One of the strangest stories, "Night Flight to Stockholm," is actually a meditation on the process of submitting to literary journals. The unnamed narrator finds an agent who can get him published anywhere—to acclaim—if he follows certain simple writerly advice, and then surrenders a body part. The Paris Review is the magazine that launches the character's career (he cuts off his pinkie). It must have been amazing to find a story so perfect to close Object Lessons.
Right? The Dallas Wiebe is one I hope everyone reads. Deeply bizarre, mordantly funny, and as harsh an indictment of this business as has ever been written. We have a large jar of pinkies in the office, obviously.
A pinkie is bad enough, but he gives up both testicles to have his work run in TriQuarterly. Is it really that hard to get into top literary journals? Do people want it that bad?
We're a quarterly, and publish maybe four pieces of fiction in a typical issue. It's not a lot. And yes, there are a lot of submissions. The good news for writers is that, thanks to the Internet, there are more and more good venues that allow one to publish, and be read, and hopefully without sacrificing too many extremities.
What do you make of the advice given to the narrator of "Night Flight"? Some of it seems sound—strive for clarity, excise extra words, and so on—and yet he's mutilating himself, and wiping literal blood and sweat of the pages. I can't tell if the author is critiquing the painful corset one must slip into to receive mainstream success, or if it's more about the way you must give up very real, living parts of you to write well.
Both, I'd think: Wiebe was a subtle writer, even if sometimes outrageous. You could also argue that he touches on how society loves a sob story or grotesque: The less "normal" he becomes, the more he is honored and feted. Ultimately, he is a limbless stump being wheeled onto the Nobel podium.
And it strikes me almost as a kind of meta-commentary on the kind of issues we're talking about. His stories become more polished, more technically perfect, but perhaps lose some of their wildness. Editors keep asking him to wipe certain body fluids off the page.
No question, you can polish the edge away. A little blood, sweat, and tears make for good reading, if not comfortable writing.
When editing a story for neatness cohesion, or even comprehension—do you ever risk taking out its beating heart? How do you balance this?
That's editing in a nutshell, isn't it? The trick is to value what's important in the first place, know you can trust the writer, and learn to have confidence in your instincts. Like writing, editing calls for chutzpah. Ideally, that should be earned. And decisions should always be collaborative in any case.
In an interview with The Millions, you addressed the challenge of securing all the rights to the stories. Many of them had been sold decades ago by unagented writers over a handshake. How did this process give you a sense of how journal publishing has changed?
Well, even in the magazine's early days, there were plenty of other places that had more conventional set-ups: Things were unusually casual, I think! But then, when one person is essentially running things, that's easier. Also, we don't know how much may have been lost in the move, as nothing was digitized. Obviously, agents demand a little more of a paper trail nowadays.
Do you think this encroaching "professionalism" is a good thing or a bad thing? In some ways, it mirrors the issues we're talking about—finding a place for wild work in an ever-tamer marketplace.
Well, agents are all looking for good stuff too—and I would hope that, increasingly, people have the imagination and gumption to look at all these new venues in search of writing. I know I look all over the place for writers for the Daily. (Our web site.) And writers getting their due is not a bad thing!
How often would you say an unagented story comes across your desk?
We read everything that comes in solicited and unsolicited. Does something from slush make it into the magazine often? Not a ton, but it does happen.
What advice do you have for people writing short stories?
The same advice I'd give any writer: read, constantly. Read everything. And write a lot. Learn to take criticism but know when to trust it. And remember: Philip Roth came in though the slush-pile.
What about for writers submitting short stories? How do writing and submission differ? Are there professional considerations that should be layered over the artistic considerations? Or is it only the artistic considerations that matter in the end?
Certainly a cogent and articulate cover letter makes a difference. A smart pitch (which is not the same as a gimmicky pitch) will get noticed. At the end of the day, the work speaks for itself. If we're talking about pitching to an agent, keep in mind that it is partly their job to think "commercially" and spot potential; the whole point is that that relationship should take some of the onus off you, when you find someone who you gibe with creatively.
What did you learn about the short story in our era from the stories these authors chose? From the stories you publish in the Paris Review?
I was surprised by how much more experimental the body of work was from an era we think of in a prescribed way. Many of these could and would be published today.
Say you had to write a state of the union address to the nation of short story writers—a state of the form address. What would you say?
I'm optimistic. I actually think new technology could be a boon for the form. And more people are writing than ever. The reaction to this anthology has also been very encouraging.
So it's a good time to be reading. But is it a good time to be writing?
In some ways, yes: People are savvier, and there are more outlets. Yes, the landscape is grim in certain respects and, sure, very few people will get rich on literary fiction. But is the life of a writer ever easy? Of course not. That's not why anyone goes into this business.