The Paris Review #194

Posted by @ 3:00 pm on November 9th, 2010

During the great de-acceptance debacle of 2010 wherein Lorin Stein, the new editor of The Paris Review declined to publish a selection of previously accepted poetry, one of the tangents to the discussion, for me, was the nagging sense that we were all engaged in a fascinating, vigorous discussion about a magazine only a fraction of us actually read. If we, broadly speaking, were going to dissect the editorial decisions being made at a given magazine, I felt we should probably have a greater stake in the discussion than to simply say, “We are all writers; this affects us.” I can only speak for myself but The Paris Review was not on my regular reading rotation. I own that.

The Paris Review is big and as a side note, the spine margin is wide enough to keep the magazine readable (they heard you, Blake).  The Paris Review is expensive. I was pretty angry about the price, not for the magazine, but for shipping. $5.95? Really? The  shipping is a touch less than half the price of the magazine. I’m cheap. They’re rich. It’s one thing for a tiny magazine to charge $5.95 but can’t TPR break us off a little something? It was frustrating. Yes, I devote mental energy to these sorts of things. The cover design is fine—it doesn’t rock my world but I don’t need it to. There’s a certain elegance and familiarity to the design—a patrician quality evoking visions of speaking in hushed tones in libraries with leather chairs and men smoking pipes. The interior design is, well, pretty terrible, but nobody’s perfect and there’s something to be said for a magazine that lets the writing do the talking instead of throwing their ability to use InDesign and Photoshop in your face at every opportunity. I had a good laugh when I saw a full color Chanel and Richard Anderson. In the Chanel ad, a barely pubescent girl with extremely dark eye makeup stares at you sullenly like she’s channeling Kristen Stewart or Taylor Momsen. The ads let you know, “Look—this magazine is for the wealthy or those who aspire to wealth.”

As I read the issue, I had one question: Is this magazine any good? It is good. It is damn good. You can tell this is a magazine assembled by people who really know what they are doing. There’s an air of competence to every aspect of the magazine that is a rarity. Then again, few magazines are working with the cultural and financial capital that The Paris Review works with. There’s a lot to be said for what money and reputation can do. At the same time, a lot of people make crappy art even though they have a lot of money so a great deal of credit needs to be given to the editors who know what to do with the capitals they are working with.

If you read nothing else from this issue, please know that the interviews with Michel Houellebecq and Norman and Elsa Rush are simply exquisite. I felt like I learned more about writing from the Rush interview than I have in a very long time. The fiction and poetry might be underwhelming but I cannot think of more superior interviews than the ones I read in this issue. What I really appreciated about the Rush interview was how his wife Elsa was included in the interview as an integral part of his writing career and process. It is so rare to see the spouses of great writers receiving so much attention but Rush invited her into the interview and it was fascinating to see how she has helped him shape his writing. There was a whole lifetime of intimacy between the couple in this interview which the interviewer notes took three years and generated more than 500 pages of transcripts. Those of us who think we know how to do interviews should probably do some soul searching.

In one of his responses, Rush talks about a story with numbered sections. He says,

Ever since I read Hume, I’ve wanted to do fiction with numbered paragraphs. The numbers impose a definiteness on the breaks in the story in a way not conveyed with normal paragraphs. But you can see I was still experimenting in other ways, too: with colons, for instance. I thought that a weakness of modern narrative was the absence of a thought[face, something to indicate that thoughts are happening, equivalent to quotation marks for speech. So I wrote long sequences of thoughts, using colons to indicate cognitive jumps.

The entire interview is filled with such lucid and charming insight. I use numbers in stories far more than prudent so I appreciated how he articulated what using numbered sections in stories can accomplish. I often skip over interviews in magazines but I pored over this interview like it was gospel and then read the whole thing again. The Houellebecq interview was equally fascinating. I was not familiar with the writer but felt like I had a real sense of the man after reading the interview.

There were three short stories in this issue—Virgin by April Ayers Lawson, The Worm in Philly by Sam Lipsyte and Ten Stories from Flaubert by Lydia Davis. These were all expertly written stories but they were, in a sense, a bit too polished, a bit too competent. For me, the desire to read something over and over is often a hallmark of excellence. With these stories I read, I reflected, I moved on. Lawson’s Virgin is a story of a young married couple, Jake and Sheila, hampered by the inability to consummate their marriage because of incest, Sheila’s repressive and religious parents,  and circumstance. The story is more complex than that and there is a quiet desperation to the story I found quite lovely but I would have liked the story to have more grit to it. At the same time, I respect that there wasn’t more grit and I thought it was a really ballsy move to use this story as the first story in the issue because of the quietude throughout the story.

I’m a real fan of Sam Lipsyte’s writing but the Lipsyte story was, well, a Lipsyte story. It was great but it didn’t distinguish itself in any way from anything else he has written. If his name had not been attributed to the story I would have known he wrote it. That’s not a bad thing but it’s not always a good thing either. The poetry had more verve. John Tranger’s Four Poems After Baudelaire were beautiful and so perfectly crafted. The real standout from the issue, however, was It’s a Lonely World by Dorothea Lasky. I actually squealed when I saw her poem. I thought, “Someone I’ve actually heard of.” More importantly, it was a poem that made me sit up from where I was lounging so I could read it aloud. Every line was sharp and confident and fresh.There was a strong, intelligent narrative throughout the poem and the final lines were so subtle yet powerful that I must share them with you:

There is a sun setting, with a halo around it
I tell people, who are listening to me, that that sun is God
But they never believe me, they only listen
They only believe what they are taught to believe
Which is to believe in nothing
Which is what they were taught when they were born

It’s a Lonely World is a masterful poem that clarified for me why The Paris Review is The Paris Review.

There was one other such piece, an essay by J.D. Daniels, Letters From Cambridge, about training in jiu jitsu and as such things go, so much more. It was so unexpected to find this kind of raw, visceral, richly layered essay in such an established literary journal. After I read the essay I thought, “Very clever, Mr. Stein. Very clever.” Bastard.

I must return to my original question: Is this magazine any good? What is good? It’s so hard to evaluate these kinds of things, particularly when dealing with such an established quantity like this magazine. To appreciate The Paris Review, you have to consider the magazine as a whole. As I discussed earlier, there’s an attractive air of competence to this magazine, but there’s far more to the magazine than mere competence. I took a couple days to let what I read sink in and it was then I realized that when you really look at the assembled work, there’s a real brilliance to the balance of writing and art published in this issue. Everything fits quite perfectly. I felt emotionally and intellectually satisfied and less bitter about paying $17.95 for the issue. I also felt like I had a greater understanding of why the editors at TPR had to de-accept some of the previously accepted work. The situation was handled so very poorly but if you saw how this issue worked, you would know that everything in the issue was included for a reason. Is The Paris Review good? Grudgingly, I must revise my previous statement. The magazine is fucking exceptional and as a contrarian know that it pains me to admit that.