How Publishing Is Rigged You thought it was a meritocracy??

8Sep/11

The Paris Review Loves Cronyism, Nepotism and Sex

The Paris Review The Paris Review is a literary magazine that holds a special place in the history of modern literature. For one thing, it’s one of the few literary journals that most regular people have heard of, and for another, it’s stocked in most bookstores—even those that have only a small selection of literary journals. There are actually hundreds of literary journals being published today, but most of them are unknown to readers at large because of their limited distribution; most literary journals have a very small circulation and are difficult to find at bookstore. Not The Paris Review, which can be found almost everywhere.

So The Paris Review is one of the better-known literary journals. That fact probably also has something to do with its long history. Founded in Paris by Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton in 1953, The Paris Review began with a simple editorial mission:

“Dear reader,” William Styron wrote in a letter in the inaugural issue, “The Paris Review hopes to emphasize creative work—fiction and poetry—not to the exclusion of criticism, but with the aim in mind of merely removing criticism from the dominating place it holds in most literary magazines and putting it pretty much where it belongs, i.e., somewhere near the back of the book. I think The Paris Review should welcome these people into its pages: the good writers and good poets, the non-drumbeaters and non-axe-grinders. So long as they're good.”

With the above set-up, even if you’ve never picked up a copy of The Paris Review, you’d probably expect it to contain some good stuff. Given the above, the “good stuff” conclusion seems logical, right? The magazine has been around for a while. It’s well-known, you see it all of the bookstores, and you have this impression that it is well-respected. You might be surprised, then, to learn that TPR contains some of the lamest, least-relevant, laughably juvenile stuff being published today. And under their new editor-in-chief, Lorin Stein, the quality and reputation of TPR is plummeting at an ever-faster rate.

Much has already been written about what happened when Stein took over the magazine in 2009 and subsequently “un-accepted” several poems which had previously been accepted for publication. Pretty classy of Stein: “I'm the new boss around here. I know you've been counting on your work being published—but I don't like the editorial decisions made by my predecessor, so you’ll have to look for a new home for your work.”

It's damn rare to have something accepted only to have it un-accepted later. Daniel Nester at the website We Who Are About To Die wrote an eight-part series about what went down at The Paris Review and if you want to know more about what happened, Nester gets into all the details surrounding this un-acceptance debacle.

The un-acceptance thing was one of the first things that Stein did as the new editor-in-chief. Since that very questionable editorial decision, he’s been busy on a number of fronts, all designed to make The Paris Review magazine and website appeal to the most insecure, un-self-aware, sheep-like Lit Biz drones. He’s also spending a fair amount of time publishing his cronies and the kind of stuff that is only appealing to uptight people who think they’re finally getting in on what they missed out on in junior high school.

Stein has even turned The Paris Review blog into a relationship advice column. One of his favorite topics? Sex! (Oh my now, isn’t he so naughty?!)

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Lorin Stein makes every occasion an opportunity to talk about sex.

As editor-in-chief, Lorin Stein has a lot of power to control The Paris Review’s image. And he’s taking every opportunity he has to turn the most mundane details into details that somehow, some way, contain sexual content. He and his clique of uptight Lit Biz drones actually think that by making every possible topic somehow—no matter how much they have to force it—about sex, they’re being “naughty” and pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable. They feel like they’ve been rebels because they’ve brought themselves to be “open” about sex in this public format. The thing is, even at the most topical level, the mere mention of sex sends these people into uncomfortable fits of laughter. These are women who don’t masturbate because they’d feel dirty if they touched themselves, “down there,” as they’d put it. These are men who can’t stand the sight of their own cocks, let alone the cock of the guy standing at the next urinal. Hell, these guys can’t even handle the urinals. They need to use a stall, every time, for privacy.

Here’s what Lorin Stein does: he loves to publish stories with a lot of sexual content, never mind that that content is totally unrealistic. He loves to post blog entries that answer questions about “desire.” In the “Ask The Paris Review” blog feature, you could ask Lorin Stein about his favorite piece of furniture and he’d answer with a lengthy discussion about sofas and sex in the history of literature. I’m not saying that literature can’t contain sex or that stories can’t contain sexual content. But I’m saying that a writer has to write about sex in a way that’s believable, and that is meaningful to a reader. Lorin Stein doesn't care about being believable; he just looks for the sexual content, regardless of how unnatural or far-fetched it is. In reality, you can have people fucking each other in the ass and you can have squirting pussies and all of that, but it has to fit with the story being told, or in the case of TPR blog, the question being asked.

Lorin Stein seems to think that by simply jamming his magazine and website full of juvenile sexual content, he’s challenging society to confront what’s socially acceptable in a public forum. He thinks he's making a statement. The rest of us read this stuff and find it totally ridiculous and dismissible because Stein’s version of edge-pushing sex talk is the kind of thing that two fourteen-year-olds would share a glance over in Sex Ed class, and nothing more. But to Stein and his cronies, The Paris Review’s version of sex stuff is the ultimate in confrontation and danger. In publishing (and purporting to love) this stuff, Stein, his colleagues and their TPR supporters feel like they’ve been rebellious, and decades after the fact, they think they’re finally the coolest kids in school.

Here are some examples of what Lorin Stein has been up to:

Stein answers questions about sex in a blog post from August 20, 2010:

Is there a story or book that can shed light on whether a woman should sleep with men she doesn't love or know very well? Younger men, specifically?
—A. Chesterfield

You're in luck! This is pretty much the animating question behind French literature of the last two hundred years, starting with Adolphe (no) and ending with The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (yes). No book puts the question more starkly than Colette's masterpiece, Cheri (yes and no: sex is tragic). Non-French novels have reached some memorable conclusions of their own. Good Morning, Midnight, for instance (sex is tragic: get me a drink), or The Piano Teacher (hell no). (But skip it and see the movie.)

For starters, why has The Paris Review become a sex-advice column? And secondly, what kind of bad-at-living, bad-at-relationships person turns to the editor-in-chief of The Paris Review for sex and relationship advice? Not your standard reader, not a regular reader out in the world, but a dead-on-the-insides person who is too afraid to go to anyone but The Paris Review, with its assorted dainty-isms and postures. Why, the water is nice and tepid here—no emotional risk to you, scared question-asker!

“Virgin”

Lorin Stein recently published work by a new author, April Ayers Lawson. She qualifies as new because “Virgin” (oh! such a chaste title!) was her first story to be published in a nationally-distributed magazine. And if it follows current literary trends, “Virgin” is memoir disguised as fiction. (Most stories published today feature characters who are essentially the authors themselves, as these authors have been taught to write what they know in workshop. What results is a whole lot of memoir-stories, thinly disguised as fiction.) Point of fact, “Virgin” is set in the South (where Ayers Lawson is from) and features a honeymoon in London (Ayers Lawson’s Facebook page clearly shows shots of her touring London). The lead female character plays the viola; Ms. Ayers Lawson probably plays the viola or some other stringed instrument. So yeah, it’s probably got a lot of autobiographical elements. But enough about the story. Publishing is not about the writing; publishing is about connections and cronies. Publishing is rigged. So let's examine the rigged part of this “Virgin” situation.

Ms. Ayers Lawson is represented by the Wylie agency, which is one of the bigger literary agencies. (Andrew Wylie—known as “The Jackal” in literary circles—is a pretty evil guy who loves to buy up estates, thus getting the rights to profit on the work of deceased famous writers. He also likes to steal successful writers from rival agencies. Sounds like a nice guy, right?) In the full interview with Ayers Lawson up at The Paris Review blog, Stein revealed that he’d read several of Ayers Lawson’s stories.

Several.

Hey! Wait a second—she’d never before published anything that would have gotten national distribution. And if you go looking on the internet, you’ll find that as of this posting, she’s not published anything online either. So how could Stein have read several of her stories? Did she send them all at once to Stein in the mail? (That would be a clear violation of The Paris Review submission guidelines, by the way.) For that matter, is any potential writer from off the street welcome to send Lorin Stein a batch of stories for consideration for publication in the magazine? Of course not. April Ayers Lawson got special consideration because of her relationship with the Wylie Agency. The Wylie Agency also just happens to represent The Paris Review, so that’s also pretty damned convenient for April Ayers Lawson. It's pretty upsetting to see this stuff all spelled out, isn't it? Just think: this site is just getting started. There's so much more for me to share with you.

Stomping out dissent:

It's natural for an editor to sing the praise of a story they've selected for publication, but readers who want a different take on Ayers Lawson's story can visit this link to a negative review of “Virgin” at a (currently unavailable) site called The Darkwood Review.

An excerpt of the review, (published September 2010):

The sophistication of the writing was nothing worth noting—I can’t recall a single metaphor or image that transported me. Insofar as there was a twist at the end, I didn't care. If I want to be shocked about incest I'll watch Oprah. But, I won't because I don't want to be shocked about incest. It’s not why I read fiction.

The reviewer calls out the story for what it is: poor writing combined with an attempt by the writer to be “shocking” by writing a story that features incest. But the reviewer notes that despite the incestuous subject matter (something the author meant to have real emotional impact on the reader), there was no actual emotional content in the story, and the reviewer was wholly uninterested in the outcome of the plot.

Lorin Stein himself mounts a rebuttal to this negative review in the Darkwood comments section, defending his choices and his magazine. While it's certainly Stein's right to use Google to see how the online world is reacting to his editorial choices, I do find it a bit odd—and incredibly childish—that he finds it necessary to defend his choices where negative responses have been reported. Let it be said that Stein hates any form of dissension. (Note that he recently had a comment deleted from a Paris Review blog post, just because the commenter presented a critical point of view. Click over to the blog post link and scroll down to the comments section to see where the original commenter asks, “Why was my comment deleted?”) Stein also scolds the Darkwood reviewer near the end of his comment:

Finally—and this is a general point—I think it is risky to ascribe motivations to writers or editors (or to any stranger really), unless you have good grounds for doing so. As it happens, we chose these stories because we love them. It is as simple as that.

“It is as simple as that.” It wasn’t that Ayers Lawson was represented by Wylie. It wasn’t that her story contained sexy topics that Stein finds thrilling, never mind that the sex in this story was written by someone who writes as though she hates the very thought of fucking. As a matter of fact, the story is about a married woman who won't have sex with her husband—so the character can't stand that fucking, at least. I'll let you consider how Ayers Lawson feels about sex. Here’s the first paragraph of “Virgin”:

Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress. He’d read the press releases, of course. He recalled, from an article, her description of nursing her last child only six months before her first radiation treatment. Then he noticed she wasn’t wearing a bra.

The above excerpt—which, remember, is the first paragraph of “Virgin”—is considered beyond the pale for these Lit Biz drones. They’re taken aback by the notion of breasts. They’re practically passing out with the mention of the nursing and oh my goodness, that woman is not wearing a bra. How scandalous! they think to themselves. And then they feel proud of themselves for surviving that risky prose. They take a break to cool down before continuing.

Stein thinks he’s being daring, publishing this naughty, line-crossing prose. But it’s really all just more of the same boring dull and dry stuff you’ll find in any modern literary magazine. He said that he loved that story in his Darkwood rebuttal, right? Come on. He has to say that, and maybe he somehow convinced himself that he does indeed love this story. (These people are masters of deception, and totally un-self-aware, so they can convince themselves of all kinds of things that would seem crazy to a normal person.) But I ask: did he actually love that story? Bullshit, no! No he didn't. Stein knows deep down why he published “Virgin” in his magazine. Stein cannot acknowledge the fact that the Wylie agency so conveniently represents both Ayers Lawson and The Paris Review, nor can he acknowledge the fact that the story contains the bland sexual content he's comfortable with. So to justify his selection of “Virgin” for publication, he says this transparently fake thing about accepting “stories he loves.”

Note how Stein closes his scolding: “It is as simple as that.” That's Lorin Stein, Mister Anti-Dissent. So haughty, so final, so entitled. End of discussion.

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Nepotism, courtesy The Paris Review.

Here's something—did you know that The Paris Review editor-in-chief has a sister? That’s not so interesting on its own—but did you know that said sister is a literary agent? That's right; Ms. Anna Stein is a literary agent at Aitken Alexander Associates. That would even be fine if they didn’t take professional advantage of this personal relationship.  Anna Stein was interviewed by Poets & Writers in December 2010 for a feature article titled “The Journals Agents are Reading.”

We asked a group of agents to name their favorite literary magazines. After some persuading—turns out favorite is not their favorite word—here's what they said:

Anna Stein: I have to say, for now, n+1. They came on the scene only a few years ago, but they've introduced the kinds of writers that no one else would go near, and I'm talking about important literary writers who push the envelope (and whom we see six months later in the New Yorker, or with a book contract). Also importantly, they publish very good narrative nonfiction essays, which so few good literary journals are willing to do. They have personality. Of course, my other favorite is The Paris Review. I'm just waiting for the first issue by new editor Lorin Stein to come out. Meanwhile, its blog is my daily retreat.

“Of course, my other favorite is The Paris Review,” says Anna Stein. No indication that she's immediate family of the editor-in-chief. In fact, she talks about Lorin Stein as though he were a distant stranger, using his full name and omitting the relationship qualifier. She’s aware enough of her duplicity that she knows she needs to keep the brother-sister thing hushed-up in this interview, and by calling him by his full name, she obscures the truth to hide the relationship. She knows that if she’s said “My brother, Lorin Stein, is the new editor-in-chief of my other favorite literary magazine,” her praise of The Paris Review would be discounted as outright cronyism, which is exactly what it is.

Have you ever seen an industry that is so blatantly deceptive?

I wonder if we'll witness any overlapping business in this particular nepotism realm. Count on me to keep an eye on clients from Ms. Stein's firm to see if any of them happen to have their stories accepted at The Paris Review.

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It’s always crony time at The Paris Review.

In another blog post from early February, Stein answers a question from a Ph.D. student who's just submitted their dissertation. The advice-seeker yearns to know: what “cooler” grammar guides are acceptable in today's times? Stein's response:

My own favorite is Vivian Gornick’s little handbook The Situation and the Story. (Full disclosure: I was Gornick’s editor [at FSG] when she wrote it.)

Gornick’s book was published by publishing house FSG, and one could argue that at least Stein revealed that when at FSG, he'd edited the very book he's promoting in his answer. But regardless of Stein’s attempt at transparency, is it right for Stein to use his platform at The Paris Review to hawk the works of his crony buddies? A guy with as much power as Stein has a responsibility to wield that power with care and for the good. Instead, he's casually hooking up his friends. I find this kind of cronyism repellent.

Let’s quickly visit another weekly advice blog entry. Which translation of Proust should I read? asks a reader. Why, the Lydia Davis version, answers Stein. (Davis is another FSG author who also gets her works published in The Paris Review. Keep the cronies close; that's what they do in publishing. And by all means, don't ever try anything new; we must continue to propagate the stuff we're familiar with, lest we encounter something scary and unexpected.)

For Swann’s Way, you can’t really go wrong. All of those translations are wonderful. My favorite is Lydia Davis’s.

[To read more about Lydia Davis, click here.]

Is it at all shocking that Stein recommends an author that he'd not only published in The Paris Review, but someone whom he also edited in his old days at FSG? Of course not. You'd be shocked to see Stein recommending an author with whom he does not have a prior relationship. The bottom line is this: Stein loves to hook up his cronies. And when selecting stories for the magazine and making book or other recommendations, Stein makes the brazen and incorrect assessment that readers want to read the same kind of safe and boring material that Stein himself enjoys.

There's never anything new that comes from this guy, and that leaves us all reading the same bland and boring prose in each and every issue. We get more FSG authors, more Wylie clients, more boring stories, more advice from Lorin Stein to consume even more of the same.

But let's not get distracted by the rampant cronyism evident in Stein’s answer about Proust translations. For argument’s sake, let’s consider Stein’s (very biased) advice and look into Lydia Davis' merits as a translator. I went looking online for non-Stein-based information about Davis and her translations. Among my findings was this Cornell-based Lydia Davis interview in which she freely admits that she doesn't know how to pronounce French phrases and makes up her own slang and idioms when she's translating from French to try to “sound natural.”

Isn’t that amazing? I would have hoped that a translator would at least be able to speak, aloud, both the languages that they're translating from and the language they're translating to. What's more, I expect that translator to speak both languages properly, and to be capable of translating works with a goal of maintaining slang and idioms in a manner that is historically and contextually appropriate to the work. Certainly I do not want to read translated slang that was “made up” by the translator. I shudder to think what Proust would say to someone taking such liberties with his prose.

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Using Irony and Monster Trucks as humor at The Paris Review.

And one more thing that recently showed up on the Paris Review website:  You'll find monster trucks. For those of you who are reading this at work and cannot watch the video featured in the above link, this particular Paris Review blog post features a home-made video, narrated in “Monster Truck Voice,” announcing the arrival of Issue 195.  Moreover, the opening frames of the video include the words “pleasure pleasure pleasure pleasure,” written in a cartoonish hand—like what a high-schooler would doodle on the cover of their notebook. These rich, privileged Lit Biz people think that this video is supremely clever, ironic and downright hilarious. But to any normal person, it's so obvious that we're witnessing the makeover of The Paris Review into a cheap institution that caters to the Lit Biz version of the in-crowd: the MFA-carrying hipster set.

(Watch the Monster truck video carefully and you see a ringing endorsement of The Paris Review by one of my personal least favorite writers, Roxane Gay. She loves to kiss asses and she loves to crony it up too, and she's nobody. Lorin Stein—and people like him—can manipulate a loser like Roxane Gay because she’s aching for someone to pay attention to her. In her lonely world, the mention by Stein in the monster truck video is interpreted as an invitation to the cool kids’ party. Stein knows that by giving her a tiny speck of attention, Gay will happily shill for The Paris Review until the end of time. Roxane Gay is on the lookout for asses to kiss and as long as she can pretend that people like her, she doesn't care that she's being used.)

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Stein might be having fun going to his parties and giving interviews, but the readers of The Paris Review are left disappointed and wanting. Because apparently these are the rules that have been drawn up by the terrified-of-life people who work at The Paris Review:

  • Publish work by the people we already know—the old guard—so that we get stories where we know what to expect.
  • Publish works by yet-unknown writers that contain all the same key components as the stuff we like from the old guard (be boring as hell, lifeless, be dull)...so that we get stories where we know what to expect.

Readers want something drastically different from what today's editors and publishers are offering. Readers don’t want to know what to expect when digging into a new story. Readers want to be surprised. They want to read something new and they want to experience something that they haven’t experienced before. Why, then, is The Paris Review (which, on this front, is no different than any other literary magazine) so determined to give us the same-old same-old, over and over again?