“When a story works, it stays with you after you put it down.” Deborah Treisman is the fiction editor at the New Yorker, which first published three of the stories shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award. She talks about America’s short story success, why Cat Person went viral, and how the best stories are those that stay with you after you put them down…
For the first time, all six of the authors shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award are American. Why do you think that might be? What ingredients may contribute to a given country having a strong and compelling short story tradition?
There are, and always have been, masters of the short-story form on both sides of the Atlantic, but I think that there are a couple of contributing factors to short fiction’s prevalence in the US these days. One is the vast network of university-sponsored creative-writing programs here. It is difficult to “workshop” a novel, so many fiction writing students find themselves tackling the short-story form, at least at first, and many of them stick with it. Another is the number of outlets there are for short fiction here, in magazines, quarterlies, and journals. I may just be ignorant, but I think there are far fewer places to publish short fiction in the UK.
You have been fiction editor at the New Yorker since 2003. What led you to become so passionate about literature and the short story in the first place? Would you describe yourself as a champion of the form?
I started at The New Yorker as deputy fiction editor in 1997, and became fiction editor in early 2003. Beyond that, I’m not sure how to answer the question, because literature has been part of my life since I started reading. I consider it a daily blessing and a luxury that my passion and my professional life have coincided in this way.
Which short stories first captured your imagination? And which stories continue to do so today? Are there specific authors that still surprise you?
I didn’t read that many short stories in my high-school years; I was more focused then on novels and poetry, though JD Salinger’s Nine Stories stands like a monolith in my memory of that time. But, in college, I remember working my way through many story collections. A somewhat random and incomplete list would include Mavis Gallant, James Joyce, André Dubus, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, Ian McEwan, Flannery O’Connor, and Italo Calvino. As for what captures my imagination today, that’s easy: you can find those stories in The New Yorker.
Three of the shortlisted stories were first published by the New Yorker. Can you talk about the commissioning process there? You receive up to 400 submissions a week. What makes one stand out for you? Equally, what themes or mistakes make you put a story to one side?
We don’t commission fiction, as such – that is, we don’t ask writers to write stories on particular subjects or themes. But we do ask to see whatever the writers who interest us come up with, and we comb through thousands of submissions a year, looking for the best work. We don’t reject or accept stories based on particular content or subject matter. My usual approach is to think about whether a story is living up to its own ambition, whether that ambition is to move, entertain, surprise, persuade or anything else. When a story works, it stays with you after you put it down.
You commissioned the Cat Person short story, which went viral last year. You almost rejected the story, as it was “such an awkward read”. What made you change your mind? And why did it do so astronomically well, even with people who may not typically read short stories, do you think?
I don’t think Cat Person was an awkward read, but it was an uncomfortable one; it’s a story that makes you cringe – which is exactly what it tries to do. The fact that it triggered that reaction in me was what made me go back to it. As for why it went viral – that was due to a combination of factors, I think. It hit a nerve at a time when many people were coming forward with their #MeToo stories. Cat Person doesn’t involve sexual harassment or rape, but it addresses the difficult question of how and where we draw lines between consensuality and nonconsensuality. It also looks at how texting and social media can generate a false sense of intimacy between people who, in life, are strangers to each other. Many readers recognised elements of their own experiences in the story – which caused them to share it with people who shared it with people who shared it with people and so on… Another factor was simply that the story was so well-written: Kristen Roupenian was pitch-perfect in her portrayal of this young woman’s thought patterns.
What’s the one story, published by the New Yorker, of course (one that hasn’t perhaps had the attention it deserves) that we should all go out and read immediately?
You’re asking me to make Sophie’s Choice. It’s too difficult to pick; there are so many. I will say that working on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast – for which I ask contemporary fiction writers to choose stories by other writers, from any time in the history of the magazine – has had me reading many stories from the archives that I otherwise might have missed; that has been a real treat.
Do you believe in the much-hyped “revival of the short story”? Or did it never go away? And what are your thoughts on the future of the short story? Where does it go from here in a digital age?
I don’t think it ever did go away. People are constantly bemoaning the death of the short story or the death of fiction, but I haven’t witnessed any dying off, at least not in my 20 years here. Story-telling has been with us since language has been with us, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere, whether it happens aloud, on paper, or online.
Interview by Sophie Haydock