Subject: Inquiry about a small change beginning with issue 238
Volume 238 dropped the fiction and nonfiction labels previously attached to prose pieces. I found no rationale for the decision in your editor’s note to that edition, although your reference to “fiction or nonfiction or something in between” may be an allusion to an answer I am not sophisticated enough to understand. Why has The Paris Review dropped the fiction and nonfiction labels? Were the labels always included in past editions (I’ve only been subscribing since 2019)? I ask because perhaps my need to categorize a piece of writing before I begin reading is telling of something about me that I’ve never considered before. And granted some fiction is obviously so and could not be understood to be otherwise, but when I read on page 187 of your latest that “It’s 4:38 PMeight minutes after I usually go home, but now I’m rooting around under my chair cushion…” I want to know, was this ever true?
Thank you for your time,
ps I love what you’ve done with The Paris Review in terms of its physicality. The writing continues to awe (for example, the Sterling Holywhitemountain piece was brilliant).
Thank you so much for your email, which is beautifully written and generous, and which also gave me the tiniest flash of dread. The decision to alter the table of contents was one we made a year ago, in the thick of redesigning the Review and putting together our first issue as a new editorial staff—and I confess, I’d been rather hoping we had gotten away with it. I’ve even asked myself once or twice whether we were unduly influenced by the elegant, minimalist covers of the seventies, from which we adapted our new tagline: “Prose Interviews Poetry Art.” (Catchier, we thought, than “Fiction Nonfiction Interviews Poetry Art,” or “Fiction Nonfiction Drama Interviews Poetry Art”…) On balance, though, I’m grateful for this opportunity to explain myself to you, and to anyone else who’s been wondering what we’re playing at.
For the record, the Review has not abolished fiction. Nor do we doubt its existence: we still publish more of it than of anything else, and we care about it a great deal. And, of course, we work hard behind the scenes—editing all our stories in conversation with their authors—to ensure that each piece adheres to the rules that best serve the writer’s intentions as well as the needs of readers. (We also fact-check everything we publish, including poetry, to differing levels of stringency—a vital process that producesal moments of absurdity.) That kind of work would be indispensable regardless of the broad categories of fiction and nonfiction: different conventions apply to reportage than to memoir, for instance, or to letters and diaries, which might be filled with half truths no one would want to expunge.
Last year, we found ourselves discussing the effects—some helpful, others less so—of categorizing prose by its degree of veracity. After all, no equivalent warning labels are necessary in the case of “Poetry” (or “Art,” for that matter). A poem is defined primarily not by the accuracy of its contents but by its language and form. That’s not to say that it’s unimportant whether a poem is autobiographical, or responding to real events. But—notwithstanding any hints a title or a dedication may offer—readers must usually figure out a poem the old-fashioned way: by reading it.
Many publications have good reasons to prepare readers for what they are about to receive—but the Review is not like most other publications. We are fortunate in not having to respond to the news or the debates of the day according to any prescribed formula, and that is a freedom we wanted to try extending to our readers. In cases where the absence of categories seems likely to sow unhelpful confusion, we will offer the reader a clue, in a subheading or an explanatory note (and online, too, for those who feel the urge to do some extra research)—but we try not to dictate the terms of your encounter with a piece of writing in advance. Where possible, we’d rather leave you alone, at least at first, with the consciousness you’re meeting on the page. Reading is, in my own experience, one of the most intimate acts we have. And isn’t real intimacy always a little destabilizing?
At the risk of sounding like someone who never got over IA Richards, I believe that the writing we publish will teach its readers how to interpret it. The example you give—“Lordingby Matthew Shen Goodman—is a good one. The piece does have an almost documentary quality. By the end of that first page, the reader might even suspect the speaker of showing off—of wearily dropping those “PHQ-9s” and “LCSW”s as evidence of his unrivaled access to the gritty world of a Brooklyn housing facility. Like you, I still wonder whether any of the events “Lording” describes were ever true—whether Goodman ever worked as a social worker, or whether he, like Elliot, had a friend whose story he decided to turn into a work of art. Knowing that “Lording” is fiction hasn’t helped me answer these questions, and grappling with them is part of what the story asks of me.
Then there are certain pieces that particularly benefit from letting readers feel their own way through. I didn’t know, on first reading a rough translation of Christian Kracht’s Eurotrash, from which “The Gold Coast” in our Fall issue (out tomorrow!) is adapted, whether it was fiction or memoir—but by the time I had finished reading, I understood that its narrator was reveling in that ambiguity. The uncertainty sharpened my discomfort and enjoyment alike.
I want to make it clear that this decision was and is an experiment; we hereby reserve the right to invent new categories of prose for future issues—“Inaccurate Recollections,” perhaps, or “Ghostwriting.” Whatever label it may fall under, we aspire always to publish prose that rewards your closest attention.