Stein ’95 bemoans state of literature

Lorin Stein ’95 has some advice for aspiring writers: if you don’t want to teach or work in Hollywood, don’t expect to earn a living writing.

The editor of The Paris Review, a literary magazine famous for its interviews with writers like Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, addressed a packed room Thursday at a Trumbull College master’s tea. Stein, 37, told a crowd of at least 50 that magazines today are losing their readership and must work to rebuild it while also promoting talented young writers and informing the public of what they should be reading. He added the quality of writing in America has declined steeply in the past few decades.

Lorin Stein '95
James Lu
Lorin Stein '95

“Short stories remind me of death, and poems are hard,” Stein said. Of poetry, he added: “I can’t tell where the pressure to not make sense is coming from. God damn it! What is it about? What are you saying?”

Stein said he does not enjoy a lot of the short fiction and poetry that is published in magazines today. When he looks at submissions to his magazine, he said, he is searching for pieces that could be “stuck up on the fridge” — stories and poems that resonate because they are about real life. Young writers do not have enough life experience to tackle the important themes that only fiction can illuminate, Stein said, so they write about writing instead. Exploring topics like sex and family takes a level of detachment that can be achieved in fiction, but not on Facebook, he said, and many aspiring authors don’t know how to approach them.

At Yale, Stein was the editor of the Yale Literary Magazine, but said he was frustrated at the time because he did not feel that other students took literature seriously.

Stein said because good literature is rare, magazines like this are hard to sell today, especially to young people.

“We used to think of [the readership] as a little old lady who lived on the Upper East Side,” Stein said. “[She’s] moved to Florida and now she’s on Facebook, on Skype, with her grandkids.”

Only two people raised their hands when Stein asked who in the room subscribed to The Paris Review, which Stein said was a sign that he isn’t reaching his target audience. As an added incentive, he offered a $10 subscription discount for those who wrote to him with “Trumbull” in the subject line.

According to Stein, the two tricks for contemporary magazines are to publish work that even he would want to read, and to use social media to inform people of what they should be reading. In the past, book reviews were the publishing industry’s sole marketing tool, but they are no longer effective at selling books, he said. Stein said instead of publishing traditional book reviews, he thinks magazines should hold onto their readership by publishing previews before books are released to create anticipation.

Student writers said afterward that Stein had both inspired and intimidated them.

“I want to be a writer and my first reaction was, ‘Wow, I need to pick up a book that’s not a textbook from Yale,” said Madeline Duff ’14.

Gwendolyn Harper ’14 said the tea was the best she had attended at Yale, and Stein was sincere and refreshing.

Stein is the fourth-ever editor of “The Paris Review.”

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