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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What “The Lottery” taught Shirley Jackson about her readers

The iconic power of “The Lottery” resurfaced this week when Boris Kelly’s essay on Wikileaks invoked Shirley Jackson’s story (as well as Melville’s Billy Budd and the writings of Theodore Roosevelt) and discussed how readers were “deeply disturbed by Jackson’s representation of society and did not wish to hear it.” Jackson (whose birthday is today) used to marvel about the reaction to her story in a talk she frequently gave. Her “Biography of a Story” (1960) is actually six pages longer than the eight-page story:
[“The Lottery”] was not my first published story, nor my last, but I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name.
Jackson tells how she wrote the story early in June 1948 and that “it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause.” In fact, what she sent off to her agent the next day “was almost word for word the original draft. This, as any writer of stories will tell you, is not a usual thing.” Her agent didn’t like it but sent it off to The New Yorker anyway and a week after the story was written the magazine bought it. Gus Lobrano, her editor, asked for only one change: to alter the date in the story (June 27) to follow the date of the magazine issue (June 26, 1948). Lobrano also had a question:
Mr. Harold Ross, then the editor of The New Yorker, was not altogether sure that he understood the story, and wondered if I cared to enlarge upon its meaning. I said no.
Lobrano thought people might be puzzled by the story. If they telephoned or wrote the magazine, did Jackson have anything in particular she wanted the magazine to say? “No,” she responded, “nothing in particular. It was just a story I wrote.”

Neither The New Yorker nor Jackson were prepared for what happened next. As biographer Judy Oppenheimer records in Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson:
Its effect was instant and cataclysmic. Nothing in the magazine before or since would provoke such an unprecedented outpouring of fury, horror, rage, disgust, and intense fascination.
Jackson recorded that “of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends.” What she read alarmed Jackson:
I have all the letters still, and if they could be considered to give an accurate cross section of the reading public . . . I would stop writing now. . . . Judging from these letters, people who read stories are gullible, rude, frequently illiterate, and horribly afraid of being laughed at. . . .
Curiously, there are three main themes which dominate the letters of that first summer—three themes which might be identified as bewilderment, speculation, and plain, old-fashioned abuse. . . People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.
Also of interest:
  • Will Errickson posts a loving appreciation of the lurid covers of the paperback editions of Jackson’s works
  • Barely a month after “The Lottery,” Mademoiselle published “Charles,” one of Jackson’s family stories and a recent Story of the Week.
  • Read an exclusive Library of American interview with Joyce Carol Oates about Shirley Jackson
Related LOA works: Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories (includes “The Lottery” and “Biography of a Story”)

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