At the Paris Review Spring Revel Tuesday night Philip Gourevitch said farewell as editor and Lorin Stein said hello as the new editor. They both spoke to the strange literary world we live in, one in which non-fiction writers sell more books than serious fiction writers, but one in which some of them, apparently Gourevitch, feel that they are second class citizens relative to fiction. I was surprised to hear him say that–especially because the magazines that historically cared about fiction–the Atlantic, Harper’s and the New Yorker–have been cutting back on fiction the last decade.
Right after Gourevitch spoke, it was interesting to hear Lorin Stein say we are living perhaps “in a silver age of fiction” but one that “was ours to make gold again.” I think he’s the first editor I’ve heard say that, and it’s welcome, more than that, it’s important. I have the highest hopes for Lorin–and not just because he’s a friend–and for the new Paris Review. Perhaps there can be one magazine that champions what is, after all, an art. I believe the art of fiction can never be supplanted by the craft of reporting. I see the attention and regard showered on non-fiction these days and it puzzles me. The work of reporting, of crafting a story from that reporting, is something I have some experience with. Although I only crafted stories for a daily newspaper, the magazine stories I wrote for the Washington Post magazine were always limited by the imagination of editors, and in particular, their ingrained condescension towards readers. They honestly believed that readers are only capable of enjoying a certain formula in a magazine story. And non-fiction books follow the same formula as well. Although I enjoyed Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I knew midway through it where it would go, how it would get there and why. It lacked the mystery and mastery of art.
There is no formula for a short story or a novel. So, sorry David Shields and all the literary non-fiction MFA programs out there: The best writing and the best thinking remain in the literary novel and short story. Here’s to Lorin Stein’s Golden Age of Fiction.