Speaking Unprofessionally



Attention, procrastinators! This is your last chance to get a free copy of our new anthology of emerging writers, The Unprofessionals. Want to learn more? See below for a talk with our editor, Lorin Stein, and contributors Emma Cline, Kristin Dombek, Cathy Park Hong, Ben Nugent, and Jana Prikryl. Thanks to BookCourt for letting us tape their conversation.

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Lorin Stein

When I talk about The Unprofessionals, two questions keep coming up. The first is why we decided, after more than fifty years, to put out a book—specifically, a book of work by younger writers. The other question is why we called it The Unprofessionals. To be clear, it’s not because we thought the writers in this book didn’t know what they were doing. They do.

The truth is, when my colleagues and I got ready to relaunch The Paris Review five years ago, we heard a lot of discouraging stuff from our friends and colleagues—that print was on the way out, that literary magazines were irrelevant, that this was a rearguard action doomed to obvious and imminent failure. More troubling, at least to me, there was a quiet sense that the kind of stuff we were going to publish in the Review—short fiction, especially, but some essays and some poems—that these were not really going concerns. That short fiction, especially, was a dead form.

As it turned out, there could not have been a luckier time to relaunch a literary magazine. The burst of talent we’ve seen in the last five years is like nothing since the midnineties. From our point of view, that was pure luck. But, as with any large burst of talent, I think there is also a historical story we can tell about why it happened. To this observer, it seems that we’re starting to get used to living so much online. And that those of us who care about writing, especially from the point of view of the “I,” feel the need to take the “I” back from the professional realm, the realm of branding, of marketing. Henry James once said we’re all of us novelists nowadays—well, today we’re all marketers, too. Self-promotion has become a recreational activity. I think the writers in this book, and more generally the writers we publish in the Review, have made a distinction between the kind of writing that happens on the page, in private between writer and reader, and the kind of public talking that we all engage in every day, online. That’s what the title is about. At least that’s what we had in mind.

I’d like to ask the five contributors who are here tonight how they came to write their pieces. And if they want, they can say what the title The Unprofessionals means to them.


Ben Nugent (Fiction, “God”)

The accusation leveled at short stories is that they’re essentially weapons you use to get tenure. When the form was considered dead, that was the reason. And so the title The Unprofessionals seems like a kind of assertion for us short-story writers—“No! We didn’t do it just to get tenure, we promise.” When I read this anthology I think, Okay, these are my allies—if that’s not too strong and militaristic a word. When I went to my M.F.A. program, I felt like I was at war with a lot of the other fiction writers because they seemed to deny the beauty of the way people talk right now. Everything was like, This is in a foreign country, this is fifty years ago. And our professors were like that to a large degree, as well. I love this anthology because it redeems the language of contemporary American life.


Jana Prikryl (Poem, “A Place as Good as Any”)

It’s fun for a poet to have your work in a collection with other genres. That feels unusual to me—to hear those voices working in very different forms but having shared values, in a way. My poem took a curiously long time. It’s called “A Place as Good as Any,” and it’s literally a transcription of a dream I had, one of very few that I remembered completely intact, in all its convoluted detail. I wrote it down immediately, but then it was a series of many months—I would say even a couple of years—of figuring out how much formalism I wanted in the poem, and how much rhyme, and how much I wanted it to be vernacular, to sort of hide the rhyme in it.


Cathy Park Hong (Poem, “Trouble in Mind”)

I think all poets feel unprofessional all the time. That’s why there are always these editorials about, Is poetry dead? It’s so divorced from the market, and one way to define professionalism is to equate it with an actual career—with a salary and so forth. You can’t make any money out of poetry. I think that’s one of its virtues.

My contribution to The Unprofessionals is one section of a series of poems. I was watching a lot of Richard Pryor and got obsessed with stand-up comedy. I was really interested in trying to incorporate stand-up into poetry. Pryor is a genius, but the reason he’s a genius is that he uses comedy as a booby trap for what’s terrifying about America and race. I get really frustrated with poetry because there’s often this politeness in the way it treats race. I thought satire was a way into that. So I was using some of the motifs from stand-up, like alter egos and ventriloquizing. There are some John Berryman references in there, too—it’s my way of talking back at Berryman.

It’s always an honor to be in an anthology, but especially an anthology like this one that’s trying to make a statement. It feels like you’re part of a community, a generation. I really respect and love a lot of these poets, and some are even friends. It’s great to have that solidarity.


Emma Cline (Fiction, “Marion”)

I wanted to write about a tone or an atmosphere in northern California that I pick up on a lot—that’s where I’m from. There’s this weird undercurrent of darkness even though it’s such a beautiful place, and that’s where all the hippies ended up. There are always these yards with blue tarps covering things, and you never know what’s under the blue tarps. Vans without tires. It was that kind of cruddiness I wanted to write about.


Kristin Dombek (Nonfiction, “Letter from Williamsburg”)

Essays for me always come out of this dumb idea—there are things that everybody says are different that are actually really similar, or things that people say are totally similar that are actually really different. In some sense I’d been writing this essay for many years. There was a part in the beginning—about waking up and wanting to pray—that I’d written many years before. But I was trying to articulate something about the way that depressions and threesomes were really different. (Contrary to popular belief!) So I was trying to write a love essay, but my lover left me in the middle of it, so then I said, Lorin, I can’t finish it, and that’s how I ended up finishing. He made me finish it.

I read straight through The Unprofessionals, and I really did have that sense that Lorin describes of taking back the “I” from the Internet, somehow. I felt this heartening sense of comfort from being among these writers. They’re still speaking in the language that we live in, but they’re slowing it down, if that makes sense.


Through January 5, you’ll receive a free copy of The Unprofessionals with a one-year gift subscription to The Paris Review.