Philip Gourevitch Tells Paris Review He’ll Skip Zimbabwe

When the board of directors of The Paris Review named New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch as the new editor of the literary quarterly last week, a flicker of surprise rippled among the writers, editors and George Plimpton–admirers who had been anxiously awaiting the board’s next move. The board’s first act-firing post-Plimpton editor Brigid Hughes, who’d tried to stay true to the founder’s vision-was met with anger and resignation notices within The Paris Review community. Many were skeptical that the board would get anything right, and the last few weeks have been a turbulent time for the board and staff alike.

But so far the appointment of Mr. Gourevitch seems to have softened a few critics, and some disgruntled staffers may be sticking around to see how the new regime shapes up. The board, which includes Robert Silvers, co-editor of The New York Review of Books, Terry McDonell, managing editor of Sports Illustrated, founding editors Thomas Guinzburg and Peter Matthiessen, and Sarah Plimpton, Plimpton’s wife, had the daunting task of trying to keep The Paris Review vital both financially and artistically in the wake of Plimpton’s death in 2003. At first glance, Mr. Gourevitch’s nonfiction credentials suggested an end to the old, tiny, fiction-and-poetry dominated Paris Review. It was easy to imagine that the new editor would try to turn it into another Granta-the British quarterly known for literary reportage and fiction that was edited from 1979 to 1995 by Mr. Gourevitch’s New Yorker patron Bill Buford.

“I’d never thought it would be fun to edit a huge magazine, it was never something that I aspired to,” Mr. Gourevitch explained, sitting on a white couch in his brownstone in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife Larissa MacFarquhar, a New Yorker staff writer and former Paris Review intern who heard about the editor search underway at The Review several weeks ago. “But the idea of having a small magazine, a writer’s magazine that was really about writing-I started to think about it, and I thought, I’d love to do this.”

Mr. Gourevitch, 43, most recently covered the 2004 Presidential campaign for The New Yorker, but is best known for his dispatches from Rwanda. Those pieces became the award-winning 1998 book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. (Mr. Gourevitch will no longer be on contract at The New Yorker, but will continue to contribute on a piece-by-piece basis.) He also holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University and spent his early career writing short stories. Mr. Gourevitch said that he was committed to publishing both fiction and poetry, and that, in fact, he has no intention of creating an American Granta, which he described as mostly nonfiction, with no poetry-and “we are not going to go there.” But he is contemplating a few changes.

“This is a magazine with a great tradition and a great legacy, and that legacy should be a boost, not a burden,” said Mr. Gourevitch. “It shouldn’t be something where you’re a curator, or where you’re stuck with it, where you feel, ‘Gee, we have to go and do what the last guy did.'”

Although his selection has been greeted with general approval, it also took many by surprise, as Mr. Gourevitch’s name hadn’t been mentioned among the handful of contenders. John Jeremiah Sullivan, a nonfiction writer the board had been seriously considering, withdrew his informal candidacy in early February. Mr. Buford, The New Yorker’s former fiction editor, was often mentioned as a possibility in press accounts, but one source familiar with the board’s activities said that Mr. Buford had never been seriously in the running. According to the source, that left Meghan O’Rourke, the culture editor at Slate, as the front-runner beside Mr. Gourevitch. (Ms. O’Rourke confirmed that she was under consideration.)

“[Philip Gourevitch] is a very brilliant reporter, and a good writer, and we thought that he had very impressive ideas,” said Mr. Silvers, the influential board member who led the search. “And so, he seemed the best candidate.”

Of course, not everyone is happy about the way things unfolded at The Paris Review in the months leading up to Mr. Gourevitch’s appointment, which suggests that the new editor might have some bruised egos to mend. The writer Rick Moody, a longtime contributor and financial backer of The Review, was so outraged over the circumstances of Ms. Hughes’ firing that he sent a “resignation” letter to the magazine several weeks ago, declaring that he would have nothing more to do with it after Ms. Hughes’ final issue. He rushed to complete a 50-page novella, called The Omega Force, for the April magazine, which will be Ms. Hughes’ last. But now, with the new editor revealed, Mr. Moody is reconsidering his resignation, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Moody did not respond to requests for comment.

There was further discord at The Review in recent months. According to a person familiar with the workings of the magazine, The Review’s managing editor, Fiona Maazel, tendered her resignation weeks ago and will have her last day shortly; also, the magazine’s treasurer, Marjorie Kalman, the longtime accountant to Plimpton himself, was told by the board in January that she would be let go. She has since worked out a compromise and is still there. Both Ms. Maazel and Ms. Kalman declined to return calls from The Observer.

In the last week, two former board members fired off angry (as yet unpublished) letters to the editor of The New York Times in response to their report about Mr. Gourevitch’s new job.

One was by Elizabeth Gaffney, a former Review board member and a champion of Ms. Hughes. In the letter, she accused the board of ageism and misogyny, suggesting that they had fired Ms. Hughes because she wasn’t high-profile enough for their tastes and that they had ignored her successes, including the magazine’s circulation increase and nomination for a National Magazine Award in Fiction.

In response to Ms. Gaffney’s accusations, Mr. Silvers said: “We all liked Brigid very much. We asked her to carry this paper forward at the time when George died, and she sustained its quality, and I admire her very much. But we also felt there was a time for some new directions, new conceptions of what the paper could be.”

Ms. Gaffney said that she was pleasantly surprised by the board’s selection of Mr. Gourevitch. “I like him very much personally,” she said. “He’s a better person than I expected them to pick. That doesn’t affect the underlying problem that this board disrupted something that was going on with a group of people who were protégés of George’s, who had done an impeccable job.”

The other letter writer, Deborah Pease, who was the magazine’s publisher from 1982 to 1992 and resigned from the board in protest of their activities last April, said she felt that the board was too focused on nonfiction and felt concerned about the future of poetry at the quarterly.

“The anguish I feel, as the magazine changes editors, is that George is really fading fast,” said Ms. Pease. “The board is on record as saying they want to make The Review more commercial and to publish more nonfiction. That is on record.”

Mr. Gourevitch said that he’d been mostly unaware of the well-publicized power struggle between Ms. Hughes and the board, and that his dealings with the board and magazine staff members had been cordial and straightforward.

“As they’ve said on the record by now, I have carte blanche,” said Mr. Gourevitch. “And that was crucial mostly because, well … for all the obvious reasons.”

In a 10-page memo to the board, Mr. Gourevitch outlined some of his ideas for revitalizing The Review, including featuring “portfolios” of several poems by a few poets in each issue, rather than a sprinkling of one-shots by many poets, as is the current approach; “internationalizing” the magazine with more fiction in translation; introducing “closely observed, readable nonfiction”; and adding mini-collections of documentary photography. He signed a multi-year contract with The Review, and anticipates a first issue by September.

He described a possible, ideal issue of the future: “Let’s say you have three or four or five short stories, two or three pieces of nonfiction, one or two interviews, a portfolio of photography, and three or four or five poetry portfolios.” Mr. Gourevitch added that the board had been receptive to his ideas.

“Of course, when I’m running around, covering a campaign or spending time in a foreign country, trying to figure out the ongoing politics of Zimbabwe or something like that, I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be home, reading a novel?'” said Mr. Gourevitch. “And when I’m sitting at home, reading manuscripts of fiction, I’m sure that I’ll think it’d be really nice to be riding around, in a bad car on a bad road, figuring out a country in trouble. But I think, ultimately, instead of feeling like, ‘Oh, I wish I was doing the other thing,’ there’s a way the two will contribute to each other.”