Fifty-seven years ago, in Paris, a handful of young expatriates started a little magazine devoted to fiction and poetry. This was not an obvious thing to do in 1953. The smart journals were dominated by criticism. Although they might include the occasional short story or some verse, out of politeness, poetry was treated as an object of specialized study, not as a going concern. Critics had been lamenting the Death of the Novel, and fiction in general, since the end of World War Two.
The Paris Review set out to prove the critics wrong—not by argument, but by example. In its first five years, the Review ran work by Jack Kerouac, Philip Larkin, V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Adrienne Rich, Italo Calvino, Samuel Beckett, Nadine Gordimer, Jean Genet, and Robert Bly. Let the critics say what they liked (what serious critic could stomach Kerouac and Naipaul?), the writing was alive. The Review never espoused a school. The editors were against schools on principle. They didn’t do themes, either, or special issues. Their job, as they saw it, was to find and publish, not things they considered competent, or merely worthy, but things they actually loved.
What the editors lacked in consistency they made up for in breadth of appreciation. As Americans in Paris—and soon, as Americans back in New York—they paid cheerful attention to the artists in their midst. They ran a portfolio of visual art in every issue, often with commentary explaining why they’d chosen it. They also published essays more personal (and peculiar) than could be found in the regular journals. Kenneth Tynan described the death of the bullfighter Manolete. Giacometti gave his impressions of an auto show. Pati Hill wrote about cats.
This was all distinctly retro. It was belletristic. Not for nothing did Tom Wolfe tag George Plimpton, William Styron, Peter Matthiessen & Co. the Imitation Generation. They were living the dream of their youths, a dream shaped by the heroes they interviewed in the Review—Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, T. S. Eliot. They asked each for practical guidance on how the writing got done; they had simply rejected the memo informing them that the stuff they cared about—fiction and poetry—didn’t matter anymore, that it wasn’t grown-up.
“Perhaps the critics are right,” Styron wrote in his preface to the first issue. “This generation may not produce literature equal to that of any past generation—who cares? The writer will be dead before anyone can judge him—but he must go on writing.” Roberto Bolaño couldn’t have put it better.
Our generation grew up with the Review as a fact of life. It was America’s literary magazine. To our minds, it still is. It has launched our favorite writers. It has made a special claim for the quarterly as such, being both timely and lasting, free of the news of the day or the pressure to please a crowd. Most of all, the Review has shown, repeatedly, that works of imagination can be as stylish and urgent as the flashiest feature reporting, and can do more to refocus our picture of the world.
Today we are reminded of 1953. For all the valiant efforts of little magazines, in print and on the Web, literature has again become an afterthought. The smart talk, the smart critical writing, is taken up with politics, the recession, environmental disaster, the wars, the new media, etc., etc., etc. With the rare exception of a book like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the big magazines tend to deal with literature in one of two ways, either as entertainment (do people really get dumber at the beach?) or as a duty (eat your vegetables: they’re “deeply moving”). Many serious readers have given up on poems and short stories altogether—though, as the contents of this issue prove, both forms are in fighting condition.
Often we hear the question asked, in panels and symposia, “Can the literary journal in print thrive in the age of the Internet?” The real question is not whether journals can survive in some imagined future, but what we ourselves want and need. And when have we needed a great print journal more? Most of us spend our days in an enforced state of distraction, with nothing allowed to sink in. This Review is designed to sink in. It can’t be surfed. It won’t deliver your e-mail. It is, we submit to you, pleasing to the eye. The works here will demand that you read them from start to finish, or not at all.
Reader, we are constantly told that there aren’t enough of you anymore. Experience teaches us otherwise. Even “difficult” writing will find readers, if it is good, and if it comes from a trusted source. Growing up, our generation trusted The Paris Review because the editors knew contemporary writing in a cosmopolitan way. They followed their taste wherever it led and never lost the thrill of discovery. Our hope, as new editors of the Review, is that we will live up to their legacy and rival it, that being the best imitation there is.