The Art of Distance No. 19


The Art of Distance

In March, The Paris Review launched The Art of Distance, a newsletter highlighting unlocked archive pieces that resonate with the staff of the magazine, quarantine-appropriate writing on the Daily, resources from our peer organizations, and more. Read Emily Nemens’s introductory letter here, and find the latest unlocked archive pieces below.

“Founded a decade apart, The Paris Review and The New York Review of Books have had a long friendship. NYRB cofounder and longtime editor Robert Silvers was an early managing editor of TPR, and the two magazines have always shared contributors—the respective archives of both are populated by writers who sent their fiction and poetry to TPR, participated in Writers at Work interviews, and published essays, reviews, and opinion pieces in NYRB. Notable joint contributors include James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, and Zadie Smith. This summer, The Paris Review has teamed up with The New York Review of Books to offer a special subscription bundle—you can get a year of both magazines for one low price, plus complete digital archive access to both websites. To celebrate, this week’s The Art of Distance shares a few pairings—pieces by three writers who have written for both magazines, their voices tuned and modulated for these two different, but related, settings. May these essays and interviews ignite your imagination and stimulate your intellect.” —Craig Morgan Teicher, Digital Director

You’ll find these essays and interviews by Hilton Als, Toni Morrison, and Susan Sontag are unlocked on both sites this week. Here’s a little preview of each piece.

The New York Review of Books published Hilton Als’s essay “Michael,” his uncategorizable homage to Michael Jackson and the phenomena of his fame, in 2009, shortly after Jackson’s death. Als writes, “Unlike Prince, his only rival in the black pop sweepstakes, Jackson couldn’t keep mining himself for material for fear of what it would require of him—a turning inward, which, though arguably not the job of a pop musician, is the job of the artist.”

“Michael” is a sort of how-to on the art of the hybrid essay, neither journalism nor memoir nor psychoanalysis. In his Writers at Work interview, Als offers as clear an aesthetic manifesto as you’ll find on his sense of truth in fiction and fiction in truth:

For a long time, I was so allergic to the empirical in fiction and nonfiction that I didn’t know where to begin. I was allergic to novelists who were certain that what they were making was a novel, and to journalists who believed it was journalism, and I was for sure distrustful of memoirists who said, At three years old, I remember my mother didn’t kiss me, or whatever. I could only describe the truth that I felt, which was that the truth was not empirical, was what I knew in all ways, was coming in from different directions, and was not the whole story.

A similar relationship between interview and essay appears in Toni Morrison’s Art of Fiction interview, in which she observes how “white writers imagine black people … some of them are brilliant at it. Faulkner was brilliant at it. Hemingway did it poorly in places and brilliantly elsewhere,” and a 2001 New York Review essay she wrote on Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King: “For those who made either the literal or the imaginative voyage, contact with Africa, its penetration, offered thrilling opportunities to experience life in its inchoate, formative state, the consequence of which experience was knowledge—a wisdom that confirmed the benefits of European proprietorship and, more importantly, enabled a self-revelation free of the responsibility of gathering overly much actual intelligence about African cultures.”

In the very first issue of The New York Review of Books, Susan Sontag writes, in an essay on Simone Weil that would later appear in Against Interpretation:

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

What might Sontag have thought about this passage many years and books later? Her 1995 Writers at Work interview might offer a clue: “Maybe I’m always reluctant to reread anything I wrote more than ten years ago because it would destroy my illusion of endless new beginnings. That’s the most American part of me: I feel that it’s always a new start.”


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