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Should I Get an MFA? And Other Questions from Our AMA

September 13, 2013 | by

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Earlier this week, we hosted an AMA on Reddit: all the editors clustered around Lorin’s desk, while Stephen typed, and we addressed as many queries as we could. It was fun, and exhausting, and we were delighted and impressed with the caliber of questions! Since there were a number of points that came up repeatedly, below, we are reprinting some of the most frequently-asked questions from that session.

Do you believe that the popularity of creative writing degree programs, both graduate and undergraduate, is impacting contemporary literature positively or negatively? … As a student and writer currently debating whether to pursue the MFA route, or go on to graduate school in my chosen field of study, I would be extremely interested in your views on the matter.

The problem with creative-writing programs is not the quality of instruction; it’s the enforced isolation with other people who are thinking, eating, and breathing the same things you are. That said, much can be learned from a good teacher, or by simply spending those two years alone with a whole lot of books.

As a publishing/journalism industry hopeful, I’m curious about your career trajectories. How did you get where you are now? What were your entry-level jobs?

“Clare and I are both former (Paris Review) interns. That was our entry-level job.” —Stephen

“My first job? I was an editorial assistant at a publishing house.” —Sadie

“I was a part-time secretary at Publishers Weekly.” —Lorin

“Advertising.” —Justin

“This is my entry-level job.” —Hailey

How does the public’s taste in poetry differ now than it twenty years ago? The Paris Review had an article recently stating that there are now “an insufficiency of readers but too many people trying to get published”—how is The Paris Review combating this? Lastly, what are your pet peeves in submissions you get? For example, I work at a journal as well and my “pet peeve” is poems about pieces of obscure artwork that cannot stand alone.

The best way to interest people in reading is to publish great writing. At least, that’s our strategy.

Fashions change in poetry as in any other artistic endeavor; if there’s one generalization to be made, it’s that it’s harder to generalize now about truly gifted poets.

Pet peeves: stories about hunting, stories about MFA programs (though we’ve published our share), stories that start with someone closing a car door.

How, as editor, do you maintain the delicate balance of operating within the Plimptonian model while at the same time infusing The Paris Review with new energy? TPR is so much marked by tradition yet at the same time it must also reflect the times … The digitizing of the interviews, for example, was a brilliant decision on your behalf because it allows TPR’s past to live within the modern framework of the digital age. Seems like a difficult task and I am curious how you go about it?

The “Plimptonian model” was always about finding new writers and promoting the magazine with whatever tools came to hand. At the ’64 World’s Fair we sold ash trays and copies of NYRB.

It’s easy to get hung up on a certain old-school New York literary ethos—parties, Elaine’s, et cetera—but we think his true legacy is something more lasting and profound.

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 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

“Suburban malaise.” —Justin

“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

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

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

I’ve only recently begun to get interested in The Paris Review, mainly because of your digital/social media presence. … Do you see this becoming more important in the future? Do you think you’ll ever be “online-only?”

We’ll never be online only.

Who would win in a fight—George Plimpton or David Foster Wallace’s do-rag?

Norman Mailer’s thumb.

Have a question for The Paris Review? E-mail us.

 

3 COMMENTS

3 Comments

  1. OJ | September 13, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    ..that was quite an intrepid move of TPR editors to get peppered by questions in an open forum which had the potential to attract pesky questions.. and more. I read a few defiant comments, which I think we’re tactfully addressed by the editors… Congratulations!

    “Go Tigers!”

    P.s. I will, of course, renew my subscription.

  2. Danny Hayes | September 14, 2013 at 1:23 am

    Oh gosh, the entry level question. I actually applied for an entry level editorial assistant position with TPR family, only to discover(to my horror!) a small typo that clearly disqualified me. My cover letter was pretty amazing besides that very small mistake. But alas, I will still love you Paris Review, and possibly steal one of the staff member’s jobs if the opportunity presents itself again!

    With love and Sylvia Plath,
    xoxo

  3. John Pulos | December 13, 2013 at 1:23 am

    The problem isn’t more writers than readers. The problem with today’s poetry is that it gets published based on who has an MFA and who doesn’t. If I took a Paul Muldoon poem and submitted it under my unknown name, it wouldn’t get a second look. Sure, there’s tons of junk out there. Tons. But I don’t think poetry editors these days are truly capable of detecting quality among unknown poets. It’s who you know and who are you that count.

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