Indie Closeup: The Paris Review

Paris Review Editor Lorin Stein at SPI

“I don’t read short stories any more than you do. I don’t read poetry any more than you do.”

These words were surprising coming from Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, which specializes in short stories and poetry. Stein spoke to the NYU-SCPS Summer Publishing Institute (SPI) about independent publishing.

“I started thinking about how to get you and me to read a short story,” Stein said of his first days as editor. “What would that short story look like?” He then referenced n+1, a periodical he said anyone interested in the magazine industry should look at. It comes out three times a year, has no web component and, according to Stein, “shows that young people can write work that spoke more to the readers.”

“I was very inspired and heartened by the example of n+1, in particular by their editorial bravery, their high standards, and their refusal to accept the current state of magazines as a given,” he said. “Why not publish a magazine of long-form criticism? Why not take our own educations seriously? Why not treat our readers as if they were our ideal readers?” When it came to selecting the content for his own magazine, Stein said: “I don’t have any rules or formulas. All of the stories we’ve published just spoke to me. There’s some combination of honesty, sophistication, intelligence and  grownupness. Most of all, it sounds obvious, but each one had a story to tell. You can feel a story animating the story. In its own way, the same is true of the poems that [poetry editor] Robyn Creswell has chosen.”

Since becoming editor, Stein relaunched both the print and web versions of the magazine, which makes him very excited. The magazine has increased print subscriptions 32% and web traffic more than 500%. Some of this is in part thanks to online subscriptions and to their blog The Paris Review Daily, as well as to the excellent cultural and arts writing online. The Paris Review’s famous author interviews are all available on the website from the magazine’s beginning. “I don’t need a mass following for The Paris Review, but I do need anyone who might be interested to get a copy,” noted Stein. “And the way you do that is through more and more twitter followers, online content, and by including creative nonfiction [in the magazine].”

The Paris Review Daily’s content is what Stein calls “participatory journalism.” Bloggers write about what it is like to interact with a book and to be a culturally aware person in 2011. “The idea is to give a sense of what we think about in between quarterlies,” Stein said. “Nowadays, I think it’s fair when someone recommends something to you to ask: ‘Who are you? Where are you coming from? Why should I listen to you?’ The blog is the way of saying [that].”

At the beginning of his talk, Stein took SPI students through the fascinating history of The Paris Review, which he said Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton started in 1953 as a “defense of their generation.” Stein noted that the three were very concerned that World War II would not produce novels as good as those emerging from World War I.

Despite the magazine’s long history, Stein is only the third full-time editor of The Paris Review. The first one, George Plimpton, was editor for fifty years, from 1953 to 2003. Stein succeeded Philip Gourevitch, who was editor for five years before returning to writing full-time.

Unlike many of the speakers at SPI, Stein’s career in publishing has been fairly conventional. Before becoming editor, he was a book editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and, before that, a reviewer for Might and Threepenny Review. He also wrote or edited more than two thousand reviews for Publishers Weekly.

While his path in publishing may be traditional, his magazine is anything but. “The thing is, there really isn’t a market for literary magazines,” Stein explained. “Our numbers are so small compared to real magazines.” He later revealed that the “true” circulation for his magazine was 16,000. “I’d love for us to double our circulation. I think that would be both doable and appropriate,” he said.

The Paris Review relies very little on advertising. Instead, they raise the majority of the money they need to function at an annual gala, which over five hundred people attended this year. The magazine also receives money from a variety of donors, who Stein says really have nothing in common other than their love for short stories and magazines. “I think people who care about this stuff feel as though organizations that supported this [the arts] are disappearing,” he said.

Stein also showed a distinct lack of need to keep up with other literary magazines or even to compete with them. “I’d say we have more to gain from each other than we have to lose,” he noted. Another topic Stein touched on was the death of the book review in newspapers. He said online book reviews will never compare to print. When asked if the demise of reviews had hurt fiction, he said: “The idea of fiction as something that can get hurt is tricky and complicated. I mean, I think things can change fiction, but TV has really hurt fiction in the sense that fewer and fewer people can put a sentence together.” When this drew a laugh, he deadpanned, “I wasn’t joking.”

While indie publishing is often overlooked, Stein showed SPI participants that it is an essential and fascinating aspect of the magazine publishing industry. His off-the-cuff presentation provided a clear example of the differences between what he does and mainstream publishing, providing us with something else to think about while we pursue our careers!

by Katie Marinello

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