In the last six or seven months, I’ve heard a lot of talk about the importance of the arts. Maybe you have, too. In certain circles, it’s become a sort of refrain: we need the arts more than ever.
In my experience, this has not been—in any obvious or immediate way—the case. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of news. My taste for fiction has narrowed. I’m more impatient. A certain kind of story went stale for me last November. When I read a contemporary writer, I want to be spoken to honestly and intelligently about the times we live in.
I realize this is not a new complaint. As luck had it, my colleagues and I spent the election deep in the Paris Review archive. We were revamping our website, and it meant rereading and sorting through all our back issues, hundreds of stories and interviews, thousands of poems, many written in times of upheaval. The more I read, the more I saw them reflect the politics of their time.
Like my colleagues, I knew the manifesto written by William Styron for our first issue, in 1953, where he proclaimed that the Review would not be a magazine for factions, for drumbeaters, for propaganda; that it would honor writing for its own sake, that it would never become a political magazine.
I also knew that the men and women who started the Review were by no means “apolitical” people. Peter Matthiessen, who worked for the CIA as a young man, later became a leader of the environmental movement. Rose Styron helped found Amnesty International. Robert Silvers cofounded The New York Review of Books, where his journalistic engagement altered the course of two wars and touched on every intellectual debate of the past half century. George Plimpton, when he was editor of the Review, took time off to campaign for Robert Kennedy. He was there in Los Angeles when Kennedy was shot. He took the gun from the killer’s hand.
And yet the only time George (or any other editor) waded into political discussions in the pages of the Review, it was to deplore a lack of government funding for the arts or to protest a stricture on free speech. When the NEA instituted rules against obscenity, George turned down their money, because he believed in the freedom of this space: the aesthetic space.
I’d understood this balance, between politics and art, since I took the job of editor seven years ago. At least, I thought I had.
But what I learned last November, during those nights in the archive, is that this aestheticism, this refusal to engage in arguments over the news of the day, left The Paris Review open to political and cultural crises for which the country did not yet have a name. To the queerness of the Beats, the New York School, and the Factory. To the early feminist writings of Denise Levertov, Alice Notley, and Adrienne Rich. To the fire of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, to the dazzling absurdities of Harry Mathews, and, many decades later, to the deep satire of David Foster Wallace. To the political unconscious at its most fertile.
I hope the same is true in our new issue.
Our interviews are with the Scottish novelist Ali Smith and the American writer Percival Everett. We have short stories by Anne Carson, Caleb Crain, Julie Orringer, and the Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano. We have never published Modiano before. This vignette attracted me, I think, partly because it’s a story about a big news day—a catastrophic news day—in the lives of people who just want to make a movie. Modiano shows how even an invasion can unfold on the scale of a missing handbag or a hat that gets blown off in the wind.
This issue includes fiction by two new authors: In Chris Knapp’s “State of Emergency,” a young expatriate writer falls into an imaginary conversation with Zadie Smith—and becomes a tour guide to his own life—after he catches sight of her reading in a Paris café. In J. M. Holmes’s “What’s Wrong With You? What’s Wrong With Me?” locker-room talk turns into a painful discussion about sex and race.
We also have paintings by Hurvin Anderson; a lost 148-volume diary returned (with helpful edits) to its author; new poems by Eileen Myles, Ben Lerner, and Frederick Seidel, among others; and one very old poem in a new translation. During the events of last week, when I stopped watching the news, I found myself going back again and again to the first lines of Emily Wilson’s new version of the Odyssey as a reminder of what lasts, of what can be remade:
Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning …
I hope you enjoy this Summer issue, and that you will support the Review—and receive a whole year of the best new writing—by becoming a subscriber.