A book can be judged by its cover, partially. This book is perfect example. The words Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story and the image of a typewriter below them compressed into a singular message for me: MFA in fiction. Even before opening the book, the cover tells me its target audience is creative writers, or more so, creative writers who are in a writing program, aspiring to be in one, used to be in one, are teaching in one, are about to teach in one, or believe you can’t teach creative writing, and thus look down on writing programs. But whether you stand by that idea or not, there’s a growing trend in that these programs, academies, or institutes are sprouting around the globe. To name three, out of many: the City University of Hong Kong’s MFA in Creative Writing in English was launched in 2010, and considers itself “The only MFA with an Asian Focus.” In the UK, the Faber and Faber publishing house started Faber Academy in 2008, and promotes the idea that “publishers know what writers need.” And in City University of New York’s The Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center, its director—novelist André Aciman—has brought in editors from publications and publishers such as Granta; Harper’s; Knopf; The New Yorker; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and, yes, The Paris Review to facilitate its writing workshops, in fiction and nonfiction.
Object Lessons, therefore, is a timely book. For aspiring creative writers who want exposure in established, literary journals in English, this short story collection is a valuable addition to their shelves. You can feel the Review’s pride on the cover, about its indispensability to the art of the short story, which includes a blurb from Time magazine that regards the journal as “America’s greatest literary journal”—a sort of red carpet set-in-footnote font that forces your eyes to squint. Beyond that carpet is the writing lab where the journal’s editors—Lorin Stein and Sadie Stein—“asked twenty masters of the genre to choose a story from The Paris Review archives—a personal favorite—and to describe the key to its success as a work of fiction.” Their descriptions and appraisals frame the stories in pre-workshop mode, the moment before students critique each other’s work; the introductions hint at how the masters assess the stories that left a mark on them. You can almost imagine Daniel Alarcón in-session talking about Joy Williams’s “Dimmer,” that Williams “doesn’t describe life; she explores it. She doesn’t write scenes, she evokes them with a finely observed gesture, casually interpreted to provide maximum, often devastating, insight.” In another session, we hear Daniel Orozco discussing nostalgia in Steven Millhauser’s “Flying Carpets,” and he asks: “how do you tell a story about sentimentality, while avoiding the excesses of sentimental prose?” Orozco’s answer approximately echoes Alarcón’s and their colleagues in the lab: “accumulation of concrete sensory detail—in other words by heeding that writerly chestnut: Show, Don’t Tell.”
So we have a case of masters assessing other masters, a list that includes Ann Beattie on Craig Nova’s “Another Drunk Gambler,” David Bezmozgis on Leonard Michael’s “City Boy,” and Wells Tower on Evan S. Connell’s “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge,” just to name a few. Most of their descriptions appear constrained by length, which makes you want more. Lydia Davis’s introduction is probably the longest, as she zooms in paragraph-by-paragraph on Jane Bowle’s “Emmy Moore’s Journal,” to celebrate the author’s “superb narrative characteristics . . . evident in just the first two pages of this small story: the clear and forceful narrating voice.” And I couldn’t agree more: “I am reproducing the letter here. Let there be no mistake. My journal is intended for publication. I want to publish for glory, but also in order to aid other women.” The voice understands its edge, the extent of its power. The publication of this forceful female voice appears timely, indeed, since it came out in 1973, the same year Erica Jong’s fearless, forceful voice came flying with the term “zipless fuck” in the novel Fear of Flying. The other introduction that stood out for me is Mona Simpson’s on Norman Rush’s “Lying Presences,” not because of her descriptions per se, but on how the story was accepted when she used to work at the The Paris Review; the managing editor back then accepted the piece after reading the story’s first sentence: “Jack liked his office and it was all right to like your office.” Unlike Davis, Simpson’s discussion is the story itself, and its characters, her way of telling us the story’s power lies on the dilemma presented to the reader, of a brother (Roy) asking his brother (Jack) a favor for room and board, “to get his life together.” Being a UFO freak, Roy had squandered his inheritance money to a “bizarre UFO foundation.” This information made this story a page-turner, at least, for me.
But the last story tops that. Introduced by Joy Williams, Dallas Wiebe’s “Night Flight to Stockholm” comments on the soul of creative writers, mercilessly. Like Simpson, Williams is also caught up in the life of its characters and the story’s premise, as opposed to issues of voice and language. One day, the story’s unnamed narrator calls “an expert in contracts,” Gabriel Ratchet: “Gabe, I’m going to be sixty-six tomorrow . . . and I’ve been writing fiction all my life and no one’s ever published a word of it and I’d give my left pinkie to get into The Paris Review.” His pinkie gone, the journal publishes his first story, “Livid With Age.” Next, The Triquarterly Review takes both his testicles, to publish his second story, “Silence on the Rive Gauche.” If you think this emerging writer has had enough, then you’ve underestimated his determination. After Wiebe’s protagonist loses his testicles, his gutsiness grows exponentially, until he gets the Nobel. Later, after receiving that prize, he looks into his life: “We all disintegrate into our words, our sentences, our paragraphs, our narratives.” How much did the masters in Object Lessons have to give away to be where they are now? The question is, no doubt, unfair. None of them have won the Nobel yet. But I’m sure their pinkies are preserved in The Paris Review’s Museum of Pinkies.
Although chosen as favorites, the collection doesn’t constitute a “greatest hits” anthology. The editors are straightforward about that. In its next edition, perhaps the masters could provide longer discussions about the stories they had chosen, or even workshop it, a rather tricky proposition that airs the shortcomings of someone’s art. No doubt this collection is already assigned reading. I could hear students discussing the mind behind Wiebe’s story, testing tempers in the room before the bloodbath, before the students take on each other’s work. Soon, the air behind its doors turns heavy, as the stories walk through la via dolorosa that often defines writing workshops, steep with disappointed sighs, weighty remarks, or the contentious applause. Everyone has high hopes for their story’s future drafts, its probable resurrection in another workshop, that soon it’d brave the desks at The Paris Review.