The Bicycle Thief: Philip Gourevitch’s Paris Review

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.

The Bicycle Thief: Philip Gourevitch’s Paris Review