The Art of Distance No. 32


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 selection below.

“A biographer, a novelist, and a poet walk into a voting booth. This isn’t the setup to a joke—it’s the truth of election week in America: writers, among millions of other Americans, are casting their votes for the next president of the United States. Around the office we’ve been talking about how literature can help us understand this challenging moment and how it might help us persevere. I don’t expect literature to keep up with this week’s news cycle. Nor do I expect literature to eclipse the news: sometimes there are actions (like voting) that need to be taken away from the page. But I do believe what Charles Johnson said in his Art of Fiction interview, quoting Ishmael Reed: ‘A novel can be the six o’clock news.’ Literature can hold the truth, can assess current events and predict future outcomes with insight and nuance absent from punditry and statistical analysis. So while we’re all watching the news, I encourage you to occasionally click away from Twitter feeds and cable stations. Make space for literature this week. I think writers’ insights might be particularly valuable in the days ahead, as a clarifying lens and a countervailing force, a decoder ring and, sometimes, a balm. As Manuel Puig put it, ‘I like to re-create reality in order to understand it better.’ May we all understand the world a bit better once this week is through.” —EN


Photo courtesy Dwight Burdette / Wikimedia Commons.


Whatever your political leanings, this is going to be a complicated week. There’s no one literary mood or mode that’s right for today, so here, in addition to the unlocked interviews quoted in the GIF above (Robert Caro, Ali Smith, and Rae Armantrout), are a handful of pieces that offer passionate engagement with the past and present, and a look at the relationship between literature and politics.

“The personal is especially political when it spreads fingers out into the world,” says Grace Paley in the Art of Fiction no. 131, in which she goes far in explaining how all stories have their political dimensions.

Kevin Young’s elegy and tribute “Homage to Phillis Wheatley” speaks for and about uniquely American brands of ambivalence and passion, of a “sadness too large to name” and also “leaning, learning / to write” in the light cast by a foundational poet’s legacy.

Mary Szybist’s gorgeous “The Molten Saints inside Me Do Not Quiet” conjures a familiar sort of inner restlessness and global emergency (“the world is burning, the world is burning”), which surprisingly gives way to a kind of heartfelt abandon.

James Baldwin, in the Art of Fiction no. 70, says, “The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know.” He holds up many mirrors in his interview, mirrors that are as important to look into today as they were when the interview was published almost forty years ago.

The British author John Wain’s poem “The New Sun” invokes the dawn of a new era, with its attendant terrors and ecstasies, asking “how to bear the pain of renewal.” It seems like the right place to pause this little journey into the unknown.


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