Ask The Paris Review
September 21, 2012 | by Sadie Stein
Dear Paris Review,
I am currently suffering from a major depression, which has caused me to lose my job and my relationship. I see a therapist and a psychiatrist, and I believe and hope I’m beginning to recover. I have been a major reader all my life, but the depression has made it difficult for me to concentrate, so I haven’t been able to read much lately. I’ve been reading bits and pieces of books I’ve read before many times (Darkness Visible, Diving Into the Wreck), trying to get something from them.
I suppose I’m looking for two different types of book as I recover: books that will show me why to live and how, and books that will allow me to escape my present torture. Both need to be pretty easy to follow—for instance, I recently bought The Myth of Sisyphus after reading William Styron’s reference too it, but it’s too difficult for my slow brain right now.
I’ve been where you are and know exactly the state you describe: one of the many distressing aspects of depression is the inability to lose yourself—and for those of us who have always found comfort in books, this is particularly scary. It goes without saying that everyone’s recovery process is different, and without a sense of your exact tastes—although it is clear you are an ambitious and curious reader with wide-ranging interests—it is a little tricky to suggest comfort reads. (After all, that is so bound up with one’s history and associations, no?) But I can tell you what has worked for me, and for some people I know, and hope that the suggestions, and the knowledge that you are in good company, will prove helpful.
August 31, 2012 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
This week, our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, stepped in to address your queries.
Dear Paris Review,
I live in the deep south and was raised in a religious cult.
Still with me?
Okay. I’m attempting to throw off the shackles of my religious upbringing and become an intelligent well-informed adult. My primary source of rebellion thus far has been movies. I would watch a Fellini movie and then feel suddenly superior to my friends and family because they only watched movies in their native tongue (trust me I know how pathetic this is). My main question involves my reading selections. Obviously, I have stumbled upon your publication and am aware of its status as the primary literary periodical in English. Also, I have a brand-new subscription to the New York Review of Books, since it is apparently the intellectual center of the English-speaking universe. I am not in an M.F.A. program or living in Brooklyn working on the Great American Kindle Single, I’m just a working-class guy trying to take part in the conversation that all the smart people are having. This brings me to my question: What books should I read? There are so many books out there worth reading, that I literally don’t know where to start. To give you some background info: I was not raised as a reader and was not taught any literature in the Christian high school that I attended. What kinds of books do I like? My answer to that would be movies. I’m desperate to start some kind of grand reading plan that will educate me about the world but don’t know where to start. The classics? Which ones? Modern stuff? Should I alternate one classic with one recent book? How much should I read fiction? How much should I read nonfiction? I went to college but it was for nursing, so I have never been taught anything about reading by anybody.
I realize this stuff may be outside of your comfort zone, as most of the advice questions seem to be from aspiring writers or college-educated people. Please believe me when I say that I am out of touch with the modern world because of a very specific religious cult. I want to be an educated, well-read, cultured, critically thinking person but need some stuff to read. Before I end this letter, I’ll provide an example of just how out of touch I am: you know how "Ms." is the non-sexist way to refer to a woman, and that "Mrs." is sexist? Yeah, I just found out about that. I’m twenty-five.
August 17, 2012 | by Joshua Cohen and Gemma Sieff
This week, we are joined by our friends the novelist Joshua Cohen and the writer and editor Gemma Sieff, who lent us their wit and wisdom in service of your queries.
I want to be a writer—one of those who can make enough money to write all the time. I should be writing every day, shouldn't I?
Gemma: You don’t have to do a huge amount; just get into a rhythm of sitting down at the desk and getting up again when you have more money.
Joshua: Pay no attention to Gemma. She has it all backward. Just get into a rhythm of earning every day until you have enough to rent a chair and desk for the weekends. Alternately, you can just get a job in publishing, where every intern keeps a Microsoft Word window minimized below the work e-mail and manages a comma deletion or synonym for bored between “refreshments.” Call the .doc “Fall_Schedule.” You might not have an office that locks, but you might produce a roman à clef.
July 20, 2012 | by Lorin Stein
Have made writing full time. Have novel and short essays. Attended NYU’s Summer Writer program last year. Would you have a good list of places for submissions beyond The Paris Review, The New Yorker and The New York Times? Thank you for reaching out via Twitter and offering some of us (hopefully lovable) newbies some guidance.
We get asked this a lot. It’s a reasonable question, but it always makes our hearts sink.
Here’s the thing: no matter how many classes you take, no matter how much time you spend at the keyboard, you cannot write seriously unless you read. And that means, partly, reading your contemporaries. Their problems are your problems; you can’t write—that is, you can’t write for serious readers—until you know what the problems are. Read More »
June 29, 2012 | by Sadie Stein
Dear Paris Review,
For the last few months I have been rotting my brain with nothing but trash. (I am ashamed to admit how trashy, but let’s just say a certain mommy-porn trilogy may have been involved.) And the worst part is, now I find myself unable to read anything good. How do I transition back to respectable books? Sincerely, Trashy
I think this has happened to a lot of us, in one form or another. I’ve also had a variation on this experience with movies: the Ozus and Bergmans in my Netflix queue mock me as I sheepishly skip over them, yet again, in favor of season 2 of The Borgias or some competitive-cooking show that forces people to re-create a taste memory using one hand, a Bunsen burner, and a palm frond. Sometimes we need transitional fare, the literary equivalent of a basically formulaic romantic comedy with a low budget and indie pretensions, if you will.
The good news is, there is no shortage of reads that are every bit as fun as what you term trash, but won’t leave you feeling like you just wasted six hours of your life. Lorin gave a good rundown not long ago. To his list I’d add classics like The Secret History, Case Histories, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Bonjour Tristesse, and newer titles Skippy Dies, The Chaperone, and Ghost Lights. If you like thrillers, there’s no shortage. I enjoy Tana French, although she’s not everyone’s idea of a beach read. If you’re really having a tough time weaning yourself, maybe try a different genre entirely: humorous essays always go down easy, and, along the same lines, short-story collections provide a gradual transition. Personally, I’m a sucker for a juicy biography: The Sisters, American Gothic, and Savage Beauty all got me through periods of intellectual exhaustion. Good luck, and I look forward to more suggestions from our readers!
Have a question for the editors of The Paris Review? E-mail us.
June 24, 2012 | by Margaux Williamson
After a week of guest-editing, I leave you with this piece of advice from Canadian extraordinaire Margaux Williamson. À la prochaine mes Parisiens! —Thessaly
Dear Paris Review,
Sadie Stein recently answered this question in your advice column. And now I’m wondering: what books impress a guy? What should I read to seem cool, sexy, and effortlessly smart? Seriously.
Needing to Impress
The answer to this question all depends on how long you need to seem cool, sexy, and effortlessly smart for. If it’s for a one night stand, or for a decent favor, don’t waste your time on reading (that’s not cool!), just go ahead and lie about what you’re reading. If you see some dumb, over-praised book on said guy’s top shelf, you can ask what they think about it and then say, Oh yeah, totally. You can put that book on your imaginary top shelf too or imagine that you regret putting it on your imaginary top shelf. Lying can be real if you imagine successfully.
This lie can be a kind of empathetic gesture, an openness, a pose you can hold to see if you like something new. But this kind of lie is only advised for the short-term—don’t forget that it is only a trick! Can you imagine having to carry on with someone else’s interests for a whole week? Or longer?! Imagine having to pretend forever that you care—or even worse, forgetting that your interests didn’t start off as your own?—growing all sorts of wrong trees in your soul.