“The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson, and”Biography of a Story”

It was late – 10:30 pm. I had to wake up early the next morning, as it was observation day in the ballet program my son’s been in for all of July.

But I hadn’t read my short story of the day yet. In the week since I started this short story of the day ritual, I’ve come to anticipate it, delight in it.

In a word, short stories, I have found, are addictive.

So even though it was late, I pulled a story from my story box, which has been getting fuller on a nearly daily basis as I continue to add more and more short stories to it.

The story I pulled? “The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson.

I’m a bit incredulous myself that I have never before read this famous, classic short story. Written back in 1948, I’ll tell you this: it still packs a punch.

But perhaps the most delightful part? I finished the story and decided to read Jackson’s essay about “The Lottery”, a piece called “Biography of a Story”. Both pieces are in the collection, Come Along With Me.

“Biography of a Story” talks about people’s reactions to the publication of “The Lottery” in the New Yorker back on June 28, 1948. It’s a great read.

One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers. I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote. It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; 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. Even my mother scolded me: “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,” she wrote sternly; “it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”

Jackson then shares snippets of letters she’s received from people from all over the world in response to her story. First, there are the ones who appear to think the story is non-fiction, or based on fact:

Will you please tell me the locale and the year of the custom?

And then there’s this one:

I think your story is based on fact. Am I right? As a psychiatrist I am fascinated by the psychodynamic possibilities suggested by this anachronistic ritual.

And then there were the letters which tried to explain the meaning of it all. I thought this one was the funniest:

The only thing that occurs to me is that perhaps the author meant we should not be too hard on our presidential nominees.

Several people seemed to think the magazine deliberately left out a few much-needed paragraphs:

What happened to the paragraph that tells what the devil is going on?

And:

The printers left out three lines of type somewhere.

As for the third category of letters, here’s what Jackson had to say:

Far and away the most emphatic letter writers were those who took this opportunity of indulging themselves in good old-fashioned name-calling. Since I am making no attempt whatsoever to interpret the motives of my correspondents, and would not if I could, I will not try now to say what I think of people who write nasty letters to other people who just write stories.

Ah. Human nature (or should I say, “troll-la-la-la-la”?) It appears some things never change.

Here are my thoughts, on reading the story for the first time 66 years after it’s initial publication. It’s a good story. I kind of knew where things were headed, since it has, after all, been 66 years and in that time, writers have continued to push boundaries. But it’s still a good read after all these years. And “Biography of a Story”? Delightful. Such fun to read about the reactions of those readers who felt compelled to write letters to the New Yorker, letters which ended up in the author’s hands (the New Yorker faithfully sent her all letters, except for anonymous ones, which went into the garbage). Jackson herself takes it all in with a nice, practical grain of salt.

I have all the letters still, and if they could be considered to give any accurate cross section of the reading public, or the reading public of The New Yorker, or even the reading public of one issue of The New Yorker, I would stop writing now.

11 thoughts on ““The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson, and”Biography of a Story”

  1. Suey

    This is probably the first short story I read, or among the first. And I’ll never forget the punch, as you say, that it packed. Interesting about all the reaction it got, but I’m not surprised!

    Reply
  2. Holly (2 Kids and Tired)

    My son read “The Lottery” this past school year. He was in 7th grade. It was interesting to read it along with him and try and explain it as he is Asperger’s and very literal. Not one of my favorites and one he struggled to understand. I think I would really enjoy “Biography of a Story”.

    Reply
  3. Athira

    I did a similar project during the beginning of last year but never got back to it since. Reading this post has made me want to do it all again. Plus, The Lottery is such an amazing read. I loved that a lot of readers cared enough about the story to respond back!

    Reply
  4. james b chester

    I don’t think readers have changed all that much. I ended up leaving my book club because so many members insisted on uplifting endings and/or complained loudly if a book made them upset or sad. I just want good stories, good writing, good characters. Sometimes these things have sad or upsetting endings. That’s part of what makes them good.

    I really should look for Biography of a Story. I had no idea this existed.

    Reply
  5. Charlie

    Fascinating, that there was a whole reaction to a short story and it’s been documented! Makes me want to read it to see what the fuss was about (I’ve not read Jackson yet).

    Reply
  6. Jay

    This story was the subject of the “Final Jeopardy” question on that TV game show earlier this week. I’ve written about Jackson on my blog before, and her never before published short story “Paranoia” was featured in The New Yorker last year. I thought it was great! A collection of her previously unpublished work titled “One Ordinary Day” was published posthumously a few years back. I snapped up an e-copy of it but haven’t dug intuit yet….

    Reply
  7. Susan

    i read this story years ago and it was thrilling and shocking. I just bought The Lottery collection again, and have it on my list to read for RIP this year! So your review is very timely for me. I enjoyed your thoughts, and didn’t know that Jackson had written about the after-effects of publishing it. I have been wanting to read her biography for years.

    I’m curious to see if I see the story is less startling now because short stories have been pushing the envelope in the past several decades. An interesting thought. I’m glad you find it still has a punch to it. I think especially for young readers, it is a shocking story. Good review, Belle!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>