Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review, was talking a while back with Scott Moyers, who was then a literary agent with The Wylie Agency, which represents the prestigious journal. For years The Paris Review has been publishing its inimitable interviews with writers in book form. So, Stein and Moyers were thinking, why not do something with the wealth of short stories that have been appearing in the journal since its birth in 1953?
“We were reflecting on the fact that the short story archive is remarkable, but it has never been harvested,” says Moyers, who left The Wylie Agency to become publisher of The Penguin Press last year. “Lorin thought it would be neat to have masters of the form choose stories that affected them. The idea was to have a book that would have meaning for students, MFAs, and the rest of us.”
So the editors of The Paris Review approached a handful of accomplished short story writers and asked them to pick a favorite story from the journal’s archive, then write a brief introduction explaining how the story spoke to them. The result is called Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents The Art of the Short Story. It is, to borrow a term from the art world, a curated collection. It’s much more idiosyncratic, intriguing, and enlightening than a generic Greatest Hits list, or another how-to book on the craft of short story writing. It also glitters with gem-like aphorisms and insights.
Here’s Ann Beattie on Craig Nova’s “Another Drunk Gambler”: “Serious stories don’t tend to end with a punch line.” (Take that, O. Henry.)
Here’s David Bezmozgis on Leonard Michaels’s “City Boy”: “How does Michaels create a story that manages to be both comic and sinister — like a smile with sharp teeth? He does so by moving the story from realism to absurdity and back again.”
Here’s Dave Eggers on James Salter’s “Bangkok”: “Some of the best dialog occurs when at least one of the two people talking doesn’t want to be there.”
Here’s Jeffrey Eugenides on Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”: “Compared to writing novels, writing short fiction is mainly a question of knowing what to leave out. What you leave in must imply everything that’s missing.” And: “The story hasn’t told you about an experience so much as made that experience your own. Which is as good a definition of fiction writing that I can think of.”
Here’s Ben Marcus on Donald Barthelme’s “Several Garlic Tales”: “Barthelme proves that, in reading a story, it’s not the facts — what we know — that matters, but what we feel, and sometimes the business of making feeling from language necessitates a disloyalty to quotidian sense and stability.”
Here’s David Means on Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance,” (a great story that was made into an even better, more capacious movie called Everything Must Go, starring Will Ferrell): “A great story is like an itch that has to be scratched eternally.” And: “Carver’s style teaches us that the bare bones of a story — no matter how ornate or twisty a style might get — are always simple, rudimentary, and arriving from a deeply humane source. Heart and style and story must be united, somehow. In other words, you have to care, and care a lot.”
And finally, here’s Joy Williams on Dallas Wiebe’s “Night Flight to Stockholm,” about a desperate obscure writer who willingly sacrifices body parts in pursuit of literary fame, only to wind up a limbless, eyeless lump in a basket, bound for Sweden to pick up his Nobel: “What a frolic! It really is one of the funniest, most grotesque pieces ever written and this in the day (1978) when all manner of crazy things were going on.”
Well, you get the idea. The stories range over eras (from 1955 to 2010), styles (comic, grotesque, fantastic, realistic, and all combinations of the above), and subject matter. On a balmy late-summer afternoon, I sat at a sidewalk cafe in downtown Manhattan to talk with Sadie Stein, the 31-year-old deputy editor of The Paris Review, who worked with Lorin Stein (no kin) to bring this magnificent book together.
The Millions: I’m curious about the conception of the book.
Sadie Stein: One thing that interests (Lorin) and all of us at the Review is this conversation between being relevant while drawing on the richness of our archive. In that sense I guess the book was a fairly logical idea.
TM: Who got the writers together?
SS: We made up a wish list and contacted them. These are almost all people who are friends, who write for the Review. It was actually a very friendly, collegial process. We wrote them, we asked them if they’d like to be involved, we explained the project — and everyone was so excited and enthusiastic. In that way it was very organic.
TM: There are 20 writers — choosers, we’ll call them — in the book, and they chose 20 stories. And only three of the choosers, by my count, were also chosen — Lydia Davis, Joy Williams and Norman Rush. Was that just dumb luck?
SS: By chance, yeah. We put the entire archive at their disposal and let them choose. It was fun to be able to tell people who had already agreed to choose stories and write introductions that they had been chosen. But it was almost as exciting that more people chose stories that weren’t as well known — and that they remembered immediately. Joy Williams knew at once she wanted to do the Dallas Wiebe story, “Night Flight to Stockholm.” It had made such an impression on her when it first ran (in 1978).
TM: What a weird story.
SS: Right!? There are some really odd stories in here. It’s a very unconventional collection. To call it greatest hits is misleading, because it’s not —
TM: No, no, no.
SS: It’s not the most famous. And that’s what I like so much about it — it’s actually a curated collection, which is done purely from love and interest.
TM: It’s not a conventional how-to book, either — about how to be a better writer.
SS: There is that element, but we wanted that to come, first, from a story they love — and then get them to think about what makes it good. Which, I think, is a more organic way of going about things. So many of us had collections of short stories we read in seventh grade as an introduction to fiction. We were never taught the short story as a unique form. It was an introduction to longer forms. This book was really about looking at what makes a short story such a distinct discipline. The writers we chose to introduce the stories are known for their mastery of that particular medium, which is so deceptively difficult.
TM: What I love about the book is its range. “Old Birds” by Bernard Cooper (chosen by Amy Hempel) is very conventional, very straightforward. And then you get weird Dallas Wiebe —
SS: Leonard Michaels.
TM: Or Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” My favorite in the whole book. It’s so freaking strange.
SS: It’s a strange and wonderful story. It was in Jesus’ Son, which went on to become a huge collection.
TM: I’ve been reading The Paris Review interviews since I was a teenager, because they’re a great way for an aspiring writer to see what the world of a writer is like. Is this book meant to complement the interviews, which have been published in book form, or is this a completely different kind of animal?
SS: Commercially speaking, I don’t think it was intended as a complement. But philosophically, and this is something we talk about quite a bit, we’ve always seen real overlap between the interviews — which are called “The Art of Fiction” or “The Art of Poetry” or “The Art of Playwriting” — and the fiction and the poetry that we run. So in that sense, this book is a very logical extension.
It was just a really fun project to work on. One of the things I loved about it was that the process of securing the rights was often very challenging because a lot of the stories in the archive were done with handshakes, a lot of it wasn’t in writing, and the magazine has been around so long. It was so casual when things started. A lot of writers weren’t agented. So it took some detective work to sort everything out. And while that can be frustrating, and it certainly gave the lawyers at Picador some sleepless nights, it was also one of the most exciting parts of the project — in that I came into contact with writers’ kids, who are in their 60s and retired now, and in some cases the authors themselves, who were so flattered and excited that their stories were chosen. Dallas Wiebe died in 2010, but I heard from his agent. He was so excited that this would bring new readers.
TM: That was a nice feeling for you, I’m sure.
SS: That was a great feeling. And that’s one of the things we wanted to achieve with this book. The impressions these stories have made on people — the ones that they knew instantly they wanted to write about that were not canonical — that was exciting.
TM: What do you hope this book will accomplish, if anything?
SS: At a base level I think it will be fun to read. We hope it will remind people how pleasurable reading short stories can be. We hope it will introduce them to some writers they weren’t familiar with. I think you can learn a lot about writing from it, but I hope it’s pleasurable first and foremost.
TM: Do you have a favorite story in the book?
SS: There’s a few I really, really like — “Dimmer” by Joy Williams; “Pelican Song” by Mary-Beth Hughes, and I thought Mary Gaitskill’s introduction brought a lot to it; and “Funes the Memorious” by Borges, which I’d read in high school, but coming to it with adult eyes was fun.
TM: Lydia Davis breaks down Jane Bowles’s “Emmy Moore’s Journal” like a mechanic. Rolls up the sleeves, gets the wrenches out, and tells you how the thing was made. Which is brilliant and, to me, one of the great values of the book — aside from, as you say, the pleasure of reading the stories.
SS: Some of these people are wonderful teachers. When Lydia Davis does something like that, you can appreciate the story on a technical and craft level but you can also enjoy it as a reader. If we can achieve one thing with this book, I think it would be that — that a short story can be both an education and a pleasure.