Deborah Treisman is the fiction editor at the New Yorker. She was in Seattle last week for the New Yorker College Tour’s visit to UW. Between taking questions from David Shields’s creative writing class and posing questions to Jonathan Franzen and Sherman Alexie at a rowdy evening panel, Treisman and I sat down in somewhat uncomfortable chairs in the Husky Union Building to talk about the magazine’s history, the future of short stories, rejection, Charles D’Ambrosio’s writing, and characters nearly getting hit by beer bottles.
When did you start reading the New Yorker?
Well I did read it a bit as a kid. My parents subscribed. And I remember sending a story when I was 11 and getting a nice rejection letter back. When you’re 11, the whole world’s your oyster and everything seems within the realm of possibility. But I kept that for a long time.
What was the story about?
I don’t remember. I just remember having a nice little form rejection slip and I’d never heard of form rejection slips—it was all a mystery to me. But it was kind of touching that I got something back in the mail. So every time I send out a rejection now I hope people are touched. [Laughs.]
I used to collect them when I was a kid.
So you were writing?
Yeah. I still am but I don’t send out fiction right now because it’s not good enough. I have this horrible thing where I get paid to think about what works and doesn’t work in other peoples’ writing.
I have that same horrible thing. [Laughs.]
It really messes with you when you’re trying to do your own writing.
I don’t do my own writing.
Not at all?
No. I don’t think there’s any way—for me, anyway—to do both.
Because it uses the same muscles. And you spend your day in a hypercritical editorial mode where you’re looking at every sentence to see what’s wrong with it. And then if you try to write one there’s a lot of things wrong with it. And you never get past it. It’s pretty tough to do both. Some people do it. And there are a lot of journalist-editors. Not a whole lot of fiction writers-fiction editors.
There’s William Maxwell.
Yeah. I mean, you have to go back a few years. And probably fiction editing and the lifestyle was a little different then. A little less concentrated.
I felt a little intimidated meeting you.
Because I’m really scary.
No. I mean, it’s not even related to you. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah. I carry the weight of this 80 years on my shoulders. Everyone puts the magazine on a pedestal and they spend all their time staring up at you adoringly or trying to knock you off that pedestal. There’s such an engaged relationship with the magazine because it’s been around for so long. Even though I’ve only been there for 8 or 9 years, I’m accountable for 70 years before that, somehow.
Do you feel intimidated by the history?
Probably I did when I started. But then ultimately you go into your office every day and you do your job and you don’t think a whole lot about that. Except to the extent that it’s—except for the “wow” factor, where you say, Wow, I work with Roger Angell whose mother was the first fiction editor of the magazine and whose stepfather was E. B. White, and he comes to the fiction meetings and argues with me about stories every day. So you have that factor. Or, Wow, I grew up reading Don DeLillo and now I’m arguing with him over a comma. To that extent, the history is fun, it’s not intimidating.
I love the profile Nancy Franklin wrote of Katharine White. It’s so good.
I edit her [Nancy Franklin]. She’s great.
What’s the difference between editing fiction and nonfiction?
It’s quite different. I like doing both. I think I would get a little stale just doing one or the other. At the New Yorker both fiction and nonfiction are very much about voice, but with fiction it’s really about voice and about trying to bring that voice to the surface in the most effective way possible. Nonfiction, you’re focusing a lot more on information, and what’s missing and what needs to be there, in what order, to get it across. Fiction is a little more fluid and you’re focusing on the emotional context and subtext.
But it seems like with the nonfiction at the New Yorker—isn’t there kind of an institutional tone?
I think people think that, or say that. That’s kind of the perception of the magazine, and it’s even a perception of the magazine on the fiction side, but I think that when you actually read through it, if it was once true it’s probably not so true anymore. I mean, I understand historically there was a very universal tone for Talk of the Town, it was all “we” and it was unsigned and there was kind of a New Yorker voice, but I’m not sure that that’s there so much anymore. There seem to be some pretty distinct writers who are quite different from each other.
It seems like there are certain writers who get to get away with it.
With having their own voice or having a New Yorker voice? [Laughs.]
I know I borrow the New Yorker voice a lot. For example do so many writers naturally use the phrase “as it happens”? That phrase appears again and again and again in the magazine.
Maybe the copyeditors are inserting that. I mean there are certain things which are house style. You know, we have to use “owing” instead of “due”—“owing to the fact that” instead of “due to the fact that.” There’s a very complicated rule about that. Or you can’t say, “He raised a child,” you have to say, “He reared a child.” There are certain vocabulary things that are house style, so maybe those pop up a lot. I don’t know. But they’re not the all-encompassing, defining quality of the writing.
What would you say the stories that you select do have in common?
Not a lot. I feel as though we’re looking for stories that are successful on their own terms—you know, they set out to do something and they achieve it. If someone’s trying to write a very traditional story and nails it and does it perfectly, great. If they’re trying to do a sort of linguistically experimental story and they can do it and they carry it off and they still make you care, great. But if they’re trying to do either one and they just don’t quite get it right, that’s where I draw the line. So it’s not a question of genre or style, it’s a question of living up to the story’s own aspirations.
Do you have your own preferences, in terms of style or point of view or tone or subject matter?
I think it’s really pretty varied. I mean there are writers who I feel I brought into the magazine and some who have been publishing there for 50 years and so on. I edit Alice Munro, I edit Haruki Murakami, I edit George Saunders—you couldn’t really be more different than those three, and I think they’re all great. And also you have a responsibility when you’re publishing for a million people to give as much range and depth and variety as you can. No story is going to please everybody. We’re always going to get somebody saying, I hated that story and why would you think of publishing it? So you can’t worry about that, you just have to worry about pleasing somebody.
I’m sure you get asked this every time you do an interview, but how does it work? How do you choose the stories you choose?
There are six people in the fiction department. Most of us do nonfiction as well, so we don’t have as much time as it sounds. But basically stories come in, whether they come in through slush or to one of the editors or to me, and they get read and whatever we’re taking seriously gets circulated to all of the editors and we have a meeting once a week where we sit around and argue. Everyone writes a short opinion of the story and those get attached to the manuscript as it makes its way around. And sometimes it happens that all six of us think a story is great—that’s maybe one in 10 of the stories that get to this level. What most often happens is three people like something and three people don’t, or four people versus two. It’s a funny mix and there’s lots of argument—you know, arguments that can be very frustrating because you’re never going to convince the other person, but that is probably what the response is among the readership as well. You just hope that, in general, the majority is going to be affected by what you publish.
Are there certain arguments you always have?
Well, it’s kind of different from story to story. What we do a lot is ask for revisions. So often we’ll sit around with a story and say, This is just not working, the ending is falling flat, or, This character is not coming out, or, The writing is very much on the surface and we haven’t gotten to the subtext. And we’ll talk about how and whether the writer could possibly fix those problems and whether it’s worth going back and saying, Would you want to rewrite this way or that way? And so those arguments can get repetitive because people tend to make the same mistakes. But we often do ask for revisions and get revisions that work. And sometimes the writer does exactly what you suggest and the story comes back and it’s much worse. [Laughs.]
Then where are you?
Then you say sorry. Then you’re very apologetic. It’s a little hit or miss because sometimes it’s a very thin thread that holds something together and if you mess with it it’s going to fall apart. But it may not quite have been working beforehand.
Sometimes I get to the very end of a story that I’ve been enjoying all along and the ending really disappoints me.
Someone actually just said exactly the same thing in David Shields’s class about the story this week—I don’t know if you’ve read it yet, a Haruki Murakami story, where it’s very vague and then the very last line refers to loneliness. And the student said he just hated that it was made so explicit, that he’d like this guy being lonely without calling it lonely. And I can see the point. It wasn’t something that bothered me when I was reading the story, but I can see that response.
It’s also easy to criticize the end of a story.
There’s so much weighing on it. It’s quite hard to pull out of a story too. That’s often why people write novels, because they can’t pull out. And it’s very hard—there’s so much pressure on the ending either to sum everything up or to culminate in some final image that’s going to say it all, and sometimes you just want to come to a stop, to let something that happened earlier in the story be the central thing.
You recently published a story by Tom Drury about a guy who nearly gets hit on the head by a beer bottle, but doesn’t. I was wondering what your thoughts are on publishing a story about a guy who nearly gets hit by a beer bottle but doesn’t in a time when the country is in a bloody, horrible, intractable war.
Well, there are bloody, horrible, intractable things going on every day and also people are nearly getting hit by beer bottles every day. There’s no reason to write one level of experience out because of the other. You still get up in the morning and take a shower and brush your teeth, and you still go and eat your lunch and talk to a friend, and there’s no reason why that can’t be fictional material as well as what’s happening overseas. I mean, if you’re talking about journalism, I don’t think you would want to write a newspaper story about a guy who almost got hit on the head by a bottle. But if in fact you’re writing a piece of fiction about a guy looking for answers in a landscape and trying to pin down the forces of chance and to take control over the forces of chance? This random thing, someone throws a bottle out of a car, it almost hits him. This guy goes on a mission, finds out who it was. He goes to see this person. He has a conversation with her about this randomness. At the same time as his girlfriend is sending a space mission to Mars, casting some force out into the unknown, he has the unknown come to him, he tracks it down and makes it known. There’s something much more complicated going on in the story.
I thought it was a great story.
And then, look at the other side. Yes, factual things, horrible things, are happening all around the world. Those things tend to take a little while to be distilled into fiction. No one really wants to write a fictional story about a disaster right after it’s happened. The emotions are very raw. You can’t be rational or psychologically astute about them. There was very little 9/11 fiction for a long time; it’s kind of just starting now. Vietnam War? I don’t know how long it was before the first fiction came out, probably a decade. The first World War stuff took decades, again. Those kinds of things come into fiction once you have some distance on them. The best fiction requires a certain kind of distance. I would hold that standard up to nonfiction—don’t bother writing about beer bottles being thrown in your journalism, when you could be reporting in Baghdad—but fiction, I think, takes a slightly different tack.
What do you think the position of the fiction writer is in tense political times?
It depends on the fiction writer. Some writers have absolutely no need or desire to address political issues, and some feel compelled to do it, so there’s really a big range of responses. I don’t think any fiction writer has a responsibility to deal with political things. Some of the ones who do are incredibly good writers. The 2004 New Yorker festival was politics-themed because it was right around the election, and I hosted a panel on politics and fiction in which Cynthia Ozick and Orhan Pamuk had an amicable but quite aggressive discussion about whether one had a right or whether it was ever praiseworthy to imagine yourself into the mind of someone who is evil, and Cynthia felt very strongly that one absolutely could not and should not try to write a story from Hitler’s point of view or the point of view of a suicide bomber, and Orhan felt that one should and could and that these were parts of human experience that deserved a literary dissection.
That seems pretty loaded.
Yeah, it is very loaded. You’re going to get unique responses. And ultimately you have to look at the readership—some people want to read it, and some people would be horrified.
What were the questions you asked of the panel?
It was a while ago now. That [disagreement between Ozick and Pamuk] was what caused the uproar. It was an uproar that went on and on and on.
When you were promoted to your current job I remember there was a lot of talk about your desire to bring more female writers into the magazine, and experimental writers. It recently occurred to me that there aren’t a lot of queer voices in the fiction section. I was wondering if that’s something you think is true or that you’ve noticed or that you care about.
Well, we’re never trying to get quotas. And it’s something that you stay aware of and that you think about, and you want to make sure that nothing is ever being discriminated against, but you also have to go with the material that’s being written that comes to you. And the one thing that I’ve always felt with women writers is that fewer women submit, of the manuscripts we get.
Why is that?
I’ve never done a statistical outlay but I would guess that two-thirds to three-quarters are by men, so in order to have a 50-50 breakdown in the magazine you have to kind of bend over backwards. We don’t have a 50-50 breakdown, sometimes it’s 45-55 and sometimes it’s 60-40, you know, it varies. Why is it? I think there’re a lot of things at play. I think there’s obviously the issue of who’s raising the kids, who has time to write, who’s focused on what at what stage of their lives. I think it’s changing. I think if you look at writers under 30 probably it’s pretty close to even. But among older writers there’s still a big breakdown. I think there’s also the question of confidence, that fewer women believe that they should be published in the New Yorker or are willing to put themselves on the line and take a rejection. And male writers seem to have an easier time both with rejection and with believing that they’re justified in wanting to be published. Again, I think that these are trends that are changing. And particularly when I look at MFA students and writing students I think the breakdown is pretty much even, so I think that over the years that going to shift. In terms of gay writers, I haven’t actually ever thought about that. I know there are certain male and female writers we publish who are gay, but no one’s ever brought up whether we publish enough or who they are. I haven’t thought about it in those terms, actually.
It’s probably just because I write fiction and my protagonists tend to be gay and I read the New Yorker all the time and think about the choices you make.
I have to say in terms of what I read, I also don’t see a lot of fiction with gay characters.
In terms of the international writers that you’ve talked about being interested in—
[Laughs.] I’m not sure I talked about it or everyone else talked about it for me. It was kind of funny, when the changed happened and [former New Yorker fiction editor] Bill Buford went to being a staff writer and I took this job, well, first of all I’d already been there for five years as the deputy editor of the department. Bill and I had our disagreements over some stories but the vast majority of what had been published I had also pushed forward and a lot of it I had edited. So the change wasn’t as drastic as anyone made out. People wanted news. So they sort of said, Oh, he only published men having mid-life crises, or whatever, or hunting, and she’s going to publish, you know, it’s all going to be Vietnamese lesbians. [Laughs.] People did their research and found that I had once translated something by a Vietnamese French woman. Or I’d translated something by Patrick Chamoiseau. So it was all going to be this [kind of writing]. It was never actually something I ever said. On the other hand I do think we should publish more writers from other countries. We’re doing, in December, a fiction issue which is all fiction in translation, so there will be a big issue of that, and I’m behind that.
Why are you doing that?
Because I think there are very different voices in the world, and I don’t think we publish enough of them in this country. It’s a big challenge for us to do this, for two reasons, one being that the short story is not a tradition in a lot of countries. There are a lot of countries around the world that don’t have magazines that publish short fiction, and people really, really write novels, and the story is rare. So those countries are at a little bit of a loss. The other challenge is, obviously, reading these things. I read French. That’s the only other language I read. Luckily, the French translate almost everything, so I’ve been able to read Albanian writers, Japanese writers, Chinese writers, South American writers, Spanish writers, Italian writers, all in French. And then I can say, Well, here’s a really great story, let’s go and translate it from the original language. I read slowly in French. [Laughs.] My last six months have been in this burden of reading in French. And you know obviously there have been some things that have come in that haven’t been that way, and there are some writers who have been translated and published already in English, but it’s kind of a triumph to say, This person is going to appear in English for the first time, right here, now, and to be behind that.
You frequently publish stories by Charles D’Ambrosio, a sometime Stranger contributor and one of my favorite writers. What do you like about his stories?
Both the density and the craziness, and the unexpectedness of his subjects. He can really write, sentence to sentence. He’s doing something very fun with the language. And at the same time he’s writing about types of people that you don’t see a lot of fiction about. You know, it’s always different, but they’re not your average middle-class New Yorker going about his business. They’re in different parts of the country and they’re doing different things. But most of all, he knows how to write. And every story is sort of a discovery. We have another one [by him] coming.
Plus his amazing vocabulary.
Are there writers you’ve been wrong about before?
Wrong about in terms of turning them down and then regretting it?
There have been stories that I’ve thought we should publish that the magazine didn’t publish, for whatever reason. Sometimes everyone else disagreed with me. But, no, there’s not a lot that I regret. Often we might turn down stories by someone who then has good stories later. We’re not wrong to have turned those stories down if they weren’t ready. And often we have a debate about writers whom we publish frequently who are top of their game, when you get a story from one of them that is not their best work, whether that story belongs in the magazine. You know, you look at a grade-A writer giving you his B story, and it’s still better than the best story by a lot of other writers that you will publish. And yet you turn it down even though it’s better than those other stories because it’s not showing that writer at his best. And we have these heated discussions sometimes—sometimes we take them and sometimes we turn them down—over whether we have a responsibility to only publish someone’s best work. Although we do 50 stories a year, which is 38 stories more than most other magazines because they’re monthly, you still want to feel that you’re getting the top, the best stuff out there.
People are always saying, The short story’s dead, the short story’s back… What do you think?
People like to have something to say. [Laughs.] I think there are two things that are happening. One is that the magazine world has really cut down on short story publishing. The Atlantic is doing a yearly fiction issue instead of every month. Esquire and GQ seem to occasionally run fiction, but for the most part they don’t anymore, whereas it used to be more frequent. But at the same time I feel as though the book-publishing world is desperate for new writers and desperate for new, big books to make a big splash about, especially by young writers. So what you’re losing on the magazine side you’re making back on the book side. Everything fluctuates and goes in waves but I don’t think there’s any grave danger.
The Atlantic not publishing fiction monthly anymore is a big deal, considering its history. Is the New Yorker ever going to go the way of The Atlantic?
I should certainly hope not. No sign of that now, no. And I also think, you know, some people say, Oh, that’s great, all the more for you. But it doesn’t work that way. You know people don’t bother writing things they have no hope of publishing. And if the market for short stories shrinks and shrinks, people are not going to write short stories. As I was saying, in other countries where there is no market, people only write novels. So, actually, the more magazines out there publishing short stories, the better it is for us, because more people will write them.