Lorin Stein is Editor of The Paris Review.
Lorin, you had a prestigious job as senior editor of the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux. What made you accept the challenge of becoming the editor of The Paris Review and what does it mean?
I should say that my sister who is an agent, Anna Stein, told me not to do it. She said I was leaving a good marriage for a pretty young girl, but I told her I wanted to marry that girl. What I love about book publishing is taking a book that I love and finding the maximum number of readers for it and trying to make its case to the critics, either in person, in writing, or simply by association. The challenge of The Paris Review is completely different. There the challenge is existential, in the sense that every day you have the question, ‘What is it for? What is the reason for a magazine like that to exist?’
What kind of a magazine is The Paris Review?
It is a magazine devoted exclusively to literature, and with a very arbitrary set of criteria which are really personal to me.
How do you work?
We have a guaranteed flow of submissions. There is only one magazine with a mass readership that publishes fiction and poetry, and that’s The New Yorker. They have a million readers. There are very few places where a writer can publish fiction and poetry. There are some little magazines, but The Paris Review is in the unique position of having a large readership, with around 20,000 copies. That’s a lot compared to the others. It has a reputation for being very serious, independent and adventurous. This is a reputation that it has especially in the publishing business. So, for example, the young woman Emma Cline, who won the Plimpton Prize with ‘Marion’ – on the strength of that debut story she got an agent, and this year her novel had a 5 million dollar deal, for the US rights and many other contracts for translation at the Frankfurt Book Fair. That’s not unusual or new. The Paris Review works within the business.
What does it mean to read The Paris Review?
What we think is really going on in American literature, broadly understood. Of course, we publish foreign writers who matter to American readers. In the next issue we are devoting a special section to the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, because this writer has come to mean so much in America, to us and to the writers around us. We are not interested in world literature as such. I think really engaged literature reading tends to be parochial. There is the famous saying by an American politician that ‘All politics is local’ and I think that for the most part the same is true of literature – which does not mean that foreign literature is not immensely important.
You are an American literary review with the name The Paris Review – is this not a bit strange?
It is true, but the name of the magazine says what I mean. What can be more American than starting a literary review in Paris?
The Paris Review is well known for its interviews that go under the name of ‘Writers at Work’. Over the years you must have interviewed some of the most famous writers in the world?
There are a couple of things that are important about the interview series. It has become a canon that is the adventure we have inherited. It is a pantheon, and every quarter we add two more niches to the pantheon, and we do it following our hearts, without any special qualifications, without a jury process. On the other hand, when The Paris Review started doing these interviews the idea of an in-depth interview as a serious art form was something original, and even intellectually daring, because the implicit idea was that the writer had something interesting and conscious to say about his work – something that was not obvious.
Is it different today?
Every time you open a newspaper or a magazine you are flooded with interviews – the internet and e-mail have made it a very cheap undertaking to interview someone. That means that at The Paris Review we try to emphasise the distinctive, using the technique that George Plimpton – our founding editor – invented.
Which was what?
Spending months or years editing the transcripts in collaboration with the subject, and creating together what Plimpton called in a letter to his parents in 1952, “An essay in dialogue on technique.”
How do you compose each issue of the magazine?
We have four issues a year, and when a new issue comes out that’s when I start to worry about the next one. Usually everything in each issue has come to me or our poetry editor during the previous three months. We assign the interviews months or years before, but we don’t give deadlines. Often we don’t know which interviews we will have. Once we have one near completion, we start to look for a good match. Since the beginning the magazine has had an amateurish, admiring relationship with the art world. There have always been portfolios and lately we revived the practice of illustrating some of our long fiction.
Are you pleased?
It depends on the day. I am very proud of our very small staff; there are eight of us full-time and two of them only do digital; and with these two people doing digital we have 500,000 online visitors every month and 400,000 followers on Twitter. In the future this is where we will find the readers of the magazine. We will continue to publish quarterly on paper, devoted to literature, because I think paper is in many ways the better technology for serious reading. But it is like the line in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, “If you want the thing to stay the same you have to change everything.” We sell almost all our latest subscriptions through our website. We are essentially our own publisher.
You recently made an agreement with the London Review of Books – what about?
It arose out of mutual admiration and shared affinities – we publish many of the same writers. We decided to offer a joint subscription for two months in the summer, so that for a single price a reader can receive both magazines for a year. This was very successful. In two months we got more than one thousand new readers for each magazine.
Is literature alive nowadays?
Yes, but not always where you look for it. I am not satisfied with the state of so-called ‘literary publishing’, or with the premise that is offered by the MFA system (Master of Fine Arts writing programmes). I think young writers are taught to think of literature as a profession, as a specialisation, and this attitude hides a kind of contempt for the act of writing and the act of reading.
In your view what makes a good writer?
Different things at different moments of history. One thing that excites me now is when young writers work on the short form and find a real raison d’être for the narration, which is to say when a story seems to come out of a need and an urge to confess, when the urge seems real.
Have you discovered many writers?
An editor whose taste is unique to himself is a bad editor. The only person who discovers a writer is the writer himself. The rest of us show up en masse or pas du tout – and it doesn’t matter who gets there first.
What kind of readers does The Paris Review have?
We are not sure, but we think half are men, half women. Our largest readership is quite young, mid-twenties to mid-thirties. Our next biggest readership is a bit older, in their fifties and sixties. Or so we think, but it has been a long time since we made a systematic investigation.
Which are the three awards that you make every year?
The first is the Hadada Award for lifetime-achievements, the second is the Plimpton Prize for the best debut story in our pages, and the third is the Terry Southern Prize for Humor.
At the end of the day, four years ago was your sister right or wrong to discourage you when you took over the job as editor of The Paris Review?
For once in her life she was wrong, although it may have been the right discouragement to give. She helped me value what I was leaving and she helped me value the new work I was embracing.
November 4, 2014
All images used by kind permission and © 2014 The Paris Review.
You can read Alain’s interview with Aharon Appelfeld in The Paris Review at: