Lorin Stein, The Paris Review’s Wonderboy, Channels the Late, Great George Plimpton
Posted Thursday, August 09, 2012 4:35 PM
Editor's Note: This article was updated on August 10, 2012.
The Paris Review has achieved a legendary reputation over the years as being one of the most prestigious literary magazines in the world. It was founded in 1953 by Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton. To many, the Paris Review was George Plimpton, its co-founder, longtime editor and most familiar face. But, as with all good things, Plimpton’s role eventually came to an end. He died in 2003 and the magazine’s editorial leadership has changed hands a few times since. Plimpton’s immediate successor was Brigid Hughes, whose tenure was rather short-lived. She was followed by Philip Gourevitch, who served as editor for five years. With Gourevitch’s departure in 2010, the magazine brought on Lorin Stein, who at the time was a senior editor for the publishing firm, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG).
Stein, the current editor of the Paris Review, has been described by literary agent Ira Silverberg in a New York Times profile piece as “the best thing to happen to The Paris Review since George Plimpton.” That rather bold statement is not the least undeserved. The magazine has undergone some highly lauded renovations since Stein assumed the helm, among which are the redesign of the magazine itself and, more notably, the overhaul of the Review website, which now includes free online access to the celebrated Paris Review interview archives.
Described in many news articles as somewhat of a traditionalist, Stein has maintained the legendary reputation of the magazine, while simultaneously modernizing it, drawing it into the ever-more tech savvy world. As evidence to the latter, the Paris Review website now includes daily blog updates, and the Review will be unveiling a new app this September, which makes the best in new fiction and poetry readily available digitally—gone are the days of having to order a subscription by mail or making the trip to the local bookstore.
This October, the Paris Review will also unveil a new anthology of fiction called Object Lessons. “It’s pretty exciting,” Stein explains, “because we went to 20 short story writers whose work we liked and asked them each to choose his or her favorite story from the archives. . . . We ask each contemporary writer to introduce the story with a little essay explaining what technical problems the story solves.”
Stein has a reputation for having somewhat of a Midas touch, and Object Lessons will likely be at least as well-received as previous Paris Review anthologies. As a testament to his touch of gold, in 2007, three of the five National Book Award fiction nominees were published by FSG, and all three were edited by Stein. Works edited by Stein have won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, among other awards.
Also, since succeeding Gourevitch, Stein has increased the number of print subscriptions to the Review and has amped up traffic to the Paris Review website. But, he has also learned through trial and error along the way.
An early and highly controversial editorial decision to toss approximately one-third of the poems that had previously been accepted for publication under Gourevitch’s time as editor prompted an immediate backlash and a call for a boycott of the literary magazine, fueled by the social media world. Stein apologized for his decision and the call for a boycott was swiftly lifted. The literary review giant has been thriving since, due partly to the same social media world that had threatened the magazine’s reputation.
Lorin Stein recently spoke with Highbrow Magazine, answering questions about his decisions as editor of the Paris Review, his literary tastes, and the way he has been characterized in the media.
I read that you received a subscription to the Paris Review at the age of 14. Did you ever envision yourself then growing up to become editor of the Paris Review?
Age 14 may have been the sweet spot where I would have imagined such a thing. Too old to think that I would ever play in the NFL, but not too old to think I might edit the Review.
Has your own interest in the publication continued over the years, or has it waned at all?
I paid more and less attention at different times over the years. I did an interview for George Plimpton, I interviewed Jonathan Lethem. Certainly I remember paying attention to the magazine then. Then I became very interested when Philip Gourevitch took over. I was very curious to see what he would do. Those were probably two of the moments that I paid the closest attention. But, you know, most of the books I used to edit were fiction. So I kept my ear to the ground and kept an eye on the table of contents. A fiction editor needs to know what’s up in the Paris Review.
Your initial interest in the Review began when George Plimpton served as editor. It’s been suggested that you are in some ways a traditionalist or “old-fashioned,” to use the term used by Ira Silverberg in a New York Times profile piece. How would you say Plimpton’s editorship of the Paris Review has influenced your own role as editor?
Well, Plimpton really invented this place. So the word “influenced” isn’t quite right. It’s his sandbox that I’m playing in, that we’re all playing in. Things like the mix, the composition of the magazine—fiction, poetry, interviews—the way the interviews are done, the attitude toward the reader … even the model for funding the magazine is George’s model. So is the sense that the magazine should also serve as a sort of clubhouse, that one of our duties—a pleasant duty—is to hold gatherings and throw parties. All that stuff is largely a Plimpton invention.
For a while, the Paris Review had expanded its focus to include a bit more nonfiction and you’ve sort of restored the focus to literature and poetry. What other notable changes would you say that you have made to the publication since taking over the role of editor?
Well, we redesigned the magazine . . . and we shifted away from documentary photography toward other kinds of visual artists who interest us. Often we ask them to curate our art portfolio. It’s been fun. It’s been a very mixed bag, which seems to me something not out of the spirit of the magazine as a whole.
The biggest single change, I would have to say, is probably our presence online. Nowadays, we sell almost all of our subscriptions from our website. We have 230,000 Twitter followers and – I can tell you because I just got this week’s statistics sent to me – this week we had 60,000 unique readers on our blog. The average time they spent was five minutes—longer than five minutes—and we’ve got almost 30,000 Facebook fans. So, that’s a huge part of how we publicize the magazine now, and how we sell stuff and how we stay in business.
What have been some of the most difficult editorial decisions you have had to make at the Paris Review?
Certain writers whom I never thought I would have the chance to publish, writers who are heroes to me, sent stories that I had to turn down. That was very hard. That’s probably the single hardest thing, having to say no to writers you really admire. But it happens.
One of your first moves as editor was to toss about one-third of the poems that had already been accepted for publication. Would you attribute that to subjective differences in the merit of the works, to an assertion of the changes you would be making as editor or to some other factor?
I would attribute it to bone-headed stupidity on my part. It wasn’t that I disagreed about the quality of the work. It was that I wanted to shift the purpose of the poetry section. It seemed to me that the poetry section was geared—and I say this not as a criticism at all—toward poets and toward readers who read like poets. I wanted the section to be geared toward the non-expert reader—the educated reader, the sophisticated reader, but the non-expert reader. So that was the impulse for tossing out some of the poems we inherited.
As for the way we did it – well, I thought that’s how it was done. The new poetry editor whom I brought with me, Robyn Creswell, he and I both remembered that his poems were thrown away when Richard Howard left as poetry editor. [Gourevitch actually wrote to the poets whose works were tossed out and paid them a kill fee. Creswell's case appears to be an anomaly.] We both just felt that was the way the world worked. We didn’t think that anyone would take us to task for that, but: (A) just because it had been done before doesn’t make it nice, or fair; (B) nowadays, with Facebook, when people feel disgruntled they can really tell you how they feel. So immediately a number of poets took us to task.
There was an effort to organize a boycott, and lots of people wrote publicly about how angry they were. It was certainly rattling and humbling, but it was also very helpful because it meant that I was able to hear directly from the people who cared most about this section of the magazine, and then I could address them directly, and not just one at a time. I was able to apologize to exactly the public that cared the most. It was a small public, but also a sort of a core constituency. They gave me a very vigorous lesson very quickly, right when I started on the job.
How, specifically, did you deal with the backlash that arose?
I wrote an apology. I wrote an apology on the Facebook page of the boycott, and from the beginning I was in correspondence with the poets themselves. No one even wrote a letter to Robyn, but now we’re all so used to communicating with strangers by email, instantly. Even seven years ago that wasn’t so much the done thing, at least not in these circles.
I like that you’ve revived the Paris Review Print Series. Can you [provide] a little background as to how that decision came about?
I think it came about because, when I started working here, I kept admiring all the prints that were hanging on the walls, and I asked why we weren’t commissioning new prints any more. And no one really knew. George had stopped doing it at a certain point in the 1990s. So we decided to do it again. We’ve been very slow. We’ve only brought out one, but it’s beautiful and, of course, now we have to sell it, and sell enough for it to make sense to keep doing more. But I think we will.
How else have you, or do you plan on, boosting revenue for the publication?
Well, mainly by increasing circulation. We’re also building an app right now, so soon we’ll be able to offer digital subscriptions. In particular, I hope this will mean increased circulation abroad. Right now, the magazine is expensive for foreign subscribers, and we’ve had a very hard time getting physical copies into the shops in Europe – in England and Europe – where our anthologies are already well known.
And we also have been selling—and this is, at least partly, just for fun—we’ve been doing trades with advertisers for stuff, for goods, and selling them on our site. And we’ve been selling a lot more ads because we have this huge new readership online. We have a very talented couple of people on staff who spend part of their day thinking about how to pair up with the right advertisers.
You touched on this with the issue of digital subscriptions, but how else do you feel circulation can best be boosted in this increasingly digital age?
Until nobody reads print anymore at all—May the day never come— I think that the overall diminishment of print will create little micro-climates where, in fact, print will be in demand. Now, sometimes that will mean something frou-frou, the carriage trade, fancy books, de luxe editions, and so forth. But I think it might also create a demand for one or two literary magazines. And the sort of person who likes to read in print is often the sort of person who likes to read what we publish. So, there’s that, and, you know, we hardly exist on Amazon. We really sell the stuff ourselves. That’s our model. Or, through independent stores, through people who know us, and who know what we do and who can honestly recommend us.
I was in the Strand—a bookstore near my house—and I heard one of the clerks telling a customer that, since he was interested in William Gibson, he really needed to go down the street to St. Mark’s Books where they stocked The Paris Review and read our interview with Gibson. You see, historically the Strand never stocked literary magazines. Partly because of this conversation, we could go to the owner and say, “Come on, your clerks are recommending us. You know that your customers want what we make.” And now we have a monthly reading series at the Strand, and they carry the magazine. This would be no way for a big business to operate, but it’s not a bad way for a literary magazine to find new readers.
What have been some of your favorite Paris Review interviews over the years?
I love Terry Southern’s interview with Henry Green. I love the interview with P.G. Wodehouse. The interview with Hemingway, of course, is a classic. The Dorothy Parker interview. I just saw somebody act part of it on stage and it had me in tears, it was so moving. A beautiful interview! There are so many great ones. I don’t mean to evade the question, but it’s an embarrassment of riches. I love the Larkin one. If I had to generalize in a stupid way, I would say that it’s fun to watch the way English writers deal with the business of being interviewed. They tend to keep themselves on a tight leash, and to perform in a very . . . fun way.
Who do you view as promising up-and-coming writers today?
Oh, I can’t make lists! That might hurt somebody’s feelings – and I’d leave people off by mistake, too.
In general, who have been some of your favorite writers of the past? In an interview with The Economist’s More Intelligent Life you had mentioned Dickens and Proust. Can you elaborate?
Among the dead? Well, I’m feeling a little bit stumped. I can tell you the dead people I’ve been reading lately. I’ve been rereading Sir Thomas Browne, Urne-Burial and Religio Medici, and also reading one of his essays that I hadn’t read before, but that was recommended to me actually online by one of our readers, on the quincunx.
Browne, who was a 17th century physician, notices how often the cross recurs in nature, or really the five points—the center and the four points of the cross. That’s what the essay is about. It’s kind of kooky . . . all of his explanations are not the sort of explanations that we would make. At the same time, he’s being very observant, and he’s fascinated by what he’s observing, and he describes it really well. So you see this theological turn of mind confronting all sorts of interesting facts about the world and the prose is, well, some of the best English prose ever written. He actually comes up in the interview that I’m editing right now with a guy named Roberto Calasso—it’s in our next issue— and Calasso, it turns out, wrote his dissertation on Browne.
So I’ve been reading Browne. I just read an essay that I loved, and I was shocked when I came to the end of it and discovered that it was by G.K. Chesterton. I don’t know why I was shocked. It was on nonsense writing. And I just started a novella by an Israeli writer, S. Yizhar. He’s dead, so I can mention him. I’ve been reading Adam Phillips’ book on D.W. Winnicott, which is great fun. Winnicott is dead. He was a great child psychiatrist—a pioneering child psychiatrist—and also a favorite of my mother’s. So that’s this week.
Living writers this week: Renata Adler, Sam Savage, Stanley Cavell. And the Esquire anthology of short stories, which is one of the best story anthologies I’ve ever read.
To return now to more of a biographical question: Not unlike George Plimpton, you’ve already gained somewhat of a reputation, which is to be expected in the type of role that you are in—some things undoubtedly true and some based on fabrication or exaggeration. The New York Times paints you as being somewhat “old-fashioned,” as having gatherings of writers in your office for cocktails, as a smoker and a drinker of martinis.
A passage in that profile states: “Mr. Stein . . . gives off such a refined vibe that people who have known him for years say that he has an ultra-privileged background and is a relative of Gertrude Stein. (Neither is true.)” What do you make of the Lorin Stein that has been created by the media?
You know, I don’t think very much about it. My friends have sometimes said that it upset them to read something about me and see a person they don’t recognize, but how much can you actually describe of a person in 500 words?
I am fond of a martini at night, and I have been known to have a cigarette. And I’ve been in the position of having to write a short profile of someone, and I know how those details are useful when it’s your job to create a character-sketch, and of course it doesn’t resemble real-life, no one expects it to. I certainly don’t expect it to. There’s a difference between that kind of thumbnail sketching and telling an untruth, and I can’t say that anyone’s been—that I can think of—slanderous or mean, so I can’t really complain. Maybe it wasn’t altogether nice of Julie Bosman to describe me as an “unlikely” sex symbol – but God knows it was better than I deserved.
Benjamin Wright is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.