Philip Gourevitch, the editor of The Paris Review, can be blunt about the magazine bequeathed to him in March 2005, two years after the death of longtime editor and co-founder George Plimpton.
“I thought the magazine was physically unattractive,” he told The Observer on a recent rainy afternoon. He was behind his glass-topped desk, in a large, private office in the back of the magazine’s newish floor-through space in a Tribeca loft building, approximately four miles from the old home of the magazine in the bottom of Plimpton’s townhouse on East 64th Street. There, a bicycle hung from the rafters. Here—except for the stuffed birds hanging from the ceiling and the pool table—it’s all business, albeit in the downtown creative idiom: high ceilings, light wood floors, shiny glass. In Mr. Gourevitch’s office, neat rows of back issues of his own magazine, as well as those of magazines such as Granta and the now-defunct Grand Street, lined the walls.
The 45-year-old Mr. Gourevitch is, like the young Plimpton, personally attractive and preternaturally successful. He also writes for The New Yorker, and his book about Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, was well received. Another book, A Cold Case, is being made into a movie starring Tom Hanks with a screenplay by John Sayles and Eric Roth. His hair is a curly black mop, his dark eyes piercing; he moves his hands when he talks. When Mr. Gourevitch took over the highbrow literary magazine, he was charged with the formidable—some might say unenviable—task of revitalizing a magazine that had for decades been the expression in print of George Plimpton, arguably New York’s most fashionable and well-loved arbiter of literary taste.
He did not immediately follow Plimpton in the role. First there was Brigid Hughes, then 32 years old, who had spent her entire professional life at the magazine under Plimpton; her last job before taking over was managing editor. But The Review’s dissatisfied board of directors threw her out in early 2005, after a tenure of just one year.
At the time, at least part of the New York literary world was not so happy to see the cord cut connecting the magazine’s future to its Plimptonian past. In an article about Ms. Hughes’ ouster, Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times that “her failing appears to be that she was insufficiently Plimptonian and excessively Plimptonian at the same time.” (She has since started her own literary magazine, A Public Space, taking a few loyalists with her.)
Mr. Gourevitch is neither. But when he talks about the magazine, and the major changes he has brought to it in two and a half years on the job, the specter of Plimpton is always just threatening to peek in from the margins.
One of the first tasks was a major redesign, which, Mr. Gourevitch said, was not done simply to establish his mastery of the magazine.
“It wasn’t simply to say, ‘I’m here,’” he said, before giving a history of the physical form of the magazine.
“The first issues were very thin and on light paper, and as it went along it got thicker, and that stabilized. In the last five years it got really fat. It was like 400 pages. It was actually physically hard to open! If you opened it up it would break the spine and snap shut like it didn’t want you to read it, and it kind of had this archaic feel which made it seem as though it wasn’t so classy anymore. So it was a sense that it felt uninviting, and it got thick in the way that made me think—can all this stuff really be that good?”
Mr. Gourevitch’s eighth issue was published last week, and Picador will release a new volume of the magazine’s famous interviews with writers this week. Both speak to Mr. Gourevitch’s ambition for the magazine and his position on its 54-year history.
This year The Paris Review won a National Magazine Award, its first ever, for photojournalism—which is something the magazine didn’t even do before Mr. Gourevitch came on board—for a portfolio of photographs taken in Kibera, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, “one of the world’s biggest slums,” as the accompanying text reads.
The new issue includes a portfolio of photographs of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord, and an interview with the Israeli novelist David Grossman.
Figures supplied by the magazine seem to show a more than 70 percent increase in its paid circulation and doubled newsstand sales since Mr. Gourevitch took over. It’s still not an industry powerhouse, with distribution a relatively small 14,000 copies per issue.
And as the memory of Plimpton fades, the onus will increasingly be on Mr. Gourevitch to convince readers (and writers) that this relatively small endeavor is more than just an extension of Plimpton’s personality—that without his promotional power it can be not only solvent, but relevant; and not just what Farrar, Straus & Giroux editor Jonathan Galassi, who was the magazine’s poetry editor from 1978 to 1988, told The Observer he thought of as “the American-in-Paris Review. Now, said Mr. Galassi, “it’s more the foreign correspondent than the American in Paris.”
But some, if not most, of the magazine’s appeal never had anything to do with what was actually in the magazine; it was about the idea of the magazine, the mystique associated with it as a place where young lovers of literature, most of whom were the well-groomed and well-mannered graduates of the nation’s elite colleges, could apprentice for a year, or more, after college, and attend some glamorous parties in exchange for reading through the slush pile.
(The parties now held at the magazine’s office are still the best opportunity for Manhattan’s most promising editorial assistants to brush up against the likes of Salman Rushdie, who was at last week’s soiree for the Fall issue.)
Plimpton was in large part the perpetuator of this mystique—he was, after all, the man who was a professional amateur (or, more pejoratively, a dilettante), who seems to have been engaging and wildly intellectually curious and more than a little mischievous, and he also happened to have loads of rich friends whom he was able to convince to support his little but influential magazine. For most of his tenure, the magazine was run as a for-profit enterprise, though most of the time there wasn’t much profit to speak of. Plimpton himself never took a salary, and some years it was only due to his largesse that the magazine stayed alive.
At the same time, he cultivated a motley crew of interns and “editorial assistants” who were welcome to work for free at his townhouse, many of whom (Mr. Gourevitch’s wife, the New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar, among them) went on to illustrious publishing careers of their own. But it was never the kind of place that made much of an effort to hire writers or editors who were not of a social milieu that would have been unfamiliar to Plimpton. One of the current board members, Antonio Weiss, who is a managing director in Paris at the investment bank Lazard, is Plimpton’s former assistant and a former editor at the magazine, and is married to the magazine’s Paris editor, Susannah Hunnewell. He recalled that he was an editor of the literary magazine as an undergraduate at Yale, “which was sort of a link into The Paris Review,” he told The Observer by phone. “I got to know George just by being around.”
Does that New York really still exist? In some ways, that’s the question that faces Mr. Gourevitch’s Paris Review. He probably wouldn’t put it that way, but he does think that a magazine has to be relevant, has to be of its time.
“Even the ones that are really great, they belong to a moment, a certain kind of getting together of energy and taste,” he said. “And often the editors themselves are new writers, and everyone either fails miserably or succeeds spectacularly, and the energy is not in that place anymore and another group starts up another magazine.”
Mr. Gourevitch’s Paris Review is another magazine. Though he never, exactly, criticizes his predecessor, and certainly not by name, Mr. Gourevitch seems to regard Plimpton’s tenure as one of some rather unrealized potential. “Yes, it was a little bit madcap and it was kind of funny,” he said. “But it’s important to me that this is not a break from the past. It is an attempt to take something and give it a rethink that it hadn’t really been given. It was sort of moving on momentum for a long time. And some bits of it were great—the interviews—but some were clearly better edited than others.”
Among Mr. Gourevitch’s signature early moves was to fire the magazine’s longtime poetry editor, Richard Howard, in favor of the poets Charles Simic, who is also a professor at the University of New Hampshire, and Meghan O’Rourke, who is also the literary editor of Slate.
Legend has it that Mr. Howard was known for encouraging his Columbia M.F.A. students to submit poems to the magazine.
“I thought the magazine just had way too many things in it,” said Mr. Gourevitch. “It had way too many poets—not poems, but poets. Are you telling me, as an editor, that there are 30 poets I must not miss for this quarter? Is there not something else out there, considering that this magazine is not the sole outlet for poetry? I don’t believe it. So then, I think you are actually throwing way too much stuff at me waiting to see if it will stick, and I would much rather be given a much more contained choice.” Today, the magazine has cut its poet quotient by about two-thirds, publishing around 10 per issue. Mr. Gourevitch’s most recent hire is Matt Weiland, who swapped his deputy editor position at Granta for the same title at The Paris Review.
And then there are less tangible changes. According to Mr. Gourevitch, the magazine had early on proceeded from a certain antiacademic vocation. Here’s how Mr. Gourevitch paraphrased George Plimpton’s early mission for the magazine, from the manifesto that appeared with the first issue of The Paris Review:
“It’s not really philistines that are going to kill us, it’s learned chatter that is going to kill us, and that is going to kill literature, and what this magazine should be is for the good writers, not people who are table-thumpers,” he said. (A Time magazine article from 1958 called it “a magazine dedicated to the proposition that authors are more interesting than critics.”)
There was something “secular,” Mr. Gourevitch said, about The Paris Review.
“You could pick up many issues without knowing what year they were from,” he said. “I mean, you could guess by certain kinds of aesthetic things—probably by the illustrations more than anything, and some texture of the prose—but you wouldn’t know that there was a civil rights movement or a Vietnam War or a decolonization of the world.”
The time, it would seem, is over for The Paris Review’s secular proclivities. But Mr. Gourevitch, whose own new book, out this spring, is about Abu Ghraib, with an accompanying documentary by the filmmaker Errol Morris, repulses the notion that his aim is simply to make the magazine more political.
“I don’t want pieces where you feel as though they’re trying to tell you how to think, or that there is a conclusion, so much as that there’s a kind of scrutiny, and that they are using writing as a way of reflecting on the world and seeing the world,” he said. “I feel like a lot of stuff we have now doesn’t do that, and that there’s actually a very open space for that. We are living in very twisted times, and people are, I think, unhappy about the way that they are getting told about it the whole time.”
And then some things stay the same. The Paris Review still offers possibly the most elite slush-pile-reading job in town.
“We want to see everything,” he said. “There is a notion out there, I think, that just getting people to read you is the hardest part. But really, writers want to find magazines and magazines want to find writers. I think it’s worth having four people reading 20,000 pieces a year, just so we can publish one of them. That’s what we’re here for.”
Mr. Gourevitch is continuing Plimpton’s tradition of publishing unknown writers alongside very famous ones; the new issue has short stories by Stephen King and Danielle Evans. (She’s never been published in a national magazine.)
And then there is the Paris Review Foundation, established to Plimpton’s own distaste to try to tap into his skill at cultivating long-term financial relationships with the city’s cultural power elite to stabilize the magazine’s resources.
The major fund-raising for the year takes place at the annual Revel, a springtime gala at which the magazine’s Plimpton prize (a $10,000 award for emerging writers, which this year went to the 28-year-old Benjamin Percy) and its Hadada prize (for established writers; this year’s went to Norman Mailer) are awarded, organized by the magazine’s development director, a new position under Mr. Gourevitch.
Tickets for the Revel, which this year was held at the Puck Building, start at $500; tables are $10,000 to $50,000; and this year’s event grossed $750,000—more than half of the magazine’s operating budget for the year.
Like any good philanthropic board, The Paris Review’s is comprised of the wealthy and/or well-connected.
The current members include New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, who was one of the first nonfounders to join the magazine; Lawrence Guffey, who works in London for the Blackstone Group, the private equity firm founded by Steven Schwarzman; the private investor Scott Asen, whose college buddies at Harvard include former Massachusetts Governor William Weld; the artist and writer Bokara Legendre, the daughter of the late socialite Gertrude Legendre, whose family plantation, in South Carolina, has been the site of magazine retreats; and Allure contributing editor Jeanne McCulloch, who has written about her privileged childhood growing up on the Upper East Side for that magazine. The magazine’s publisher, Drue Heinz, was the second wife of the late Jack Heinz, who ran his family’s company from Pittsburgh and was the father of the late Senator John Heinz III.
Board member Thomas Guinzburg, one of the magazine’s original founders and the former president of the Viking Press and Viking Penguin, recently stepped down, and the screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (who is married to ubiquitous socialite Tinsley Mortimer’s sister-in-law Minnie Mortimer) and the author Clara Bingham will join the board as its newest members.
“We try to stay away from the editorial approach because we don’t think we should be meddling,” said board member James Goodale, a Debevoise & Plimpton lawyer who was a former counsel to The New York Times (and this newspaper). Mr. Goodale, who was Plimpton’s longtime lawyer, was also instrumental in establishing the Foundation. “George didn’t like the idea at all. He didn’t like it because in his view of history, there had never been a literary magazine that survived,” Mr. Goodale said.
The establishment of the Foundation presupposes the idea that on its own—or as a for-profit enterprise—a magazine like The Paris Review would not survive. “Literature is an art form that has gotten precious little philanthropic support,” said Mr. Asen, the board member. “There simply haven’t been the vehicles.”
And then, of course, Plimpton did not get to choose his successor.
“I don’t plan on dying in this job. George did it for 50 years, but he gave birth to it. I think that there is a lot that we could do with it, and it’s important to me that it’s read—the more people that read it the better.”