Chapter and Verse

Does literature today reflect the commercialism of the entertainment industry, or is it keeping a high standard and thus rendering itself obsolete? Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, and Israeli writer Nir Baram compare notes.

Lorin Stein was born in 1973 in Washington. After graduating from Yale University, he was a teaching fellow at Johns Hopkins. He began his career in the world of literature at the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux. There Stein edited the books of the Chilean-born writer Roberto Bolano and worked with American writers including Jeffrey Eugenides, James Wood and Richard Price. He also assisted in the editing of “Freedom,” the recently published novel by Jonathan Franzen. In April 2010 Stein was appointed editor of The Paris Review, one of the most important literary magazines in the United States. Stein is the third editor of the magazine, which was founded in 1953.

Baram: One of the virtues of The Paris Review is the broad place it has always dedicated to comprehensive interviews with authors. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that this is an important establishment in American literature. For me, the interviews with Louis-Ferdinand Celine and William Faulkner were almost dazzling in their sincerity. I thought the interview with Carver gave an interesting glimpse into the life of a different type of author, and I was impressed by the interview with Norman Mailer because he demonstrated a remarkable ability to discuss a variety of subjects in a highly original way. Which are your favorite interviews and why?

 Lorin Stein
Deidre Schoo / The New York Times

Stein: “Those interviews that you mention are wonderful. I guess I gravitate toward interviews with certain of the English writers. Probably because of their matter-of-factness. I like to reread the interviews with Philip Larkin, P.G. Wodehouse, John Le Carre − oh, and especially Terry Southern’s interview with Henry Green. At one point Southern asks Green how he came up with the character of Raunce, the anti-hero of his great novel ‘Loving’ ‏(one of my favorite novels ever‏), and Green mentions a butler he once knew who, when asked for his definition of paradise, described eating buttered toast in bed on a Sunday morning ‘with c***y fingers.’ Isn’t it enough to make you love the English? After that, my favorite single moment from a Paris Review interview is probably when [Jorge Luis] Borges confesses to crying during gangster films.”

Through these interviews ‏(accumulated over the course of six decades‏) one can really come to understand how authors analyze their work: There are those who refuse to talk in generalizations, refuse to discuss the condition of literature, and are reluctant to position themselves as opposing genres and other authors. They refuse to speak against the culture and the politics of their time and prefer to talk about specific characters and plots. Then there are those who can talk as intellectuals and even as theoreticians of literature.

In your opinion, what is the ultimate achievement an interview with an author should aspire to? Do you think there should be a substantial difference in the questions, topics, emphasis, and tension between discussion about a certain novel and discussion about the outside world ‏(political and economical, etc.‏) between an interview with T.S. Eliot in 1959 and an interview with a contemporary author or poet?

“Temperamentally, maybe; I’m less interested in the theoreticians. There are exceptions. While we were editing the interview with Samuel R. Delany, the science-fiction writer and literary theorist, I became so fascinated I ran out to the bookstore and bought his autobiography ‏(which is wild‏). As a rule of thumb, we try not to discuss any one book in too much detail. You should be able to follow the interview without being an expert − or an obsessive fan. And as I mentioned before, we try to steer the interviews away from litanies of influence − unless they are truly surprising and revealing.

“We always ask questions about the writer’s process − about how the work gets done, from hour to hour, week to week − and often we ask about the writer’s artistic development. Usually this becomes a story about growing up. Apart from that, the interviewer and subject have to shape the interview according to their own best lights − because you know, each interview is a collaboration. Subject, interviewer, editor all revise the transcripts together, sometimes changing very little, more often writing and rewriting. Everyone has veto power. An interview can often take years. In a letter to his parents in 1953, George Plimpton − the first editor of The Paris Review − described the first interview ‏(with E.M. Forster‏) as ‘an essay on technique, in dialogue form.’ That’s what these interviews are − essays arrived at through dialogue.”

What’s the most important thing you have learned about literature since you became the editor of The Paris Review?

“One thing I’ve noticed is how relatively few young writers are working on short stories compared to 10 years ago. That’s not to say that there has been a drop-off in quality, only that students of creative writing are likely to launch straight into a novel or novella − to write the epic and skip the eclogue. Market forces have made themselves felt.”

As the tendencies of the authors change so does the form of the novel. Traditionally, literary criticism tries to depict those changes: Usually an author or a critic emerges and divides the literary field into significant and innovative novels that deal well with “reality,” as opposed to irrelevant, somewhat redundant novels. In the 1920s, Virginia Woolf wrote articles in which she claimed that the world was going through profound changes and concluded that some literature is innovative and relevant, and provoking existential questions, while other literature is simply no longer relevant. These articles constitute a landmark, especially due to the impact they had at the time. However, we continue to witness, time and again, attempts to outline the direction toward which the novel is supposed to strive.

Over the last decade we have seen authors and critics participating in this tradition, including Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Ben Marcus and B.R. Myers, in a manifesto which severely attacks American literature. In most cases the writers claim that the true purpose of the novel is to depict that which is “real,” the real world, and a real description of the human experience. Do you believe such a categorization is feasible nowadays, when literature is so diversified and is disseminated throughout the world? Is this discussion about the novel’s obligation to provide a “real” description of the world still in your opinion valid?

“In America we have never had a national literature as such. In the 1930s Philip Rahv famously divided American authors into ‘palefaces’ and ‘redskins’: patricians vs. roughnecks, Henry James vs. Mark Twain. More recently the UCLA scholar Mark McGurl has isolated three strains in American writing programs: ‘technomodernism’ ‏(think Thomas Pynchon or Jonathan Franzen‏); ‘high cultural pluralism’ ‏(Toni Morrison or Sandra Cisneros‏); and ‘lower-middle-class modernism’ ‏(Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates‏).

“Our manifestos tend to be highly personal and idiosyncratic. Franzen has recalled novelists to their ‘contractual’ duty toward the reader. B.R. Myers has said they should stick to meat-and-potatoes storytelling. Ben Marcus has unmothballed the flag of the avant-garde.

James Wood promotes a ‘realism’ that stresses the representation of thought. These are all matters of taste and anthropology − not schools of opinion. The trouble with manifestos is that they make such lousy ‘recipes.’ You call for a new Balzac and next thing you know, you’ve got Tom Wolfe writing hip-hop lyrics.”

We talked about angry manifestos, and it’s true that at any given time in any given country you can hear complaints and nostalgic reminiscences about the good old days, when there used to be “real” literature. But I don’t think one can deny the fact that contemporary American literature is very diverse, with a carnival of genres and totally different storytelling techniques. In Europe, however, one still hears the familiar argument about American literature being too self-absorbed and too isolated, not absorbing ideas from European literature and, quite simply, not knowing enough about non-American literature. What do you think about this argument and how would you describe the different characteristics of contemporary American literature, or at least the kind you find interesting?

“Ask an American novelist about his or her influences − as, in The Paris Review interviews, we invariably do − and, almost as invariably, you will get a list that begins with Proust, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky. The editors of the Review usually try to edit that answer out − only because by now it’s so predictable. ‏(‘It was in eighth grade that I first encountered “Swann’s Way” ...’‏) If I had to name the one contemporary author most imitated today by serious younger writers ‏(at least the ones whose work I see‏), it would be Roberto Bolano, followed probably by Haruki Murakami and W.G. Sebald, or maybe Thomas Bernhard. Plus some Americans: David Foster Wallace ‏(who was inspired to use footnotes by reading Manuel Puig‏), Jonathan Franzen ‏(who translated Frank Wedekind and did his graduate studies on Karl Kraus‏), Lydia Davis ‏(translator of Bachelard, Leiris, Proust and, most recently, ‘Madame Bovary’‏), Denis Johnson ‏(another Francophile‏). My sample may be skewed, but I simply haven’t come across very many ‘insular’ writers.

“Perhaps the real, underlying complaint is that Americans write about America as if our culture were of transcendent interest. So Philip Roth can publish a big fat book called ‘American Pastoral’ and no one bats an eye − in fact, it climbs the best-seller lists all over Europe. Whereas a ‘Swedish Pastoral,’ for example − or even a ‘Chinese Pastoral’ − might seem to have less claim on the world’s attention. No doubt there are complicated historical reasons why this is true. Whatever one wants to say about it, one might begin by pointing out that American writers are not to blame for this state of affairs ... and that it will pass.”

Obviously it’s not the author’s fault, but it is interesting to point out that in the Anglo-American literary world, translations of foreign literature constitute only a tiny percentage of the market. The gaps in translation policy, between countries like Germany or France and the U.S. or England, are quite amazing. As someone who has translated French texts and as the editor of The Paris Review, a magazine that has always aspired to feature authors from different parts of the world, how do you explain this tendency of American publishing houses? Do you think that perhaps the feeling among them is that so many cultures and experiences from all over the world are already blended within literature written in English?

Perhaps the potentially diverse voices already exist within literature written in English?

“I don’t think it quite makes sense to speak of a ‘policy’ when it comes to translating fiction. To put it crudely, Dutch publishers translate American fiction because they love it and it sells. Why do they love it? Why does it sell? In the first place, Dutch editors and critics have grown up surrounded by American cultural products, so they feel competent to review our books. Indeed, many of them learned English in school ‏(because English remains more useful, in international commerce, than Dutch‏). Furthermore, the Dutch are serious readers, but they are a relatively small country, so they want more new serious fiction than they can produce themselves. Finally − to return to your previous question − Dutch readers may feel, rightly or wrongly, that there is something more ‘universal’ about American fiction, that to read about Americans is in some sense to read about the larger world. They may even feel that American fiction is, by and large, a bigger, more competitive game than Dutch fiction.

One hundred-and-fifty years ago, American readers felt this way about the English and the French. ‏(And I, for one, would still rather read Trollope, Dickens, Eliot, or Stendhal than Nathaniel Hawthorne, because Hawthorne is still − necessarily − a local, ‘national’ writer, while Trollope and Stendhal are men of the world.‏)

“Now flip the equation. American publishers have not grown up surrounded by Dutch cinema. They never learned Dutch in school. American critics feel shy when it comes to writing about a literature they hardly know. And let’s face it, the problems that might animate an ambitious new Dutch novel − tensions between Christians and Muslims, say − may not be of burning interest to even a serious reader in San Francisco. To me, this is not a sign that Americans are especially incurious or intellectually lazy, only that we and the Dutch are in the grip of the same metaphor: America as the cosmopolis.”

And despite the fact that in the cosmopolis not many books are being translated, the Chilean-Mexican author Roberto Bolano deserves special mention: In the last 40 years The Paris Review did not publish any serialized novel, therefore the recent publication of Bolano’s “The Third Reich” sets a precedent and symbolizes his importance. You also, as an editor at F.S.G., published his great novels ‏(“The Savage Detectives” and “2666”‏). Let’s talk about Bolano.

There are so many doors through which one can enter Bolano’s literary world: The frantic, joyful force of the narrator who ‘deposits’ the story in the hands of so many characters from all over the world immediately catches the eye. But I want us to talk about one aspect of ‘The Savage Detectives’ that also appears in ‘2666.’ This brilliant novel presents the darkened, anonymous landscape of Mexican poetry. It obsessively probes the life of the excluded and the forgotten, and in contradiction presents the familiar, glowing, yet extremely corrupting world of the famous poets. However Bolano himself is suspicious of everyone. He ridicules everyone: the excluded and the famous. In his world everyone is striving for power and influence.

The mortal enemies of yesterday are the allies of today, and any belief to which one was devoted passionately seems obscure and even meaningless in retrospect. There is a sense of a comic-tragic system, in which no one is really dedicated to his beliefs. No one even remembers his beliefs, and everyone just plays their role faithfully. Upon reading the book I thought about a neo-Marxist theoretician like Georg Lukacs, who would probably claim that Bolano leads one to a dead end. If nobody is really devoted to any literary ideology and it’s all a grand game of disguises, and if the world always stays the same, we are basically encountering a world in a state of stagnation. What do you love about Bolano?

“You write so well about Bolano! I think we love some of the same things about him, but I might describe his cynicism − his constant jokes about ‘literary immortality’: All that tsuris about who gets into which anthology, etc. − in religious terms, as a crisis of faith. Or rather, what comes after a crisis of faith. Bolano does not believe in literary immortality. He doesn’t believe in literature, period. And yet he has nothing with which to replace it, and of course he and the reader are in the same boat ‏(or else why would you wade into a 600-page novel about doomed young Mexican poets?‏). This makes his heroes absurd. Another thing I would say about Bolano − a formal innovation, you might say − is the way his narrators tell a story.

“I’ve been most powerfully reminded of Bolano in a Quaker meeting for worship, when one of the meeting stands to give ‘witness’ to the silent congregation, or in a grand jury hearing, when a witness is being questioned. In both cases you have a quiet, captive audience of strangers − and someone telling a story he does not quite understand, under a sort of compulsion. The story may be difficult to follow, it may be boring, it may be ridiculous, it may be hard to believe, it may not add up, it may be ‘pointless,’ but there is sincerity in it and a kind of impersonal confessional impulse, if that makes sense. I am thinking of a story like ‘Laura.’ This side of Bolano seems to me very uncynical, and very far from the American story writers I grew up with, for whom the first trick was to establish a kind of intimacy or ‘talkiness’ between the narrator and the reader.”

There are two literary institutions that have been eroded during the last decades and perhaps we can discuss them together ‏(it’s very possible they went through similar processes‏). The first is the role of the editor: There is a sense that editors no longer spend most of their time editing manuscripts − working closely with the author, debating passages, characters, the philosophy of the novel, etc. Rather, they spend most of their time choosing which books to publish. The other important institution is that of the weekly reviews in the newspaper − they are shorter, coincidental and less comprehensive. Being underpaid, the critics themselves are replaced too frequently. In an interview, you said one can no longer find book reviews in the newspapers.

“Again, I may have moved in the wrong circles to answer your question. As a book editor I spent a lot of time working with authors ‏(and often went months without signing up a book, sad to say‏). The same is true for most of the editors I know. I’m not sure how much that part of the job has changed, at least in literary publishing. What has changed is the editor’s power as a promoter − as a salesman. In America, in literary houses, there used to be a clear line of influence from editor to bookseller to reader. And, equally, from editor to critic to reader. The great publishing houses were, above all, great wholesalers.

“Now that the bookstore and the newspaper have disappeared from most people’s lives, the publishers have lost their power in the marketplace. The only solution is to speak ‏(and sell‏) directly to the readers themselves. This is not an ideal situation. On the other hand, it poses interesting challenges. At The Paris Review, for example, we sell nearly all subscriptions through our own website. And we draw people to our site by publishing a daily online magazine devoted to culture and art. The Paris Review Daily has more than 20,000 readers each week. Meanwhile we barely exist on Amazon ...”

I want to talk about the challenges that literature is facing due to the evolution of popular culture. We can talk about realism, the aspiration of the great realistic novel to portray and even analyze a society, its structure, its political and economical mechanisms, its different classes and their different ethoses. And then a TV series like “The Wire” emerges, that follows in the footsteps of the great realistic novel. “The Wire,” like these great realistic novelists − of which I think Balzac especially is a good example − portrays a society as a whole: From the life of the smallest drug dealer to that of the mayor of the city and between them, the businessmen, policemen, teachers, an entire society. Like Balzac, “The Wire” places special emphasis on the ability or inability of people to move from one class to the other. It tenaciously explores the possibility of social mobility within a society. Maybe the medium of TV today can offer better tools for capturing what’s “real” and can provide a more comprehensive sensory experience than literature is capable of. Quite simply, perhaps it is far better equipped to achieve the goals of realism?

“As much as I loved ‘The Wire’ − partly for being so ‘novelistic’ in that old-fashioned way you describe − I don’t see it in competition with actual novels, any more than ‘The Sound and the Fury’ is in competition with ‘Macbeth.’ Because dramatic performance depends ‏(traditionally, at least‏) on written scripts, I think we tend to overestimate the connection between watching a performance and reading words. Really, the two things are nothing alike. Novelists can learn from the movies: Movies can start as books, but dialogue written in a novel, for example, tends not to work on screen. And vice versa. The novels of Ann Beattie often makes me laugh out loud, as does Will Ferrell. In Beattie’s case, this usually has something to do with the juxtaposition of two words, and with the speed at which one’s eyes and brain move over the page. In the case of Will Ferrell, it’s the blankness of his stare. It’s those tiny eyes. I don’t see either person putting the other one out of a job.”

Now let’s move from literature to the “industry.” The literary industry in general is in an interesting position; there has been some running around in circles and a slight sense of hysteria, which is generally rather amusing. Everyone is trying to understand in which direction the technological developments are leading the industry, and it seems as though no one really knows the answer. One sentence I hear constantly is: “Well, people will always want to read books.” Assuming this is true, where do you think this whole business is headed? What will the literary industry look like in 15 years?

“Will people always read books? I can tell you that my own reading habits have changed over the last 15 years, thanks mainly to email and now my smartphone. ‏(Those are my drugs, not the Web. The Web just makes me feel guilty for not wanting to surf. Faced with all that information I’ve developed, not an attention – but a ‘curiosity’ deficit.‏) There are fewer and fewer places where we are unreachable − which on a bad day can make you feel abandoned and lonely ‏(when the phone doesn’t buzz‏) or harried ‏(when it does‏) and in either case interferes with your relation to books. It turns them into a ‘distraction’ from more pressing, personal or work matters. I find myself putting my book down more often − and reading is my job! It’s true, I can’t imagine getting through a week without a book − to go to sleep without reading a book ‏(and it has to be a book‏) leaves me feeling unsettled and depressed. But the world is full of things I never imagined.

“Fifteen years ago who’d have thought a grown-up could have breakfast without the newspaper? I do know that if we stop reading books, it will be our choice. So if we care about the continuation of ‘book culture,’ I think it’s worth paying attention to the way we ‘actually’ participate in this culture. Part of what we’re trying to do, in our frivolous way, at The Paris Review Daily is to report on literary culture as it actually, currently exists in the messy private life of the semi-wired ‘common reader.’ To me this online reportage, such as it is, underwrites the high art − and the extremely traditional demands − of the Review itself.”

I have a question to ask you as a writer to an editor that has always fascinated me: When an author writes a novel, he dives every day into the world he created. Even when he isn’t typing on the computer, he is still writing. When he drives his car and thinks about a certain maneuver performed by his character, when he watches a movie and suddenly understands the ethics of another character. While in the process of writing you can’t stop contemplating the work, and enlightenment can strike at any given time. The editor’s position is more complicated. He moves between “worlds,” penetrates those worlds but in a different way, maybe with less totality. The editor has probably developed a mechanism which allows him to leave a certain world, maybe one that he was deeply involved in, and immediately commit himself to another. I find it especially intriguing that sometimes the editor experiences a couple of “worlds” at the same time. Can you tell me something about this experience?

“There is no comparison between the work of a novelist − which usually takes years of doubt, searching, and waiting − and the work of an editor, which typically takes a few weeks or months, and which is − crucially − ‘given.’ That said, certain books do invade your dreams. I found myself thinking about the events of ‘Freedom’ as if they had happened to friends of mine. I remember finishing “The Savage Detectives” with an immense feeling of sadness, because it had become so much more vivid than the life around me. In the most recent issue of The Paris Review, we published a story by the young writer Amie Barrodale that preoccupied me for weeks. This is not to say that I love these works better than others, only that they got under my skin, often for reasons I couldn’t understand − to be blunt, they were things I found myself discussing with my shrink.”

Nir Baram was born in Jerusalem in 1977 and now lives in Tel Aviv. His third novel, “The Remaker of Dreams,” was shortlisted for the Sapir Prize. In 2010 Baram published his fourth novel, “Good People,” which takes place during World War II. “Good People” was also shortlisted for the Sapir Prize and will be published around the world in 2012. Baram is currently the editor of the classics series published by Am Oved, which is designed to include both Hebrew and translated literary works.