An Interview with The Paris Review's Philip Gourevitch
“The Paris Review is one of the great literary magazines,” said editor Philip Gourevitch as he introduces the famous quarterly founded in 1953.
Founded in Paris by Harold Humes, Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton, The Paris Review has been showcasing creative writing for 178 issues. Almost anyone who is anyone in the world of modern literature has been featured in the magazine.
It was the first to recognize Jack Kerouac’s work. Writers like Philip Roth and V. S. Naipaul were first published by The Paris Review. Peter Matthiessen's Far Tortuga, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides, and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections were all introduced to readers via the magazine.
Aside from talent spotting, the magazine is famous for its author interviews which provide an insight into the creative forces of literature. The interviews have also become a unique archive. Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Wodehouse and Burroughs – the list goes on and on into modern day icons such as Seamus Heaney and Ian McEwan. [Read an excerpt from the interview with Hemingway]
“It’s a bit like curating a legacy, a legacy with a tailwind,” said Gourevitch, who has been in the hot-seat for about a year and half, and is the second editor-in-chief since the death of Plimpton in 2003.
“After George Plimpton’s death, nobody was quite sure what to do,” said Gourevitch. “The magazine had been identified with him for such a long time. Nobody wanted it to close but the question was how to continue.
“The spirit of the magazine remains the same. We still focus on new writers and new writing, and we have always been a youthful magazine. It was founded by youthful people and even George remained youthful in his outlook as he got older.
“We have a great tradition but we don’t want to be frozen in the past. We changed the look of the cover and people said, ‘How can you do this?’ But the magazine cover had been changed about 30 times in the past and we actually based our masthead on the original version. We have a new look but it’s a tribute to the original form.”
Pity the person who delivers the bags of mail, bulging with submissions from writers looking for their big break, to The Paris Review’s New York office.
“We receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts. Around 15,000 to 20,000 arrive each year – that’s just fiction but we also get a large influx of poetry,” said Gourevitch. “We read every single one. We have a team of interns and readers, all students of literature, who initially go through the manuscripts and then hand them over to a team of editors. We are not a rejection machine – we always have a debut of some kind in each issue. We are a showcase of sorts - writers get noticed after being published in The Paris Review.
“We also focus on established writers we admire. The whole tradition is to juxtapose discoveries with living masters. For instance, there’ll be a debut poet next to John Ashbery’s newest work. The masters still like to be featured because it’s good to be somewhere fresh.
“The magazine has going for over half a century because it never identified itself with one particularly school, trend, moment or fad. I am optimistic about the future of writing. This is a good time for the written word. It’s actually a hard time to be representing reality because we live in a world that is in flux.
“Everywhere we go we are submitted to short flashes of information and people ask, 'How can a quarterly survive?’ Well, we mix imagination with writing that won’t expire. You should be able to pick up a copy of the Paris Review from last year and read it, and it won’t have aged.”
The magazine’s office contains a full set of Paris Reviews from No. 1 to the last issue. “Oh, we know that they are valuable,” said Gourevitch. “Some while ago, we actually considered pulping them because there were issues with space, but we quickly threw out that idea.”
Just as well, Allan Stypeck, owner of Second Story Books in Washington, DC, and one of America’s top appraisers, estimates certain copies can be valued between $100 and $200, and often higher.
“Collectors are particularly interested in issues where there is a first appearance by an author,” he explained. “Philip Roth was published for the first time in the winter issue of 1959 – that would appeal to many people.” [Find this Issue]