Lorin Stein has revitalized The Paris Review for the 21st Century in a way the magazine's legendary founder George Plimpton would endorse: one night - and one cocktail - at a time
by Guy Cimbalo photography Poppy de Villeneuve
When I meet Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, he welcomes me into his Greenwich Village apartment with a nonchalant ease despite the fact that I'm matted with sweat from the August heat and mistook an Ambien for an Adderall earlier in the day. In short, I'm a mess and he's the very model of a very modern editor.
He immediately offers me alcohol. I immediately accept.
The earlier photo shoot is just finishing up, and, drink in hand, I join photographer and subject in the living room.
There's a pack of Marlboro Mediums on the table, an open edition of Apollinaire's Alcools (in the original French), a well-travelled French-English dictionary, and a Moleskine notebook with tidy though indecipherable scrawls throughout. The mise-en-scène has been set for the sake of the shoot, but this feels like walking into the Platonic ideal of a literary journal's editor in repose.
Stein... has made the magazine relevant, visible, and a key force in the ongoing battle to keep this city’s literary culture from receding in the rear-view mirror.
If I felt capable of it, I would compare Apollinaire's use of traditional poetic forms to treat radically modern subjects with Stein's successful revival of The Paris Review, a feat that has made the magazine relevant, visible, and a key force in the ongoing battle to keep this city’s literary culture from receding in the rear-view mirror.
It's a scene that's quickly thinning out. Gore Vidal died only a week before Stein and I meet. Eponymous restaurateur and literary gadfly Elaine Kaufman died two years ago. Norman Mailer five years. And George Plimpton, The Paris Review's legendary founder and editor — the man who more than anyone helped shape the New York literary scene from the '50s on — died in 2003.
Stein, 39, who began his career at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is only the fourth editor of the 59-year life of Paris Review, but it can be hard to appreciate just how odd that is. Even in an industry as glacial as literature, this qualifies as a succession of eras, not tenures. There's a new poet laureate almost every year. Jack Welch was at General Electric for a relatively puny twenty years. Outside of North Korea, very few organizations have enjoyed this degree of continual leadership.
There is no doubt that Stein has revitalized The Paris Review in ways that would have seemed unlikely, if not impossible, a decade ago. While still the standard bearer for the literary establishment, under Stein's stewardship the journal is publishing exciting talent like Matt Sumell, Amie Barrodale, and April Ayers Lawson. He's brought a sense of immediacy to an otherwise perfect-bound and precisely-manicured heritage publication. The Paris Review has a Tumblr, nearly a quarter-million Twitter followers, and this week sees the debut of the quarterly's iPad app, supplementing the already rich offerings of TheParisReview.org.
But it's not like that.
Which is to say that here is a man of real learning, serious literary bona fides, and the kind of meteoric career arc for anyone to envy, but he's not like that. He's charming without being charmant. He possesses a toned-down version of that strange, ineluctable and unexpected likeability that allowed Plimpton to serve as pitchman for Intellivision and Pop Secret, play goalie for the Boston Bruins and quarterback for the Detroit Lions, all without betraying his razor-sharp intelligence and rarefied sensibilities. In other words, Stein may not have his predecessor’s flair for the theatrical, and almost certainly lacks the masochistic impulse to be pounded on by elite athletes twice his size, but he is a nice, funny, unassuming dude, even if he is wearing seersucker pants that appear to be a size 24 waist.
After a few glasses of rye and water, we're off to Café Loup — one of those old-school New York establishments that has somehow escaped becoming established. This being New York in August, the restaurant is relatively empty.
We're there to meet the writer Elif Batuman, in town from Turkey. It seems we've kept her waiting for some time; she has been made the unwilling object of affection by some lecherous man at the bar. Batuman, if you didn't know, is author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, as well as writing several excellent pieces for The New Yorker in recent months.
Sitting down, we discuss literary fandom, and the Guardian Literary Review's “Bad Sex Awards.” The waitress confesses she's very drunk. She takes our order two, possibly three, times. Batuman does not seem to appreciate my joke about "talking Turkey." Batuman observes that every one of her author photographs looks as if she's just seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. It's beginning to feel like a Plimptonian fantasy of a literati dinner do.
Stein, 39, is only the fourth editor in the 59-year life of Paris Review, but it can be hard to appreciate just how odd that is.
After a substantial meal, Stein insists that we order the rice pudding. Considering that he occupies a Bowie-in-Berlin weight class, I find this enormously enviable.
And then we're off to a party hosted by one of Stein's former colleagues. It's unclear why there's a party happening on a mid-August Saturday in New York City, but then to me it’s unclear why anyone would ever decide to invite strangers to her apartment in the first place. The scene is neither literary salon nor society soiree. It's just a fun drunken party with kids clutching plastic cups filled with white wine and smokers scrummed by a window.
I give Stein some free reign to navigate the crowd without my tugging at his French cuffs and it's a like a scene out of Born Free. I'm watching him in his natural habitat and it's clear this is where he belongs. He knows everyone, sure, but everyone is happy to see him. It's a thing of beauty.
Batuman and I discover that we were in college together. She's a year younger than I am. Predictably I find this troubling but somehow I don't begrudge her success. This is unusual. Admittedly, I'm drunk, but still, this night is far friendlier and far more fun than I expected.
Stein and I are sitting on a sofa, and I ask how he manages to stay well read—hell, how he manages to read anything at all — while maintaining a seeming Kardashian-level presence among the literary set. The specific answer is lost, I'm afraid, but the general sense was, "Don't believe everything you read."