THE Q&A: LORIN STEIN, EDITOR

Lorin SteinThis month editorial control of the Paris Review, a pre-eminent American literary magazine, changed hands from Philip Gourevitch to Lorin Stein, now a former senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (and an occasional contributor to this magazine). While at FSG, Stein made his name finding and refining such authors as Elif Batuman, Lydia Davis, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Denis Johnson, Sam Lipsyte, Richard Price and James Wood. He also worked on FSG's recent translations of fiction by Roberto Bolaño and personally translated from the French "The Mystery Guest" by Gregoire Bouillier.

Stein took a moment to talk to More Intelligent Life soon after signing his first-ever story for the Paris Review.

 More Intelligent Life: Before joining the Paris Review you were an editor for FSG. What exactly does an editor do? How collaborative of a process is publishing a book? For example, we spoke with Sam Lipsyte recently about a book you edited—"The Ask"—what was your role in creating this book? Was there much back and forth between you and Sam?
 
Lorin Stein: It depends entirely on the author and the book. In Sam's case I found very little editing to be done. There is always collaboration on the book jacket, the descriptive copy, and so on. For the galleys of Sam's book, I provided a publisher's letter, a sort of advertisement to booksellers and critics. The best sentences in there were written by Sam.
 
MIL: Many of the authors you've edited (Denis Johnson, Lydia Davis and especially Sam Lipsyte) are known for their remarkable sentence structure and word play. Did you find yourself reworking any of their sentences, or paragraphs?
 
LS: There was one page, near the beginning of "The Ask", where the paragraphs kept starting with the same kind of sentence. I pointed that out to Sam and he broke up the pattern. I think an editor has to love the sound of a writer's style. Sometimes that makes it easy to suggest thingssometimes you can almost write in the author's voice, if you have it in your head. Sometimes the opposite is true. With Sam, for me, the opposite is true.

MIL: What do you think of hands-on editors like Gordon Lish or (allegedly) Granta's editor Bill Buford?
 
LS: Again, it depends. I love Lish's edits of Carver. I think he understood better than Carver what was great about those stories. He gave them wit. But that is an unusual, and not very happy, example.
 
MIL: At the Paris Review will you be editing short stories, articles and poems? What's the difference between editing a short story and something like "The Ask"? And will you be curating the magazine? Looking for stories that fit together somehow, or just looking for the best of the best?
 
LS: On Easter I signed up my first short story for the Paris Review. It's by a young woman you've never heard of named April Ayers Lawson, and it's an astonishment. All sex and brains and feeling. And it's funny too. A minute before I read the story, I had no idea that such a thing existed. If I'd had a theme in mind for the issue, this story would almost certainly not have matched that theme. This is a long way of saying I'm looking for the best of the best, periodexcept I don't really believe in The Best. There are many excellent stories that don't interest me. I have started many novels by John Updike and never finished one, not even "Rabbit, Run". I don't enjoy Henry James the way I used to. I love Dickens more and more. The novel I enjoyed most last year was "Rebecca". Once you are dealing with a certain level of goodness or greatness, it's no use ranking one author above another. Different authors do different things.  (The same is true of magazines.)
 
MIL: What about the slush pile. Do many of your stories come from the slush pile? Do you ever/ will you ever dig personally into the slush pile?
 
LS: Ten years ago I found a book of proletarian erotica in a slush pile. I just asked the author to send me another copy so I could read those stories again.
 
MILWhat do you plan to do differently at the Paris Review? Are there any classic features (my favorite is the Art of Writing) that you'll do away with? Any plans to expand your website?
 
LS: We won't do away with anything. I expect there may be more art, more fictionbut the same number of interviews. (I love them, too.) The website is going to get much bigger. Starting this summer, we'll have new articles every day. Our focus will be the intersection of everyday life and the artswhich is to say, everyday life.
 
MIL: And what did you do before FSG? How did you refine your literary taste?
 
LS: Merle Haggard. Merle Haggard. Merle Haggard.
 
MIL: Who do you read for pleasure these days? Which authors, literary magazines, blogs or books would you recommend?

LS: I just reread "Swann's Way" for a class I'm teaching (I got to choose the subject of the class) [The class is called “How Proust can change your length".] It's the first time I've read Lydia Davis's translation. It's a revelation. I love Scott Moncrieff as much as the next guy, but this is something else. I don't see how any fair reader can compare the books and prefer his. Davis lets you see the workings of her text, she lets you feel the French through the English, her Proust isn't just "Proustian," he's funny sometimes, modern sometimes, decadent sometimes, archaic sometimes, economical, sharp, plainspoken and fancy whenever he needs to be. Saturday I overheard a customer asking the clerk at Saint Marks Books which translation he should buy and I couldn't help butting in. This week I've been extremely lucky: I started reading the new novel by Peter Nadas, in manuscript, and Richard Holmes's famous biography of Shelley, "The Pursuit". Apparently Dwight Macdonald, when he read it, told a friend that he felt like a bee drowning in honey. I'm drowning in honey.
 
MIL: And what's this I hear about a secret literary saloon in Astoria you used to run?
 
LS: I was merely a visitor. A fellow-traveller. Those Astorians are insane.
 
MIL: Does the Paris Review have any secrets? A secret Parisian lair, perhaps?
 
LS: That would be telling.

~ JAMES MCGIRK

 

Picture credit: Lorin Stein