Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, tells us that if you think short stories are dead, you aren't paying close enough attention.
For most of my grownup life I edited books, most of them novels. I read short stories now and then, the way book editors do, in a professional way, because they're a good place to spot talent. And every once in a while I'd teach a class where we read short stories, because – well, because they're short. You can read them closely. They lend themselves to discussions of technique. And certain short story writers I loved, and now and then I was lucky enough to edit one of their collections. But novels were what I thought about most of the day. And at the end of the day, when I took a book to dinner or to bed – that is, when I read for pleasure – the book I took with me was almost never a book of stories. There are so few exceptions to this rule I think I can actually count them: books by Alice Munro, Harold Brodkey, Chekhov, Hemingway, Joyce, Isaak Dinesen, Maupassant, Babel, Norman Rush, Hawthorne, Mrs. Gaskell, Washington Irving, Edward P. Jones, Ann Beattie, Sholom Aleichem, David Foster Wallace, and Roberto Bolano, plus an anthology edited by Randall Jarrell. Over ten years these are, as far as I remember, the only story collections I read strictly for fun.
Then two years ago I left the book business to edit The Paris Review, a magazine famous for its fiction. Suddenly it was my job to think about short stories, a lot. And to question my own reading habits -- because that's all we editors really have to go on, what we like to read in our free time. For the first time I found myself wondering why short stories weren't a bigger part of my life.
It wasn't a matter of not liking them. On the contrary: the more stories I read, the more I found to like. Within a couple of issues, we had no trouble filling the pages of the magazine – and not just with writers I already admired, like David Gates, Sam Lipsyte, or Lydia Davis. The newcomers bowled me over. Here was April Ayers Lawson, with her sexually tormented evangelicals, and Amie Barrodale, with a story about a doomed romantic weekend that I couldn't get out of my head, and Ottessa Moshfegh, writing about love and lust in rural China – and dozens of other stories equally tough-minded, funny, sophisticated, and beautiful, by writers I'd never heard of. Over the years I had heard, and half believed, that the short story was in decline, when the plain truth was simply that much of the action was happening out of sight – at any rate, out of my sight because I, and my friends, and my favorite critics, simply hadn't been paying close enough attention.
At first glance, there is a simple explanation for why short stories fell off our radar. Once upon a time, stories were a fixture not merely of so-called literary magazines, but of popular interest publications, too. An author could support himself or herself with short fiction, and many – Thurber, Lardner, to say nothing of O. Henry – did just that. But popular entertainments are vulnerable to technological change. Along came the radio serial, the movies, and TV. As readership softened, the big magazines saw that it was easier to attract advertisers by publishing fashion tips -- in general, by featuring products -- than by giving up pages to fiction.
So short stories lost out to M*A*S*H* and Banana Republic. This is part of the answer. But only part -- because if you read the archive of The Paris Review, it's clear that most of our best fiction would never have appeared in GQ or the Saturday Evening Post. Even when short stories were seen as a hot commodity, how many glossies could ever have published Terry Southern, or Donald Barthelme, or Jorge Luis Borges, or devoted most of an issue to “Goodbye, Columbus," much less David Foster Wallace's first novella, "Little Expressionless Animals"? These stories were never intended as mass entertainment, and yet they made a big splash in the world of letters. Even if The Paris Review debuts by Jay McInerney and Jeffrey Eugenides hadn’t blossomed into full-length novels (Bright Lights, Big City and The Virgin Suicides), readers of a certain age would remember them – the way my generation remembers the first essays published by Wesley Yang or Elif Batuman or John Jeremiah Sullivan, essays grounded in storytelling, intimacy, sharp dialogue: essays that borrow (like so much of the New Journalism) the techniques of fiction but deal in fact.
And this is something else to factor in: much of the attention that we once gave to short stories, whether they appear in The Paris Review or The New Yorker, we now reserve for a kind of storytelling nonfiction that isn't quite reportage or memoir, but does tell intimate stories. Indeed, you could as easily ask, why do so many readers and critics today seem to divide their time between novels and essays – those first cousins of the short story – and leave short fiction alone?
I can answer only for myself, but maybe my answer holds true for others too, because it has to do with technological changes that have affected us all. Fifteen years ago my work was conducted mainly over the phone. The things I read came to me mainly on paper. I didn’t have a cell phone. If I left the house or the office (or let the phone ring), I was unaccounted for. This amounted to large stretches of the day. And I read more or less the way my parents read. I read the paper for news. I read short stories when I saw them in magazines – over lunch, or on the subway, the same way I read essays and other longish articles and, for that matter, novels. The first long review I ever wrote was about Ann Beattie, and I remember reading her collections and novels indiscriminately. There were formal differences between these books, of course, but they occupied the same space in my day.
Gradually my days – and the days of the people around me – changed. We spent less and less time on the phone, and less time unaccounted for, and more and more time online. I didn’t stop reading, but reading literature, as opposed to e-mails or text messages, took on a new meaning. I read defensively. By day I gravitated toward journalism and the essay, for the sake of hearing a companionable voice in the midst of distraction. By night I read to take myself offline. And this meant reading novels, history books, travelogues –works designed to immerse me in their world. What dropped out of the equation was short stories, which -- you might say -- are neither of the day nor of the night.
On the one hand, stories demand the focus of bedtime. They're meant to be read straight through from beginning to end. You can’t read a story and multitask. And they tend to arise from nighttime concerns—either the four o’clock in the morning awareness that you’ve taken a wrong turn, and will spend your life paying the price (see Chekhov, passim) or else the lure of some dangerous path, which holds the promise of salvation and the risk of ruin. Nightmare stuff, dream stuff.
On the other hand, you can't relax and lose yourself in a short story. Short stories bring you up short. They demand a wakeful attention; a good one keeps you thinking when it’s over. They take the subjects of the night and expose them to the bright light of day. They run counter to our yearnings for immersion, companionship, distraction … and for all of these reasons, in my mind they’ve come to stand for a kind of difficulty, emotional difficulty, that we are in danger of losing when we fetishize the charms of the long novel. Reading groups dive into White Teeth, Middlemarch, or Freedom, when they might find discussions deeper and more specific -- and everyone actually on the same page -- if they read a little magazine, an anthology, or a collection of stories.
There is a time for multi-tasking and a time for losing yourself. The short story offers something else: a chance to pay close attention -- and have that attention rewarded because, for once, every little plot twist, every sentence, counts. In my life, I'm happy to report, there is a time for that kind of attention too.
Lorin Stein is the editor of The Paris Review. Sadie Stein is the deputy editor. Together they edited PW Pick Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story, out now from Picador. They are not related.