MATTHEW SPECKTOR: The Paris Review may be the greatest living archive in American letters. And there’s always the temptation to see it that way — as an “archive” — but it seems that since you became its editor in 2010, the institution is more vital than ever. Not just the magazine, but its web presence, The Paris Review Daily, the new app, etc. I’m curious how you balance these newer aspects with the more traditional ones of the magazine.
LORIN STEIN: Well, The Paris Review wears its DNA on its sleeve, if that metaphor makes sense. The tradition of discovering new writers makes it easy to go out and find stuff that excites me, and at the same time feels of a piece with the history. As it happens, that was true at my last job, too, at Farrar, Straus. In both cases, because the founders stuck around for so long, and because there was so much continuity, paradoxically, it was easy for a newcomer to adopt the spirit of the institution. In a sense, it would be harder to make The Paris Review stodgy than to maintain the tradition of discovery.
MS: And yet, it could be done. If you put your mind to it. What I’m getting at is, it’s difficult to imagine George Plimpton firing up a blog. And yet, you’ve done it in a way that feels perfectly natural. The content of The Paris Review Daily is completely different, and yet consonant with the magazine.
LS: To me it’s like that line in the great Italian novel, Lampedusa’s The Leopard. If you want things to stay the same, everything’s going to have to change. Nowadays we have to exist in the digital world if we don’t want to be strictly of the digital world. So we sell our subscriptions online, we run what in effect is a gazette that shows what we’re thinking about, and what the writers around us are thinking about. It’s essential for us to have an app, too. Especially one that lets readers abroad subscribe to us cheaply and easily. But also in this country, because we owe it to our writers to find them readers and so many good readers now seem to prefer gizmos to ink on paper.
MS: Well, those gizmos are things that we’re friendly with here at the Los Angeles Review of Books as well, being an online periodical busy making our own strides in that direction. I saw you speak once at Book Soup and you used an interesting analogy, in which you likened digital reading to the advent of the sliding door. Do you remember that?
LS: Yeah, that comes from Ryszard Kapuscinski, the wonderful Polish writer. He pointed out that for a long time the sliding door has been the “door of the future,” but when you get down to it, the old door has certain advantages.
MS: So that’s how you feel about e-readers? That they’re useful and modern, but that the old standard isn’t exactly on the way out?
LS: Exactly. I can’t help thinking that for the kind of stuff we publish, the preferable technology is paper. Of course there are times when it’s handy to be able to read a thing on your telephone. I was once able to sign up a short story by David Gates in record time because I received it on my brand new iPhone. I was sitting in a bar on a Saturday night, and I was able to prove my enthusiasm by writing back in 10 minutes. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
MS: So it’s a productivity tool, for you as for everyone else? I wouldn’t underrate The Paris Review app, though. It seems to me a lot more elegant than that. It’s not just a development of convenience.
LS: Well, I think the staff has found a very elegant way to produce a blog and, yeah, a very elegant way to make an app. It has very few bells and whistles. We bent over backwards to avoid putting in features that would distract us. We didn’t want to produce anything that wouldn’t be the best of its kind. We want to do what we can do best.
MS: Which means?
LS: For instance, there are lots of people out there who make great video. I don’t want to start trying to get into the video interview business. We’re really good at doing the kind of interview that we do, and 60 Minutes knows how to do it the other way.
MS: You seem to do a fair amount of outreach. I’ve seen you here a couple times; you were just in Houston. I don’t remember ever seeing George Plimpton outside of New York City, although I’m sure he left occasionally, at least to practice with the Detroit Lions. I’m interested though in how you see that part of your job, what it means to you to bring The Paris Review on the road.
LS: Well, for the last 57 years The Paris Review has been a New York institution. There are other magazines like Granta, or Tin House, or now The Baffler that have made a virtue out of being “from” many places at once. And I think that’s a fine way to go. But we’re really local in a certain way. We’re part of the fabric of New York. That said, I grew up thinking of The Paris Review as America’s literary magazine. George Plimpton really made it that. In the same way that it’s a great New York institution, it’s also a great American institution. It brings out something that’s cosmopolitan and not parochial about the literary scene. It’s always been very open to new influences and things from other places. And I want that to be reflected in our readership. I want us to have readers all over the country, and indeed, all over the world, wherever people care about what’s happening in American imaginative writing. I think of us as being both a laboratory for fiction and poetry and essays and a kind of one stop shop. If you are reading the review, you should be able to feel that you know — what at least I think is most interesting in what’s going on now, in letters, now. For whatever that’s worth.
MS: Well, it’s worth a lot. I’ve always had the sense of you guys as a New York based institution. I mean, that was true when George was alive and everybody could associate it with the house on 72nd street and all that. But the feeling of the magazine and the writing contained within it has never been that.
LS: Back in the early days, they published within a couple of years of each other, the first pieces of On the Road, and the first short fiction by Phillip Roth. And then they published the first piece of Bright Lights, Big City before it grew into a novel, but also [David Foster Wallace’s] “Little Expressionless Animals,” a Midwestern masterpiece if there ever was one. So that too I think is in the DNA of the place.
MS: Right. That sense of encompassing the American grain in all its fullness. Which is how it should be.
LS: Exactly. That’s what you guys are trying to do too, yes?
MS: We are indeed. And since all of us at LARB have been reading The Paris Review for as long as we can remember, we’d certainly encourage our readership to do the same. And to go see you tonight, October 23rd, at the Hammer Museum, where you’ll be in conversation with Mona Simpson. Thanks for talking, Lorin.
LS: Thank you. I’ll see you there tonight too, I hope.