Why Does the Short Story Survive?

The medium isn't as popular as it used to be, but a new anthology from The Paris Review makes the case for the power and promise of short stories. Below, an interview with editor Sadie Stein.

object lessons short story cover 615.jpg
Random House

A new anthology from the editors of The Paris Review showcases the verve and variety of a quintessentially American art form: the short story. Editors Lorin Stein and Sadie Stein (no relation) asked 20 Review contributors to choose their favorite fiction from the magazine's vast archive, which spans back to 1953. You might expect such a collection—the first time the magazine's prestigious pages have been harvested for an all-fiction book—to be a literary who's who of well-known stories and boldfaced names. Happily, though, it isn't.

"This is not a greatest hits collection," the editors write in their preface—and it's true. Reading Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story is more like listening to The Beatles' White Album. It's a stylistic roller coaster that derives power from the strangeness of its juxtapositions and the wildness of its range. Bouncing from the lapidary poetry of Joy Williams' "Dimmer" (chosen by Daniel Alarcon), through the novelistic sweep of Ethan Canin's "The Palace Thief" (a Lorrie Moore selection), to the disjunctive weirdness of David Barthelme's "Several Garlic Tales" (thank you, Ben Marcus), the short story's endless and exhilarating capacities are on full display.

Even better, the book rescues several obscure writers from undeserved anonymity. I'm grateful to Jonathan Lethem for resurrecting a plaintive tenement yarn from Thomas Glynn, and to David Bezmozgis for introducing me to the transgressive nightmare jazz of Leonard Michael.

As the title suggests, this book has an instructive function and can be read like a manual for aspiring prosers. Each author introduces his or her selection, and the results are frequently thrilling. Imagine taking a ten-minute master class with Dave Eggers or Amy Hempel or Lydia Davis, whose erudite prologue to Jane Bowles's "Emmy Moore's Journal" shows how to nail an opening hook. Publisher's Weekly has called Object Lessons "an MFA between two covers," and there are valuable craft takeaways for those who seek them. But the book's variousness should also remind writers that short fiction's formal conventions are far from set in stone.

I emailed with Sadie Stein, the Review's deputy editor, about her experience editing the prestigious journal, the process of assembling the collection, and the state of the American short story today.

In the introduction, you write that this volume is "intended for readers who are not (or are no longer) in the habit of reading short stories." Is this kind of reader one you're familiar with? Has the short story has lost some of its currency as a popular form?

This is something we've been considering a great deal, and I think there isn't one simple answer. For starters, entertainment changed: The short story, as people used to know it, was a popular entertainment in glossy magazines. Radio, movies and TV changed the landscape; narrative non-fiction has also filled some of the void. Then too, they're difficult: A short story, when it's good, doesn't draw you into a comforting world; it shakes you up. It's not, as Lorin has pointed out, what you want to read before going to sleep: It's a different kind of intellectual and emotional commitment. On a basic level, I think people worry about finding a consistent collection, and even then, each story is going to be a new challenge. Rightly or wrongly, we live in a time that values escapism highly, and the short form provides something different.

When I was a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, book editors and agents often came to give talks. Inevitably, a young writer would raise his or her hand and ask "How do you feel about story collections?" The response, usually, came like clockwork: something like, "look, I know you're going to hate me for saying this. And I love stories, I really do. But we can't sell them. They're rarely worth it for us."

I've known writers who, as a result of this market pressure, feel persuaded to shelve their stories and finish their Big Book. Do you see this tendency, and do you lament it?

It's absolutely true in publishing, and even those people I know getting MFAs are thinking in terms of more easily salable longer projects. It is too bad, as the writing and studying of the short form is not only a specific and valuable skill set, but a more straightforward way of understanding problems common to all writing.

There are some writers here who never wrote, or have not yet written, a novel—Lydia Davis, say, or Raymond Carver. I think of this as the Grace Paley School of writers—writers who reach a certain hallowed status even without a novel going for them. Why do you think so many of them appeared here? Why is it that some story writers don't make good novelists? How different are they as forms, as skills?

They're distinct skills, certainly. Now, that said, plenty of short stories evolve into novels: The acorns of [Jeffery Eugenides's] The Virgin Suicides and [Philip Roth's] Goodbye, Columbus, to name just a few, ran in the Review as complete entities unto themselves. I'd say the reasons for a writer choosing one medium over another vary too widely for me to feel comfortable making any generalizations, but often a writer is not looking to do the same thing in a short story as a novel. It's not a question of ambition, certainly not of skill or even time spent writing.

It makes sense that several writers like that should be represented here. Simply put, they're masters of the short story: of doing more with less, of packing a punch, of refining their medium down to its bones.

Does it take a certain kind of bravery to stick to stories? Are these novel-less writers a rare breed? Do you think there's a certain pressure to write a big book?

Financially, it's probably harder. This isn't the era where you can make a good living publishing in the Saturday Evening Post. But bravery implies choice, and while that certainly must enter into it for some writers, others really have their wheelhouse and have the sense to know their strengths. Certainly, a good many agents—and marketing departments—would probably be keener on a plot-driven novel with a series of easy comp titles than a collection that defies easy classification.

Do journals, more than book publishers, help keep the short story form vital? After all, the stories in many published collections have all been previously published in individual form.

Journals are designed for the medium. Lorin has made the point that what magazines were created for—they were, essentially, paced to the length of a commute—no longer exists. Now, reading them is a conscious and deliberate choice rather than a matter of routine. But the idea of curation, and of reading these works in a particular physical context is very special. It adds a sense of import to the experience. On a basic level, in a world where there are fewer places to submit short fiction, magazines like ours are vitally important.

Object Lessons, as its title suggests, can be read like a how-to manual for fiction writers: It's been called an MFA between two covers by Publishers Weekly. What did this book teach you about what works and what doesn't in fiction?

What's interesting about this collection is how experimental several of the stories are: truly avant-garde. As such, it's by no means a "greatest-hits" collection as people understand it; many of the most-collected stories from our archive aren't represented. In that sense, it's interesting to see what makes the "canon" and what doesn't, and to think about why that is. Especially in the context of this book, which is to say, stories that writers genuinely revere. The divide, perhaps, between writers' writing, and what has for whatever reason passed into the more conventional canon.

There's a vein of thought out there that says in order to publish short stories, one must write something formulaic and polished—something that will strike a haggard slush-pile reader as basically competent, without challenging them too much. Why do you agree or disagree?

Well, that might get someone out of the slush pile, but it's unlikely to grab an editor, and that's what everyone is looking for—to be arrested, to be challenged, to be discomfited sometimes. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't need much encouragement to be formulaic; we all cling to what we know. Competence, however, is not the same thing, and should not be underrated!

Is there a standardizing influence that journals have? Do they create dominant aesthetics? Editors often say, if you want to know what we publish read the magazine. Is it possible to write a Paris Review story? Does this collection disprove that idea?

As you know, the Review has had only three editors in its history: It's inevitable that one person's aesthetic should be a guiding force, to a degree. I'd call it desirable. But if looking through the archive taught me one thing, it's that the fiction has been all over the map. The original mission statement declared that the magazine would publish anything "as long as it's good." They took that seriously.

Of course, the business is different. People are agented much more now. More writers get MFAs. These are both great things, but they're still more factors that might inevitably cut down on the diversity of what crosses our desks: Many writers' experiences are at least slightly similar in a way that wasn't true a few decades ago.

But, as you write in the introduction to the book, each story has its own rules. That can be challenging. Are there ever moments when you read something and are not sure if something is groundbreaking or horribly flawed?

Sure. It's easy to tell when something is terrific, and of course easy to tell when it's really bad for whatever reason. It becomes tricky when it's neither—or, hardest of all, when there's something special there, but the piece as a whole doesn't work. To what extent is that deliberate and not luck? Can the writer strip the rest away? Is he even willing to, or able to? How do you express this when the actual meat of the story—something the writer has surely worked on and thought about a lot—doesn't work? It's both exciting and extremely frustrating. And you never want to get someone's hopes up, make them put in a great deal of time and work, without some guarantee that you believe in it.

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.