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Some hard looks at Plimpton

It’s been two and a half years since journalist and author Philip Gourevitch took over as editor of  The Paris Review, and now The New York Observer‘s Doree Shafrir sits down with Gourevitch in the Review‘s new Tribeca offices. In the two and a half years that Gourevitch has been on board, the literary journal has introduced more non-fiction and a greater sense of timeliness, while cutting back on its poetry output.

“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.

George Plimpton, of course, founded The Paris Review and ran it until his death in 2003. Plimpton protege Brigid Hughes then took over for a year before the magazine’s board droppped her in favour of Gourevitch. In the Observer piece, Gourevitch offers up some other surprisingly candid assessments of the Plimpton-era Paris Review.

“The first issues were very thin and on light paper, and as it went along it got thicker, and that stabilized. In the last five years it got really fat. It was like 400 pages. It was actually physically hard to open! If you opened it up it would break the spine and snap shut like it didn’t want you to read it, and it kind of had this archaic feel which made it seem as though it wasn’t so classy anymore. So it was a sense that it felt uninviting, and it got thick in the way that made me think—can all this stuff really be that good?”


“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.”

And since Plimpton is already rolling in his grave, anyway…. Over at Slate, Timothy Noah takes the occasion of Philip Roth’s new novel, Exit Ghost – which includes a long encomium to Plimpton – to argue that the revered journalist wasn’t all that.

Plimpton, with his antique upper-class accent and his penchant for name-dropping, might have made an ideal goyische target for Roth [as an object of fictional satire] had he been the pompous sort, which apparently he wasn’t. But neither was Plimpton anybody’s beau ideal of a writer of nonfiction. If one were to compile a list of the 20th century’s finest journalists, it’s doubtful he’d make the top 50.