The Intellectual Situation
Complacencies of a Beach Towel
So what’s an old magazine to do? Should it be like the New Yorker and just . . . it’s hard to say what exactly the New Yorker does on the internet. They do not post their best pieces, except when they do. They do not have their best writers blogging, except when they do. Really, what the New Yorker has done online is remain totally unembarrassed by everything they have done online. Did they spend one zillion dollars on a “digital reader” for subscribers that must have looked great at the pitch meeting but shrinks the 10.5 Caslon type just past the point of readability? Yes, they did. Did they hold a pet photo contest on Halloween? Yes, they did. But do they care? No, they don’t. This may be a model for others, or it may just be something this one magazine can get away with. Hard to tell.
Anyway, we were very upset, and to add insult to injury our dog lost the Halloween contest to two little gerbils reading tiny dictionaries, but then we realized we could just take a Xanax and read the Paris Review. We love the new Paris Review, partly because it always makes us forget what year it is, but never in a depressing way, like Harper’s. We opened a recent issue and found all our favorite hits from the archives: poems from an ancient civilization, an experimental short story by a woman, some brightly colored art that must have been very expensive to print, and obscene fiction by a Jewish person. But what satisfied us most was the feeling that we were enjoying a product with a past, and with the distinction of an earlier age. Where did that feeling come from? Was it the Xanax (or maybe it was Valium) that made us suspect that if the issue had been released in 1959, no one would have noticed that it came from the future?
We were so absorbed in the Paris Review that we almost forgot about the internet, where, as it happens, the magazine maintains a very attractive website. We have so much fun looking at the Paris Review blog, with its pictures of bookshelves and book covers and many items about children’s books, for some reason. Our favorite part of the website, though, is the online store, where the magazine has recently branched out into adult apparel, infant apparel, intern apparel. They’ve done seasonal coffee mugs, notepads, fountain pens. The Paris Review beach towel never fails to send us into an admiring trance, with its line drawing of two Bolaño characters (or are they Paris Review readers?) lounging on what must also be in their universe a Paris Review beach towel.
We were familiar with heritage brands, but we had no idea until we saw the Paris Review store that a literary magazine could become one. Now, though, it makes perfect sense: the editors have an even richer legacy to work with than the late ’90s revivalists at Abercrombie & Fitch. Founded in 1953 by members of the declining American aristocracy, the Paris Review was an attempt to recover fiction and poetry from “criticism,” which is to say from Jewish critics and other middle-class strivers. These were people not rich enough for leisure, and so leisure, for the Paris Review, became the place from which literature must spring. The magazine supposedly was half-based in Paris because the prewar avant-garde secession had occurred there, but the real pleasures of expatriation, for William Styron and Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton, were fashion and tourism, narcissism and cognac. In the blasé letter that stood in for a founding manifesto, Styron pretended not to know the meaning of zeitgeist.
The Paris Review was anti-intellectual, but not philistine. A truly great consumer can’t afford to be. If Bergdorf’s is selling Gaddis this season, you must wear him. And the Paris Review has always done one thing that literary scholars and literary fantasists have thanked it for: it has published interviews with great writers, writers famous for their careers elsewhere. The “Writers at Work” interviews have always been lovingly informative about the vanities of the suffering artist—whether he writes with a pen or a typewriter, at one time of day, under what mystical inspiration—and if these facts often seem as wonderful as fiction, it is because the interviews famously are turned over to the writers themselves to correct and rewrite, to make over as whatever self-portraits they like—and why not? It’s like asking a sculptor to do his own bust. Better still: when taking a meal at the Tour d’Argent, one does not burden the chef with one’s opinions on seasoning.
One way to deal with a limited, parochial legacy is to ironize it, and it’s clear from the Paris Review website that this is precisely what is being done. All people and objects are equally “lovable,” except those about whom one must be solemn (dead great writers). All meaningful thoughts happen “late at night.” The place for any book is one’s nightstand. This new Paris Review is a tour de force of extended clichés, disproving the prejudice that blurb-writing can’t extend over thousands of words: it demonstrates that this “deliciously playful,” “delightful and under-appreciated” mode of “well-curated” puffery and cant can be unending, a “dreamy” ventriloquism so “painstakingly rendered” and “saturated” and “wonderful” it makes you “feel like a fool for thinking words could work any other way.” Perhaps it’s the culture-consumer’s way of “secretly celebrating the world”?
The old Paris Review was residually macho, in the manner of an aging playboy who still brings home flowers and remembers one’s birthday. You could say that the new Paris Review queers the sensibility of the midcentury magazine by recreating it so appreciatively and so lavishly that the result looks like the literary equivalent of a Todd Haynes film. When it comes to the print magazine itself, it is clear that a product this beautiful is not meant to be read, but to be eaten, and so the Paris Review is now what print always feared the internet would force it to become: a consumable, a lifestyle product, and, in this case, one of many offerings in a literary-themed specialty store.
And what’s wrong, exactly, with the lush-looking catalog being put out on White Street? We like to imagine ourselves on one of its pages, surrounded by fresh flowers and watercolor portraits of ourselves while celebrating the special voice and talents of elder statesman James Salter (a man whose literary greatness resides in having been born too late for glory, missing World War II for Korea, missing the Lost Generation for sex with French chambermaids, missing Fitzgerald’s Hollywood for Downhill Racer)—perhaps while writing a thank-you note to James Salter on a custom letterpressed note card—and it doesn’t look so bad. Exhausted publications have done much worse.