Meet The Media Mensches, 2009

Lorin Stein
Senior Editor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Lorin Stein got rid of half his books during the holiday break. His East Village apartment, he said, had a tendency to overheat, and a lot of what he had on his shelves, especially the really ancient stuff left to him by family members, was in miserable shape. “I was reading Life on the Mississippi, one of my favorite books, but it was so depressing, because my whole bed was full of decayed bits of grandfather Stein’s Mark Twain,” the book publishing mensch of the year said on Sunday night. “It was like dandruff. It was just like the book exploded. You don’t have to watch them die.”

The next morning, Mr. Stein, age 35, would be back at his desk at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where he has been working happily for the past decade, beginning as then editor in chief Jonathan Galassi’s assistant and moving quickly up through the ranks. Even as more and more attention has been paid to book editors scrambling for the latest celebrity tell-all or headline-grabbing instabook, Mr. Stein has kept his feet planted at FSG, where he’s edited some of the most respected works of literary fiction to be published in the last few years. In 2007, he edited three National Book Award finalists, including the book that won, Dennis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. And though his 2008 was somewhat quieter in the awards department, he still had his fingerprints all over some of the most buzzed over titles of this year, among them James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Richard Price’s Lush Life and the English translation of Roberto Bolaño’s massive 2666.

That last, the second and final long novel from the late Chilean author, was the really big one for Mr. Stein this year. While working on it, he took Spanish lessons from a friend so that he could argue “half-intelligently,” he said, with the book’s translator and have “some idea what the issues were for her.”

Who said editors don’t edit anymore! Mr. Stein does, at least.

In a note to booksellers and critics printed in the advance reader’s copy of 2666, Mr. Stein explained its structure, told the author’s brief life story and offered a concise but sophisticated description of Bolaño’s style that would not be out of place in a dissertation. The ARC hit the streets early—New York’s professional culture workers had it something like five full months ahead of publication—but even so, when Mr. Stein and his assistant, Georgia Cool, started a Facebook group called “Waiting for 2666” in October, more than 300 people joined. And when they threw a release party in the East Village a few weeks later, so many came that a line stretched around the corner. Somehow, Mr. Stein took a massive, challenging work of experimental fiction and not only made it popular, but made it cool.

And although that night got a bit messy and crowded, it made Mr. Stein happy, because one thing that matters to him is knowing there are other people in the world who are moved by the same things that move him. A literary community, according to Mr. Stein, is crucial—not just for the sake of lonely readers but as a business model for publishing houses like FSG, which nowadays find themselves having to create a new market each time they issue a book. A readership that does not form and break apart each time but instead remains intact, Mr. Stein said, is essential to FSG’s survival.

“Nowadays, we live or die, at least a literary publisher, based on our ability to create and hold on to readers’ trust,” he said. “It’s our whole marketing strategy. Without a community of readers who feel like we all belong together, we’d have no reason to exist.”

In March, Mr. Stein wrote a letter to Harper’s in response to an essay in which Ursula Le Guin suggested that instead of seeking mass sales, publishers might think about focusing on their ‘own people,’ and catering to those who don’t need any prompting to pay attention to literature. “Without a critical mass of readers, you don’t have a reading culture,” Mr. Stein wrote, in what was the most scathing of several letters from publishing people that Harper’s printed that month. “That’s bad for journalism and for our political discourse, but for literature it’s fatal.”

Instead of assuring themselves of their invincibility and using it as an excuse to do their work as they always have, Mr. Stein said Monday afternoon from his office, modern editors and publishers must try aggressively to recruit readers if a thriving literary culture is what they seek.

“You have people who say, ‘Great books will always exist,’ and I find this completely specious, because it takes a shitload of readers to create the culture you need for a good book to be written,” Mr. Stein said. “I don’t have much faith that history gets it right, or that good things last and bad things don’t.”