Tag: the paris review

On pornography as art/pornography as material for art

“I think pornography is a very rich medium, and I’ve studied it closely and learned quite a lot as a writer from it. Porn charges and narrows the reader’s attention in a swift, no-nonsense way, and it creates an anxious, intimate, and secretive atmosphere that I find very helpful as a way to erase the context around my characters and foreground their feelings, their psychological depths, their tastes. But I’m also always interested in subverting and counteracting porn’s effect, and the sex in my books is never merely hot. It challenges the objectification that is porn’s stock-in-trade by removing the central conceit that people having sex are in a state of supreme relaxation and self-confidence, wherein their worries and individuality are muted and beside the point. It uses hotness as a kind of decoy.”

—Dennis Cooper (x)


On the tastes of the editorial staff of The Paris Review


What trends in recent poetry and fiction do you find yourselves rejecting, not just as editors, but also as readers? In the recent Refinery29 story, Lorin [Stein] says, “I would describe my look as ‘realistic.’ Low on whimsy. Low on flash. It may be coincidence, but that describes my taste in fiction and poetry, too.” Is that true for the rest of you?


“I personally dislike speculative fiction, alternate realities, and so forth.” —Sadie [Stein, deputy editor]

“Suburban malaise.” —Justin [Alvarez, digital director]

“I kind of like suburban malaise, but I wish I’d said my look was Adlai Stevenson.” —Lorin

“Oh, I also hate the obvious specter of childhood sexual abuse hanging over domestic stories.” —Sadie

“I’ll pass.” —Clare [Fentress, assistant editor]

“Oh, and I hate magical-realist food fiction.” —Sadie

“Actually, I hate bored narrators. You can say that about me.” —Clare


Literary fiction publication: The Paris Review

What: The Paris Review, a quarterly literary journal
When: 1953 to present
Who: Masthead
How: Takes donations and has a store; U.S. subscriptions start at $49 a year
$: Duotrope says: “Professional payment (5 or more U.S. cents per word)”
Typefaces: Garamond Premier Pro, Georgia, Cambria, Times New Roman, Times, serif; elsewhere: Proxima Nova Condensed, Helvetica Neue, Helvetica, Roboto, Arial, sans-serif
Words per page: ?

Scores in Clifford Garstang’s Pushcart Prize rankings: 48 in 2013, 54 in 2014, 54 again in 2015, 45 in 2016

Looking at their website, it seems they don’t include author bios, let alone author photos, on the same page as a short story. They don’t even appear to link to a contributors page or anything. That’s wonderful. No wonder the site feels so quiet and bookish.

The “Art of Fiction” series is great. Just black text on a white background—the interviewee is allowed to set the tone.


Edited January 11th, 2018 to add: I see editor Lorin Stein has resigned after apparently harassing, assaulting, and otherwise being inappropriate with various women. Good for the Review for investigating, but shameful that it went uninvestigated so long. The interim editor is Nicole Rudick.

On how to respond to a volcano full of baby skulls

“[T]he bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, ‘There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller.’ Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living. You shouldn’t lie. If there aren’t any, so far as you can see, you should say so, like the Merdistes. But I don’t think the Merdistes are right—except for Céline himself, by accident, because Céline (as character, not as author) is comic; a villain so outrageous, miserable, and inept that we laugh at him and at all he so earnestly stands for. I think the world is not all merde. I think it’s possible to make walls around at least some of the smoking holes.”

—John Gardner (The Art of Fiction No. 73)

On readers missing the point

“Look, didn’t you find the book at all funny?”

—Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, during a rather stodgy interview

Novel: The Unconsoled

The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Published in 1995 by Faber and Faber, received the Cheltenham Prize (thanks Wikipedia!)

535 pages in the paperback, ? words

I adored this book, but I don’t know if I could ever reread it. It makes various parts of my body hurt from tension.

I’m just going to jot down a few standout points about how this bizarre thing holds together:

  • The dreamlike lapses of logic start early on, with a long, long monologue taking place on a short elevator ride, and they reappear pretty consistently throughout.
  • The changes in point of view also start early on. At first Ryder (the first-person narrator) “remembers” something about another character’s life, and the reader can infer that these are memories of when he lived with Boris and Sophie. But his knowledge becomes more and more interior to the other characters, and it isn’t confined to the past or to anything he might have the opportunity to observe.
  • I once heard someone say that the most characteristic feature of dreams is the credulity of the dreamer. Ryder never questions most of the illogic around him. When he does question it, his attitude is always frustration at incompetence and foolishness and misplaced authority. He never touches the fundamental unreality of his circumstances. In particular, he never questions how he knows something, which means he never comments on the point of view shifts at all.
  • Writer types have told me that a first-person past-tense narrator needs to have a reason for telling a story. In this book, I think we’re supposed to understand Ryder as basically out of control of the story: he doesn’t know why he’s telling it, he isn’t aware of how he’s telling it, he’s reliving it the way a child relives a bad dream. The narration is in past tense, but it has a present-tense feel because of the narrator’s inability to reflect on what’s happening. Or no, he does reflect, but his reflections are dream-muddled and futile.
  • Every character and every plot seems to mirror every other. To my mind, this constant mirroring gives the novel a certain coldness: it’s not really about any particular characters, it’s about the themes and situations they repeat over and over. Ryder isn’t a person we feel for so much as a focal point where these themes mesh together with the greatest intensity. He is son, father, lover, friend, artist, careerist, thinker. (Edited to add: Ishiguro says in an interview, “In a dream, one character often will be portrayed by different people.”)
  • Stuff that unifies/simplifies this book: having just one narrator and a tight three-day structure.

Edited to add that I love James Wood’s comment that this book “invents its own category of badness.” Love it. He’s dead wrong, of course, but what a line.

On the irrelevance of the reader

“As far as writing something is concerned, the reader really doesn’t exist. The writer’s business is somehow to create in the work something which will stand on its own and make its own demands; and if the writer is good, he discovers what those demands are, and he meets them, and creates this thing which readers can then do what they like with. Gertrude Stein said, ‘I write for myself and strangers,’ and then eventually she said that she wrote only for herself. I think she should have taken one further step. You don’t write for anybody. People who send you bills do that. People who want to sell you things so they can send you bills do that. People who want to tell you things so they can sell you things so they can send you bills do that. You are advancing an art—the art. That is what you are trying to do.”

—William Gass (here)

Compare Borges in “The Secret Miracle”:

“He did not work for posterity, nor even for God, of whose literary preferences he possessed scant knowledge.”

On the artistic use of confusing signals

Interviewer: “Apparently the Yiddish theater, to which Kafka was very addicted, includes as a typical bit of comedy two clowns, more or less identical, who appear even in sad scenes—the parting of two lovers, for instance—and behave comically as the audience is weeping. This shows up especially in The Castle.”

Barthelme: “The assistants.”

Interviewer: “And the audience doesn’t know what to do.”

Barthelme: “The confusing signals, the impurity of the signal, gives you verisimilitude. As when you attend a funeral and notice, against your will, that it’s being poorly done.”

The Art of Fiction No. 66, Paris Review interview by J. D. O’Hara

The word “verisimilitude” struck me as wrong for a moment, and then I realized Barthelme meant emotional verisimilitude. To mourn and at the same time to assess the performances of the mourners—didn’t someone once describe that as the essential dividedness of the self? Or at least of the artistic self?

On a perhaps more lowbrow note, this is one of the things that delights me about Homestuck. The continual mood whiplash (thanks, TV Tropes) is exhilarating to me. I guess I read it as a form of absurdist existentialism, a reminder that everything can be ridiculous and that even ridiculous things are meaningful and important.

Mood whiplash can also be conducive to horror. Inappropriate clowning and inappropriate objectivity can be dehumanizing. They can evoke madness, by which I mean not just mental illness but the inability to feel love and respect. This is a totally different technique, I think, although considering how close to despair Kafka’s fiction sometimes seems, maybe it’s not that different.

On stealing writing, intentionally and not

“I get great pleasure out of stealing other people’s writings. Actually, I do that at least partly because of a peculiar and unfortunate quality of my mind: I remember things. Word for word. I’m not always aware of it. Once in college, I wrote a paragraph of a novel that was word for word out of Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ and I wasn’t aware of it at all. I absolutely wasn’t. My teacher at the time said, Why did you do this? He wasn’t accusing me of plagiarism, he was just saying it was a very odd thing to do. I realized then that I had a problem.”

—John Gardner in The Art of Fiction No. 73 (Paris Review)

I have a (far less pronounced) tendency to do the same thing, so it’s a relief to see somebody I respect admitting to it. (When Kaavya Viswanathan was accused of lifting a few lines from another book, I had the same reaction as Bill Poser on Language Log—unconscious plagiarism was a perfectly plausible explanation, far more plausible than anything deliberate.)

Short story: “Another Sad, Bizarre Chapter in Human History”

“Another Sad, Bizarre Chapter in Human History,” by Benjamin Markovits

Appeared in the Paris Review Fall 2008, No. 186; online here; also apparently won the Pushcart Prize in 2009

4,014 words

There’s so little scene in this story that it feels like not much is going on, just reminiscences on childhood, and then that awful line comes—“It is a terrible thing, you know, to fall out of love with a child”—and you realize things have been going on under the surface the whole time. I had to check back to make sure I understood what was going on with the hospital bit; I wasn’t sure which kid it was that got hospitalized. The story ends with curious abruptness. The last line seems to bring things back to the narrator’s own life, how easily he could have lost his good luck.

Edited in 2019 to say that while the story is no longer available to non-subscribers, I did just reread the first part, and was struck by this: “Kids don’t really choose people, anyway. People are more or less thrust upon them. I do a lot of choosing now; it doesn’t mean that I like anybody more.” It seems true: Kids make friends without ever really choosing. I still, perhaps unwisely, allow people to make friends with me without much input from my side. (And note that semicolon. I like semicolons.)