Conversation: Lorin Stein, Editor of The Paris Review, on the Art of the Short Story

BY Jeffrey Brown  November 30, 2012 at 3:04 PM EST

What is a great short story and what does it take to write one? The Paris Review posed those questions to 20 contemporary authors and asked them to pick a story they love in the almost 60-year-old archives of the Review. The result is a new collection titled “Object Lessons: The Art of the Short Story.”

Lorin Stein is the editor of the Paris Review, and he joined me recently in our newsroom to talk about it:



A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. What is a great short story and what does it take to write one? The Paris Review posed those questions to 20 contemporary authors and asked them to pick a story they love in the almost 60-year-old archives of the Review. The result is a new collection titled “Object Lessons: The Art of the Short Story.” Lorin Stein is the editor of the Paris Review is here with me to talk about it. Welcome to you.

LORIN STEIN: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was intrigued by a line in your short introduction of the collection. It said, “Most of all this is intended for readers who are not or who are no longer in the habit of reading short stories.” Is there a sense of a lost art or a lost readership?

LORIN STEIN: Well, do you find that you pick up short stories these days in your free time? I tend not to, maybe you do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I’m more of a novel reader myself.

LORIN STEIN: You are more of a novel reader, yeah. I think that that’s typical for fiction readers, and until I took the job at the Paris Review I had fallen out of the habit of reading short stories. And then as I went back to them for work I found that I loved doing it and I wondered why I had been away from it for so long.

JEFFREY BROWN: And?

LORIN STEIN: I still wonder a little bit.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why the culture is away from it? Not just you or me.

LORIN STEIN: I think it’s a funny counter-intuitive fact I think that fiction has become more and more of an escape from distraction for us, so we use it in a way that we didn’t used to use it, to drop out of the life of distractions that we have. And short stories aren’t really made for that. They don’t really let you drop out for that long.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not long enough. And now the idea of going to contemporary writers for this collection, that opens up a discussion of mechanics, it opens up a question of what makes a great short story. Tell me how you went about that, picking the writers, and what were you after there?

LORIN STEIN: Well, they were writers who we — my colleague Sadie Stein and I — admired for different reasons, but they’re also very different from each other. We wanted to get a mix of different voices, all people whose opinion we respect, but we knew we would get very different choices from them. And they didn’t let us down.

JEFFREY BROWN: I knew just a few of the stories, myself maybe three of them, and I’ve enjoyed getting to read more, but what about you? Did you know –

LORIN STEIN: I’m in exactly your position. And so is Sadie. Well, the Paris Review has been around long enough that no one alive — George Plimpton, the founding editor died six years ago — there is no one alive now who knows the whole archive. It’s not digitized, but even if it were it would take years to read through it. So we asked these people to lead us back into our own archives and show us what their favorites were, and often they would get back to us within minutes and say, I’ve been thinking about this story for years or decades, and some of them, of course, we knew the Borges story, the Raymond Carver story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those were two of the three I knew.

LORIN STEIN: What was the third one?

JEFFREY BROWN: The third was Dennis Johnson, “The Hitchhiker.”

LORIN STEIN: Those were my favorites, too, when we started, but then it was so much fun to see what people came up with that I didn’t know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give me an example of some either connection between a contemporary writer and an older story or, I don’t know, some insight that surprised you.

LORIN STEIN: It was a lot of fun seeing Mona Simpson, who is a writer and used to be an editor of the Paris Review, talking about when Norman Rush’s story came into the Review and how her colleague read the first sentence and said, we’re going to publish this after reading one sentence. It’s something editors don’t usually admit, but you can tell in one sentence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

LORIN STEIN: Yes, you can, you usually can. Not always, but usually. A story is short enough that if you don’t make a mistake in the first sentence, you probably won’t make a mistake all the way through.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is hope for the rest of it? Well, that leads to my, you know, widening this out to your position now. I assume that one of your roles is to foster, certainly to publish new short stores

LORIN STEIN: That’s my main job.

JEFFREY BROWN: That is your job, that’s how you see it. So how do you do that? How do you go about it?

LORIN STEIN: Well, you read the first sentence. You read lots of first sentences.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

LORIN STEIN: We get thousands and thousands of stories every month, and it’s a lot of fun. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the sophistication of so many young writers. We’re publishing a lot of people I’d never heard of before. A lot of beginners.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really. But to go back to this novel versus short story, do you sense any, I mean, is renaissance too big a word? But do you sense a more turning to it or more interest in it on the part of writers?

LORIN STEIN: I understand. I think writers are coming to it from fresh paths. It used to be that you would go into a writing program and what you would learn was how to write a short story. You would pick up the magazines and you would be taught from the magazines how to write a short story. Nowadays student writers are learning to write novels because that market is gone, so the ones who are drawn to the form are doing it really for reasons of their own and that’s really exciting. Every year we give a prize, a $10,000 prize, to the best emerging writer whose fiction we publish in the Review, and they’ve gotten weirder and weirder and, to me, more and more interesting as time goes by.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you one final thing about the Paris Review itself. As you’ve said, George Plimpton, of course, was the founding and longtime editor. You are just the third editor, right?

LORIN STEIN: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: The world has changed since George Plimpton was the editor right? The world of media, books, magazines — how does the Paris Review change. I’ve seen some of the ways you’ve changed, with the website especially, but how do you think of it now?

LORIN STEIN: Well, I think I understand your question. We launched an app last month and we sell all of our subscriptions now pretty much through our website, but we’re really doing these things because we think that the original mission of the Review from 60 years ago, to foster new fiction and poetry and essays at a moment when, as then, they were out of favor with critics and there is a sense of decline. That was true in 1953, it’s even truer now. We are just doing these things so we can keep doing what we do best. Changing everything so that we don’t have change.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. This new collection is “Object Lessons: The Art of the Short Story.” Lorin Stein, thanks so much.

LORIN STEIN: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.