Critical Questions: Lorin and Sadie SteinBy Tracy O’Neill
Swapping stories with literature's ultimate power couple.
To those who consider the short story an arcane form, The Paris Review has offered an answer, Object Lessons: The Paris Review presents The Art of the Short Story. In recognition of this formidable new anthology, we asked its editors Lorin and Sadie Stein to talk short story shop.
CM: What is the first thing you look for in a short story? Does this differ from what you look for in a novel?
SS: I don't know that you are looking for something different per se, but I like what Lorin said about certain stories: once in a blue moon, you can read the first line of a story, and know it's going to work. As he said, you just know the author won't screw it up. A novel, he could potentially still screw up! But of course, that certainty is very rare what the editor looks for.
It's mentioned in the introduction to Object Lessons that you'd never read some of the stories. Which ones were those?
SS: In my case, the Dallas Wiebe, "Old Birds," "City Boy."
Lorin and Sadie, do you have favorite stories in the collection? Favorite story introduction essays?
LS: My favorite story is probably the Mary Robison, and I like the intro a lot too, because it is genuinely illuminating and you can see the influence on the author.
As you selected authors to choose and introduce stories, what qualities were you looking for? What specifically did you ask of them?
SS: We wanted, specifically, masters of the short story who could look at the stories from a professional viewpoint. We asked them to describe what "problem" each writer solved in the story, and how.
Years from now, for what would you like your time at the Paris Review to be remembered? What will you be reading while on book tour?
SS: I'm reading Jean Renoir's memoirs, and a new biography of St. Francis. (I didn't even realize how appropriate it was for San Francisco!)
Which author would you most like to read and least like to have over for dinner? Which author would you rather have for dinner than read?
SS: There are many I wouldn't particularly want to hang out with, but for dinner, specifically? [Marcel] Proust. Very picky eater. And there are several writers whose food writing I like more than their other prose, so I think I'd go for one of them: A.J. Liebling or Laurie Colwin, probably. But wouldn't it be awkward if the subject of their other writing came up? In any case, the food element is not incidental to my choice.
Any guilty reading pleasures?
SS: I don't believe in guilty pleasures as such, but I will admit to snapping up early-80s Harlequin romances. They have to be from the years 76-85; I'm guessing in reaction to women's lib or something they became bizarrely chauvinistic and the dynamics are fascinating. After a certain point they became more egalitarian and aren't nearly so compelling or appalling.
What is the quintessential problem with the literary world today? Who makes for a better short story character: Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? Who would you rather see write a story collection?
SS: With very few exceptions, I don't like fiction about politicians, because the contours of the job demand a sameness to the narrative. (Maybe in life too.) And I think anyone who's reached that level is by definition interesting. I guess I should say something waggish about the amount of fiction one or the other has crafted in recent debates, but I'll play it straight: Obama seems to be the more experienced writer. Not that I imagine either of them would make it out of the slush pile; their line of work demands they think in cliches.
Finally, if you could elect one Object Lessons writer president, who would it be?
SS: Oh, easy: Dallas Wiebe. Of course, he'd be headless by the time he hit the oval office.
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