A confession, for starters: I’m not at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
I write this dispatch from a sleeper train in the Nevada desert, somewhere between Winnemucca and Reno. It’s just before dawn. The moon has set, the stars are out. White clouds the size and shape of small mountains are sliding around on the desert floor. My snug compartment, with its two armchairs, is like a space capsule as designed by H.G. Wells (assuming he’d let an astronaut take books, pajamas, two carry-ons, and a fifth of scotch into space). And I’ve been keeping astronaut hours: since we left Chicago two nights ago, I’ve translated twenty pages of Edouard Levé’s Autoportrait, read Books One and Two of A Tale of Two Cities, and wandered deep into the biographical essays of Richard Holmes. Last night I read Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist from cover to cover.
You see, there is no WiFi in outer space.
I’ve blasted off to promote the fall issue of The Paris Review, my first as editor. The idea for the tour came from a bookseller, Paul Yamazaki of City Lights in San Francisco, as a way for the Review to raise its profile on the West Coast. The train seemed the cheapest and most logical way to go. And my gosh has it been fun. I have seen landscapes I never suspected and met people I’d never have met.
En route to California, having made stops in Washington, Pittsburgh, and Chicago, I’ve spoken to hundreds of Paris Review devotees about the history and purpose of the magazine. At each of these stops, the first thing I’ve been asked-politely, but with some confusion-is why anyone would give up editing great books to run a literary magazine. Shouldn’t I be in Frankfurt?
It is a live question in my own mind whether a quarterly can still do its traditional jobs: discover new writers, set a standard for quality, and most of all encourage readers to keep the faith with contemporary work. Yet these very jobs seem to me more needed than ever before. We know the readers are out there. My experience at FSG proved to me that the potential market for serious fiction (and poetry for that matter) is much larger than is generally understood. You can dismiss Jonathan Franzen as an outlier. By the same token, you can dismiss Roberto Bolano, Denis Johnson, Hans Keilson, Elif Batuman, James Wood, and Richard Price-all recent bestsellers for FSG, all serious writers. All outliers. If you edit quality lit, it seems to me, outliers ought to be your stock in trade.
It should come as no surprise that Americans want serious writing. That has always been true. The only thing that’s changed-failed, I would say-is the network of local bookstores and critics that once knit together the country’s literary imagination.
My hope, outlined in the preface to our fall issue, is that The Paris Review can make itself useful in this regard-not by publishing reviews, but by putting out an unabashedly literary magazine, one that showcases the writers who matter most to us and the artists who truly intrigue us, and by backing up our efforts with the liveliest arts journalism on the web.
So far it seems to be working.
In June we launched an arts gazette, The Paris Review Daily , as a sort of handmaiden to the Review proper. Now four months later the Paris Review website has attracted half a million unique visitors, this without any gimmickry or scandals or fancy dancing. We’re just writing about what interests us, whether it’s a new show at the Neue Gallerie or a debate over English usage or the U.S. Open (we count sports as art: we know George Plimpton would approve). Three weeks ago we opened the archive of our interviews to the public. Since then we have sold more than 300 subscriptions from the site alone. Most of our referrals come from Facebook and Twitter, where we have 40,000 followers. I hardly understand it myself.
I am curious to meet our California readers, and am doing my best not to think too much about the champagne nights at the Hessischer and Frankfurter Hofs, the gossip, the bloodshot assurance that such-and-such sheaf, hot and unread off some hotel printer, is the „Real Thing,“ my morning constitutional on the Main, and most of all the reunions with old friends whom I dearly miss. For me these posts from across the world will be-all you German Latinists prowling the halls- hoc mihi colloquium tecum, a kind of as-if midnight conversation with a reader who, I have no doubt, is busy with much more enjoyable things.
Oh, and what would Frankfurt be without a tip? If you see Andrew Wylie, ask him about April Ayers Lawson. She is writing smarter, sexier, more inward fiction about American evangelicals than anyone I know. The fall issue is her first outing before a national readership. Another such newbie is J.D. Daniels, who handles the hoary butch subjects of boozing, fighting, and getting clean with a sneaky delicacy that makes me laugh out loud. He puts the sinuous back in sinew. Last seen without representation.
Here endeth the pitch for today.