The Paris Review 202 and The Point Of It All
One of the ongoing conversations in the literary community is about the value of literary magazines. There are too many (indeed) and not enough of an audience for any of these many magazines (supposedly). Over and over we hear the lamentation, “We’re only selling to writers,” as if that is a bad thing. We have this unnamed holy grail of the audience comprised of non-writers. While I am concerned about the ubiquity of literary magazines, the lack of reflection many people seem to have in starting magazines and so on, I am not worried about audience.
So many people are writers! I could care less if we’re only selling to writers. Every time I read or speak somewhere, people come up to me and say, “I write too.” Audience is not the problem. There’s just too much damn supply and not enough of it is very good.
We have this cultural obsession with purpose and the arts are always led to slaughter first. I hate debating the value of art. It’s a nihilistic, unnecessary conversation. Can you imagine how impoverished our world would be without literature, music, theatre, dance, and visual art? It’s a bleak prospect, which I might add, we’re facing as school districts across the country slash funding for arts education. We are raising a generation of children who will know far too little about the arts. It is a shame.
Meanwhile, let’s work from a place of faith that art, in all its forms, matters. Let us not reduce what we do and love out of fear or practicality. There are plenty of people who are hell bent on being practical. There’s room for people in the arts to be a little impractical.
Stop worrying about the point. You could be reading or writing or going to the movies or hanging out with friends or staring out a window instead of worrying about the purpose of art.
If you must worry over purpose, maybe the point is that people choose to express themselves creatively and other people choose to showcase the creativity. It’s really quite simple. We complicate all the time, but at its simplest, art is about creation and demonstration.
Why do editors publish fiction and poetry and essays and art and work that defies categorization? Who knows. Maybe they want to go to fancy parties (which I know nothing about but I hear rumors). Maybe they just love creativity. Maybe they love job titles. Maybe they want to get girls or guys (like that one episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent).
Also, a lot of the allure of editing is the thrill of discovery. (People tend to overlook the countless stultifying tasks an editor does.) There are no more lands to conquer but there is a plethora of beautiful writing waiting to be found. Perhaps editing is the modern equivalent of exploration, without the colonialism (mostly).
I think about The Paris Review whenever I see one of these conversations about the viability of literary magazines, the value. This choice is entirely arbitrary. For you, it will be whatever magazine you love most. My two favorites are The Paris Review* and American Short Fiction because I read them from cover to cover and always want more. (Online, it would be Everyday Genius.) These magazines always introduce me to new writers and artists and in TPR, the interviews are one of my best writing teachers.
In TPR 202, which I read this weekend, I learned about the artist, Jess, who does these amazing paste ups that are graphic and modern and right up my alley. I love that kind of exposure to things I might not otherwise learn about. My favorites are When A Young Lad Dreams of Manhood and the detail from Finds of the Fortnight.
There’s an interview with James Fenton who had some provocative things to say about “denatured” and negatively defined poetry. He seemed a little arrogant but I was still interested in what he had to say and there’s also a point in one’s career where they get to be arrogant. Pretty sure that point intersects with being interviewed for TPR. Also, he once ran a prawn farm which is not something you hear every day.
The fiction in the issue was really great. The issue opens with Man-Boob Summer by David Gordon. The title is funny. The story is both funny and kind of sad. A man has moved back home with his parents after finishing his graduate degree. He keeps seeing bare-chested men and hanging out at the pool in his parents’ building and of course, there’s a girl. There is always a girl. At first I thought, “Ugh, another story about a lost middle aged white man,” which has been so ubiquitous this year, hasn’t it? Let’s see some fiction about such men who have their shit together. But this story managed to overcome my overall exhaustion with that vein of fiction because there were some exceptional turns of phrase and also the ending is sharp as hell.
In Disgust by Ottessa Moshfegh, Mr. Wu is in love with the woman who runs the arcade where he uses the computer each day. Or, he thinks he’s in love. He conspires to get her attention and when he finally does, he’s not sure what he wants anymore. There are some fine details in this story, like Mr. Wu having bad breath and Moshfegh describes the numbing routine of his life in a way that evokes both pity and, well, disgust.
I had already read Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror by Jim Gavin because it is included in his forthcoming, strong collection Middle Men (February). This happened to be my favorite story in the book so I read it again and marveled at how the story was parceled out to the reader in these tight moments and then there is this quietly intense and unexpected ending—an ending that made me gasp.
Foley’s Pond by Peter Orner was a flash fiction piece which I rarely see in TPR. There’s a darkness to the story about a pond and a little girl and what a group of boys lose. It reveals the selfishness of children
The poems by Bernadette Mayer were really smart, playing on mythology and place. There was a real sense of musicality to each of the poems that made me want to recite them.
What is the point? Maybe there is no point. Maybe the point is that the issue gave me two hours of escape or that the writing therein made me think and feel. Maybe the point is that I learned something as a writer and a reader. Maybe that is enough.
*Every time I read TPR, I shake my fist at the magazine and whisper, “One day, you will love me back.”