Lunch with the FT: Lorin Stein

There can be only one rational response to the longueurs of a Manhattan August, when the city becomes a tropical marinade and everyone who can is either lounging in or telecommuting from the harbours of Long Island or the cooler Catskills to the city’s north. “I’m going to have alcohol,” I say to Lorin Stein, who has arrived spry as spritz, and is seemingly unaffected by the sweltering heat outside.

“Shall we get a bottle?” he asks with conspiratorial relish.

Why not? I say.

“Why not?” he says. “As my mother says, ‘We don’t have to finish it!’”

He is hipster-thin and dandyish; his jeans are fashionably rolled up; his shirt, white with periwinkle blue button holes, is worn rakishly open à la Bernard-Henri Levy. And, as is appropriate for the new editor of the Paris Review, we are at the Cercle Rouge in Tribeca, as close as one can get to a real Parisian bistro in New York. An habitué of the restaurant that he describes as his “personal canteen”, he calls for a waitress – “la bella Catarina” – and orders a chilled Anjou – Domaine Matignon. It is a surprising and agreeable choice, and I am reminded of a comment by his friend the novelist Sam Lipsyte that Stein has “impeccable taste”.

An impeccable taste in fiction has propelled Stein into the ambit of superlatives; he has been called New York’s youngest, brightest, boldest literary powerbroker – and not without justification. At Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), where he was, until recently, a senior editor, he worked with a stable of literary thoroughbreds, including Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and Denis Johnson; he helped draw the English-speaking world’s attention to the genius of the late Chilean author Robert Bolaño; and his championing of the German author Hans Keilson has just sent Francine Prose into Dionysiac ecstasy in the New York Times Book Review (“For busy, harried or distractable readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius,” she writes).

And now, at just 37, he’s given all that up to edit what is arguably the most prestigious of American literary journals. Founded in Paris in 1953 by HL Humes, Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton – members of the last famous wave of American expats to embrace the cheap beauty of the city for literary inspiration – the Review tacked straight against the prevailing critical wind by devoting itself to creativity. As William Styron put it in the inaugural issue, “I think The Paris Review should welcome these people into its pages: the good writers and good poets, the non-drumbeaters and non-axe-grinders. So long as they’re good.”

As Stein explains, their main tenet was that they wouldn’t do criticism, “which carried with it a supposition that they won’t be political or at least not theoretical; it would just be fiction and poetry.” People now take this for granted, he says, but this was a striking departure from the previous decade, which for magazine-reading intellectuals had been dominated by the Partisan Review, a publication that had wielded immense cultural power as the voice of the non-communist left in America.

Instead of essays about politics, the Paris Review built a massive archive of authors discussing the craft of writing; it was an early publisher of work by Terry Southern and Philip Roth. But the genial, patrician Plimpton, who edited the magazine until his death in 2003, gave it more than just literary clout; as the otherwise pugnacious Norman Mailer put it, Plimpton was the most loved man in New York, for his endearing personality, his dazzling parties, and most of all for his devotion to high-jape participatory journalism, which involved relentlessly failing in professional sports.

His successor Philip Gourevitch, a New Yorker journalist, was equally formidable but in a distinctly un-Plimptonian fashion, having written a landmark work on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families. Gourevitch quadrupled the quarterly journal’s circulation to 16,000 copies and – somewhat controversially – introduced a lot more reportage into the mix. He stepped down last year to devote himself to writing, the subject, once again, Rwanda.

It’s time to order, and Stein asks Catarina if she can guess what he’ll have. She says the steak tartare; he adds a small serving of fries on the side. I order the hanger steak, medium rare.

For the aspiring literateur in small-town, or even mid-sized-city America, Stein’s ascent – from the elite Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC, where he edited the school’s literary magazine, to Yale, where he was taught by one of America’s pre-eminent poets, John Hollander, and by the legendary Harold Bloom, and then on to New York and FSG – might look like another triumph of the system, scripted by all the subtle forces of social privilege and proximity. But if Stein is a classic example of a certain kind of American success story, in which intellectual achievement has overtaken earlier generations of economic triumph, his path also owes more to chance and perseverance than one might think.

Stein and his younger sister Anna were scholarship kids who grew up in the Adams Morgan part of Washington when it was much less salubrious than it is now, thanks to the lingering menace of the city’s race riots. He can remember returning late from school one day and his mother yelling at him to get indoors as quickly as possible, after she had just seen a couple dressed in evening clothes dragged from their car. He was, he says, pretty much oblivious to the city’s politics and his family’s immersion in everything from victims’ rights (his father and stepmother ran a charity, the National Organisation for Victim Assistance) to local politics and civil rights (his mother and stepfather). His parents divorced when he was eight, but lived just five minutes from each other.

“I was probably the only member of my family who couldn’t name every member of the cabinet,” he says. He simply preferred a world governed by imagination and books. These are matters, he says, decided by temperament, not intellect. A great great aunt in Maine (“a very bad poet but very encouraging,” he says) gave him the run of her library. And when a speaker arrived at his school one day to talk about publishing, he found his mission.

He went to Yale, as did his father and grandfather, though not without pausing to consider the views of his stepfather (a proud graduate of Brooklyn College) on class privilege and the American university system. Upon graduation in 1995 Hollander pushed him towards a masters’ degree in poetry at Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, which would include a teaching stipend. “But I’m not a poet,” he told Hollander. “I know you’re not a poet,” said Hollander, “I’m just trying to get you a job!” Stein had to produce 30 pages of poetry to graduate – a feat managed only by counting the title of each poem as its own page. “I was a terrible, terrible writer of verse, and a terrible teacher,” he says. The experience clarified his thoughts about a career in academia.

And so he did what many have done before him and will continue to do. At 23, he moved to New York with idea that he would write his novel. Instead, he read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (in which his parents’ non-profit organisation makes an appearance), and gave up. Wallace had beaten him, in a sense, to everything he needed to say. But i wasn’t quite the disappointment it might have been. “I felt so let off the hook,” he says, explaining that he no longer felt the duty many young novelists feel “to update the world”. Still, the prospect of a literary life was narrowing; all that seemed left was the possibility that he might write about books. He pitched and pitched and got a break when an essay on Dorothy Parker was accepted by Might, a literary magazine that burned brightly in the 1990s and was co-edited by the not-yet-famous Dave Eggers. But Might didn’t pay, which meant he still needed a real job. He stopped in at St Mark’s bookstore in the East Village and picked up an application form. One of the questions asked of would-be employees was what they thought was the mark of a good bookstore. Stein’s choice was a stack of Loeb Classics – the dual-text editions of Greek and Latin authors of antiquity published by Harvard University Press. “Very good,” I say. “No! Very bad!” he says. The clerk, in a gesture of pity, told him to take the application home and work on it.

He recalls this as a time when he was “bad and sad”; a time of too much drink and too few vegetables and friends. But the relentless pitching was about to pay off. That evening, he got a call from Publisher’s Weekly, the leading trade publication of the US book industry, which offered him a part-time job as a secretary.

It was a move that proved critical to Stein’s evolution as a super-editor. First, over the course of the next year and half he edited or rewrote over 2,000 of the magazine’s capsule-length book reviews, which gave him a panoptic view of the industry; second, it helped him reach the conclusion that “there was only one publishing house that mattered” to him, and that was Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The only question was whether he could afford to hang around long enough to figure a way to get hired by them.

In 1998, just at the point where he was about to give up and go to law school, he got a call. Jonathan Galassi, FSG president and publisher, needed an assistant. He was in. Nine years later, three of the five fiction nominees for the 2007 National Book Awards bore his editorial imprint: Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski, Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis and the winner, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson.

We barely register the arrival of the food – the tartare is agreeably mustardy, he says, but he eats little, and forgets the fries. “I was doing exactly what I had been wanting to do for my whole life and I thought I would retire – if I could – at FSG,” he continues. But after Gourevitch’s resignation last November, the board of the Paris Review approached Galassi to ask whether he could recommend a replacement.

Galassi urged Stein to go for it. But Stein’s younger sister Anna, a literary agent, warned him that he was making a terrible mistake. “Leaving FSG is like leaving a wonderful marriage for a beautiful young woman,” she protested. “But,” Stein told her, “I think I want to marry the beautiful young woman!” He accepted the offer in March and began work in April.

We pause again to summon Catarina, and order apple tart and two forks. One of the key parts of his vision for the magazine, he explains – one that resonated with the Review’s board – was to find a way to make it relevant in an internet world. Stein launched a blog at the beginning of June to give a daily web presence to the quarterly; it has drawn, so far, 80,000 unique visitors a month. He is thinking hard about the imminent arrival of the mobile web, and what it means for a literary journal (perhaps a return to 19th-century-style serialisation). For the print publication he has brought in some new editors, notably Robyn Creswell for poetry, and adjusted the design. The most significant change, however, is that the magazine’s relationship with reportage has ended.

Stein wants, he says, to renew the Review’s original compact with fiction and poetry because it seems more important than ever to argue for a certain kind of literature through a certain kind of literary journal. “You can be as smart and as stylish and as sophisticated and as cosmopolitan in poetry and fiction as you can be in non-fiction,” he says, “and the corollary of that is that you don’t have to be polite about it, you don’t have to be pious about it.”

The contents of his first issue, which will appear on September 9, illustrate his argument: interviews on the art of fiction Norman Rush – the author of Mating and Mortals is, he says, one of the great contemporary American authors at the height of his powers – and Michel Houellebecq, one of the most surprising. The content, Stein says, “is all fun – which is not unrelated to the fact that it expresses a very particular idea of what’s going on in fiction and poetry – mine.”

It is nearly 4pm. We have digressed endlessly and, though we didn’t have to, we have finished the bottle. The rational thing to do now would be to nap, but the hour for the September issue to go to print draws near, and he must return to the airy loft that the Review’s offices occupy several blocks away. As he leaves, I mention something I had read that morning by the English critic FL Lucas as a reminder that literature is a kind of pleasure rather than a mortification of the spirit: “Far better follow that excellent motto of Herrick’s ‘To live merrily, and to trust to Good Verses’.” Does this, I ask, sum up what you’re after with the Review? He laughs. “It couldn’t be any more apt.”

Cercle Rouge

241 West Broadway at North Moore, New York

Steak Tartare $14

French Fries $5

Steak Frites $26

Tarte aux pommes $8

Bottle Anjou rouge $35

Bottle sparkling water $7

Double espresso $4.50

Double macchiato $4.50

Total (inc tax and service) $138.23

Literary Love Affair: They’ll always have Paris

Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, – it is, perhaps, harder to find an American writer who didn’t fall in love with Paris at the turn of the 20th century.

This was not an exclusively American thing: Samuel Johnson observed in the 18th century that the city held writers in uncommon regard. It was money and booze that helped make it the literary destination for Americans in the 1920s. Paris was a cheap place to live if you owned dollars (at least before the Crash of 1929) and, in contrast to the reign of Prohibition back home, it provided an unmatchable café culture to whittle away time and sharpen one’s wits.

These writers also recognised that Paris was culturally ahead of other cities – a realisation that had eluded some earlier American visitors, notably Henry James who moved there in 1875. Though he met all the “greats” – Turgenev, Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant, Goncourt, and Daudet – he found them disappointing, and ended up settling in London.

The expat wave of the 1920s didn’t just have Paris; they had each other – a sufficiently critical mass of English speakers to digest and debate the literary ambitions of their années folles. The wave of the 1950s – James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Allen Ginsberg and the Paris Review crowd – had all this too, along with inescapable romantic nostalgia for the 1920s.

Arguably, however, the special relationship between America and Paris had its greatest triumph, not in memoirs such as Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), or the “lost generation” love story of Gerald and Sara Murphy, as told in Amanda Vaill’s Everybody Was So Young (1998), but in bookselling.

Sylvia Beach moved to Paris from New Jersey armed with $3,000 – her mother’s entire savings. She made a priceless literary investment in an English language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, which opened on Rue Dupuytren in November 1919. Its most famous customer was not American, but Irish – and Beach grasped not merely the moment but momentousness when James Joyce “put his limp, boneless hand in my tough little paw”. The result was that Shakespeare and Co became the first publisher of Ulysses.

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