Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Paris Review Review

Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I'd been promised had liberal credentials.  He talked in his open-necked shirt about the new software he was developing that could help organizations identify the employees most likely to rob and betray them in the future.  We were meant to be discussing a literary magazine he was thinking of starting up: unfortunately, I had to leave before we arrived at the subject.  He insisted on paying for a taxi to the airport, which was useful since I was late and had a heavy suitcase.  --Outline, by Rachel Cusk

I wasn't going to write a review of The Paris Review on this hallowed blog, but after reading some comments made by the editor about The Goldfinch, I felt compelled to address the magazine.  Specifically, Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, stated, "A book like The Goldfinch doesn't undo cliches--it deals in them . . . . It coats everything in a cozy patina of 'literary' gentility' . . . . Nowadays, even The New York Times Book Review is afraid to say when a popular book is crap."

I felt compelled to write this review because, with a few notable exceptions, The Paris Review has become a bastion of pretentious "literary" work that is crap.  A perfect example is Cusk's Outline, a serialized novel that, by coincidence, started at the same time as my subscription.

Outline is a novel about a writer who travels to Greece to teach a creative writing course.  First, I'll note that in general I hate stories about writers.  There is something unusual about writers that makes me distrustful of them as protagonists.  Writer-protagonists reflect the lack of diversity in their authors' life/creativity.  Outline is no different.    The novel is about the protagonist having conversations with various people opening up about their lives.  The common thread is all of them feel somehow robbed by the promise of life.  The opening lines are a potent symbol for this thread--the protagonist is promised something, but when the time comes, that thing does not materialize.

The writing, though ostensibly literary, is boring.  The characters' dissatisfaction with their lives rings hollow.  And this theme flows throughout stories in The Paris Review, as though the target audience of the magazine is people, just past their prime and coming to terms with the fact that they haven't lived up to their potential.

This is terribly boring.

The interviews are no better.  They focus on writers (who, for the most part, I haven't heard of; though, I won't hold the magazine liable for my own ignorance) discussing their craft.  Usually, these interviews are self-indulgent, boring, and patronizing towards other writers.

So, if Lorin Stein wants to fault The Goldfinch for being crap, I would fault The Paris Review for being pretentious and self-indulgent.

That said, I did renew my subscription of the magazine because, when the magazine shines, it shines.  On average, there's at least one good story in each issue (see infra I'll list the stories I enjoyed).  This makes the subscription worth it, in my opinion.  And the Review's interview of Chris Ware was really good, motivating me to buy at least one of his books.

In conclusion, this: The Paris Review is worth reading, but not so good it should feel entitled to talk shit about other writers, popular or not.

Randy Fiedler-approved short stories:

#207:
A Dark and Winding Road by Ottessa Moshfegh
Magic and Dread by Jenny Offill
Empathy by J.D. Daniels

#208:
To the Lake by Luke Mogelson
Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets by Zadie Smith
The Window Lion by Bill Cotter

#209
No Place for Good People by Ottessa Moshfegh
Big Week by Zadie Smith

#210
Locals by David Gates
The Art of Comics #2 with Chris Ware (an interview)

I won't address the poetry because I continue to have no taste for it (and, admittedly, one of the reasons for me to subscribe was to force myself to read and think about poetry).  Those of you who only want to read one or two stories, I'd recommend both of the Zadie Smith stories which stand out as (far and above the others) good.  And, again, the Chris Ware interview was really good.

3 comments:

Brent Waggoner said...

This is great! I thought about doing something like this for The New Yorker but I haven't had time to read it thoroughly enough since my subscription started.

This is really cool.

R.M. Fiedler said...

Actually, I'd really like to hear an opinion about New Yorker stories; I'm kind of toying with the idea of switching. For some reason, I have a massive prejudice against The New Yorker because I associate it with everything I don't like about New York City (i.e., thinking it's the best thing ever in every possible category). Nonetheless, I'm open to having my opinion swayed.

Brent Waggoner said...

Maybe I'll catch up on the last few and do a mini review. I like the pieces I've read but haven't really dug in.