Deborah Treisman on the Challenge of Identifying the American Short Story

The Cosmic Library explores massive books in order to explore everything else. Here, books that can seem overwhelming—books of dreams, infinity, mysteries—turn out to be intensely accessible, offering so many different ways to read them and think with them. Season one considered Finnegans Wake; in season two, it was 1,001 Nights; season three, the Hebrew Bible; season four, Journey to the West. Now, it’s short stories in the United States.

The Cosmic Library has always followed notions, tangents, and moods prompted by books that can never be neatly summarized or simply decoded. This new season is no exception. Still, there’s a difference: we’re prompted now by more than one major work. In season five, we’re talking about short stories in the United States.

You’ll hear from New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, the novelist Tayari Jones, Washington Post critic Becca Rothfeld, the writer Justin Taylor, the Oxford scholar of short stories Andrew Kahn, and the actor Max Gordon Moore. And you’ll hear a reading of a Nathaniel Hawthorne story that will add an exciting new dimension to your reality.

Deborah Treisman in this first episode clarifies both the challenge and the promise of our subject. She says, “The term itself, ‘American short story,’ is slightly problematic, just because there are so many people in the U.S. writing short stories who perhaps came from somewhere else, who have a different heritage, whatever else it is—they’re not playing into this tradition of Updike and Cheever and so on.” Short stories in the United States tell us something way beyond any straightforward national narrative. “What’s around right now is such multiplicity,” Treisman says, “that it’s rare to find a story that you would think of as classically American.”

Contemplating multiplicity is part of the mission here in season five. We’re talking about expansive range, about the uncontainable proliferation sustained by brevity. Short fiction, it turns out, can launch you into maximal excess just as novels can—and much more swiftly.


Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker

Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage

Becca Rothfeld, critic at The Washington Post and author of All Things Are Too Small

Justin Taylor, author of Reboot

Andrew Kahn, author of The Short Story: A Very Short Introduction

Max Gordon Moore, actor—with Broadway credits including Indecent and The Nap


Subscribe, listen, and enjoy the engaging interviews as we bring you The Cosmic Library. Episodes are available for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, PocketCasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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