The first issue of The Paris Review under its new editor, Lorin Stein, hit newsstands recently, and it's a thing of sober beauty. The issue doesn't contain many surprises — there's fiction from Sam Lipsyte, poetry from Frederick Seidel and work from other usual, if talented, suspects. But it's a solid and auspicious start, worth having tucked under your arm for that 45-minute wait outside Eataly.
Mr. Stein's most radical act since taking over from Philip Gourevitch is visible only on the 57-year-old magazine's crisply redesigned Web site, theparisreview.org. He's made the entire run of The Paris Review's storied interview series, previously almost impossible to find in electronic form, available there, free for the browsing. If there's a better place to lose yourself online right now, I don't know what it is.
The interviews in The Paris Review — the magazine founded in 1953 by a group of writers and editors that included George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen — are about as canonical, in our literary universe, as spoken words can be. They long ago set the standard, for better and occasionally worse, for what well-brewed conversation should sound like on the page.
These interviews — every issue has one, and sometimes two — are nearly always undertaken in person, by a Paris Review staffer or by a freelance writer. The best of them have always gone a bit off the rails. They're so tangled, funny and unexpectedly revealing that they could be mounted on Broadway, in the style of "Frost/Nixon." If you don't believe me, spend some time with the rambling 1968 interview with a pill-popping Jack Kerouac, who by the end is so whacked-out that he asks his interlocutor, "Why is there a little white beard in your mortality belly?"
Or find the 2009 interview with the memoirist and poet Mary Karr, who seems never to have had a dull thought or drama-free moment in her life. "You've got to understand," she says, "the degree to which I'm feral." You believe her. You would not wish to be on Mary Karr's enemies list.
Sometimes the talk is too well brewed. The worst Paris Review interviews are so earnest and drab — the magazine does not do "gotcha" questions — that they're dead on arrival, perhaps for good reason. Process is, by and large, boring. As the novelist Jonathan Lethem put it in his 2003 interview (which is excellent), "You're interrogating a fish on the nature of water."
Many writers despise being interviewed; in his collection "Picked-Up Pieces," John Updike called interviews "a form to be loathed, a half-form like maggots." They worry that their loose talk will be, to some readers, a cheap substitute for deep engagement with their real work. Yet over the decades few major writers have turned down The Paris Review. Part of the appeal of these exchanges, for writers, is that they're allowed to tweak the text later, adjusting and readjusting the masks they want to present to readers.
The first issue of The Paris Review contained an interview with E. M. Forster. The new issue contains two, with Norman Rush, the winner of the 1991 National Book Award for the novel "Mating," and the French controversialist Michel Houellebecq. In between there have been more than 300 others, from Ernest Hemingway (as indignant as a gored bull) to Jorge Luis Borges (funny and quizzical) and Hunter S. Thompson (surely on a variety of pharmaceuticals). Nearly all are worth a look-in.
I recently spent a day trolling, essentially at random, through the magazine's newly opened interview archives. (It has published many piecemeal collections over the years, most of them now out of print.) It felt like a day well spent. Among the first emotions you feel, upon entering, is one of mild regret. If only the magazine had been around to sit down with Melville, or Chaucer, or Hardy.
As the critic Wilfrid Sheed once put it, "I would trade half of 'Childe Harold' for such an interview with Byron and all of 'Adam Bede' for the same with George Eliot." I suspect the Review's editors are kicking themselves for not getting around to David Foster Wallace, who died in 2008.
The Paris Review interviews are famous, or infamous, for prying into how writers physically get their words onto the page. Things like No. 2 pencils are turned into fetishistic totems. Hemingway, we learn, wrote standing up; Capote, lying down; Raymond Carver often composed in his car.
Thompson, interviewed in 2000, decades after "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," makes delicious mockery of this sort of inquiry. He is asked: "Are there any mnemonic devices that get you going once a deadline is upon you — sharpening pencils, music that you put on, a special place to sit?" He leans back and replies, "Bestiality films."
Inside the Review archive, you find yourself poked awake by the moments that veer from the script. There are the casual put-downs. Evelyn Waugh: "I find Faulkner intolerably bad." Rebecca West on Somerset Maugham: "He couldn't write for toffee, bless his heart." Philip Larkin on Jorge Luis Borges: "Who is Jorge Luis Borges?"
There are the moments of odd sexual revelation. William T. Vollmann declares: "I kept thinking when I first began writing that my female characters were very weak and unconvincing. What is the best way to really improve that? I thought, Well, the best way is to have relationships with a lot of different women. What's the best way to do that? It's to pick up whores."
And Elizabeth Hardwick delivers this insight about Robert Lowell: "He liked women writers, and I don't think he ever had a true interest in a woman who wasn't a writer — an odd turn-on indeed and one I've noticed not greatly shared." Dorothy Parker explains the problem with being known as a humorist: "It got so bad that they began to laugh before I opened my mouth." Martin Amis worries about his fans. At book signings, he says, "My queue is always full of, you know, wild-eyed sleazebags and people who stare at me very intently, as if I have some particular message for them."
The let-downs are just as telling. Ian McEwan, in his interview, isn't as dark or thorny as his fiction. Lorrie Moore is not as funny as hers.
The interviews with Hemingway and V. S. Naipaul are the most plainly contentious. "The fact that I am interrupting serious work to answer these questions," Hemingway says, "proves that I am so stupid that I should be penalized severely." But answer he did, perhaps realizing that readers care about the stray, telling details of a writer's life in much the same way that an author cares about those details in the characters he or she puts to paper.
In the era of "Oprah" and "Charlie Rose" and YouTube and endlessly looping book tours, the glory days of The Paris Review interviews are probably in the rear-view mirror. We can get our fill of writerly talk — some of it quite good, much of it not — elsewhere. The abundance of book chat is a situation Larkin would have deplored. About the notion of a writer explaining how he writes, he declared in 1982: "It's like going around explaining how you sleep with your wife." Then again, Larkin never married.
There is still something rather awesome about the gathering of yakking, coruscating ghosts — preening, complaining, dueling — that the talented Mr. Stein has released into the Internet's ether. The Paris Review's Web site feels, for now, like the best party in town.
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