A collection of recent work from this venerable publication includes a dozen short stories that range as widely in style as they do in quality.
The term “unprofessionals” aims to distinguish the writers here from those who “write long and network hard” in search of commercial success, Paris Review editor Stein says in his introduction. That’s somewhat disingenuous: the author bios note 16 published or imminent novels, a senior editor at the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker’s poetry editor. Never mind. Along with 5 essays and 14 poems, the fiction here represents what Stein calls “the intensity and perfection found only in small things.” “Intensity” certainly applies to some. Ottessa Moshfegh writes of a man’s weekend flight from his pregnant wife to an unplanned tryst with his brother’s lover. Angela Flournoy seems to capture a lifetime in a few hours of a gambling addict’s life as it moves from eviction to the roulette wins and then broke again. An S&M session between two men gets out of hand in Garth Greenwell’s painfully clinical prose. Atticus Lish carries the torch for Raymond Carver in his laconic tale of a blue-collar worker in and out of prison. Several pieces have the callow ring of MFA exercises. "Perfection” came to mind only with Zadie Smith’s angry, tense, hilarious story of a black transvestite shopping for a corset in prose that manages to suggest both Lou Reed and Flannery O’Connor. Special mention goes to John Jeremiah Sullivan’s evocative essay on the time he spent with 92-year-old Southern literary critic Andrew Lytle, an atmospheric portrait that some of these unprofessional fiction writers would do well to study.
The collection may give a sense of contemporary U.S. writing, but the marked unevenness is surprising given the magazine’s illustrious history.