Stanford Named Entity Recognition. This program identified every location mentioned. These might be places in which the stories are set, but they could also just be mentioned in passing by narrators or characters. I then used a Google Maps service that gave me detailed geographical information about these places, including what kind of place they each were (whether a city, administrative area, country, or continent). ↩
- “Questions for Deborah Treisman,” New Yorker, December 12, 2008. ↩