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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. Read More »

3 COMMENTS

Life-Affirming Reads

September 21, 2012 | by

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.

Thank you.

Dear friend,

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.

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78 COMMENTS

John Jeremiah Sullivan Answers Your Questions

August 31, 2012 | by

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.

Read More »

35 COMMENTS

Joshua Cohen and Gemma Sieff Answer Your Questions

August 17, 2012 | by

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?

Ken

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.

Read More »

7 COMMENTS

Dear Paris Review, Where Do I Publish?

July 20, 2012 | by

Dear Editors:

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.

Dear Newbie,

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 »

27 COMMENTS

How Do I Break My Trash Addiction?

June 29, 2012 | by

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

Dear T.,

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!

 

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16 COMMENTS