George Plimpton, Editor of the Paris Review
by David Applefield
DA: You arrived in Paris in 1953 and began editing The Paris Review. Much of the story is well-documented in The Paris Review Anthology (W.W. Norton), which you edited in 1990. Now, in retrospect, what do you see as your true motivations for living in Paris and launching the review there? And by extension, what did Paris mean to you and other literary expatriates in those days?
GP: I was studying in Cambridge. One of my oldest friends, Peter Matthiessen, whom I have known since the age of 8, was in Paris working on his first novel, Race Rock. He and a fellow novelist, Harold Humes, wanted to start what John Giardi called ´an 8th rate imitation of The New Yorker´ called The Paris News Post. It was supposed to list events, where you could go to eat, really for tourists. Terry Southern was in Paris at the time. He wrote a short story for this magazine called "The Sun and the Stillborn Star." Peter felt it was such a remarkable story that they should scrap the idea of having an eighth rate New Yorker and start a literary magazine. They wrote to me in Cambridge asking me to come over to talk to them about it. I didn´t know what I was going to do after graduating from Cambridge; I thought vaguely about coming back to the United States and getting involved in the world of television, which was just starting at the time. So I went to Paris almost as a lark and got interested, as they were, in what was going on in Paris at the time.
DA: And what was going on?
GP: Paris was quite exciting then. First of all, it was immensely inexpensive. You could live on fifteen dollars a week practically. As a result, the place was crowded with artists, poets and writers, ex-Army veterans using the GI Bill of Rights to study at the Sorbonne. So, it was a breeding ground for number of literary magazines. There was Merlin, started by Alex Trocchi and Austryn Wainhouse. There was a magazine called Points started by Sinbad Veil, who was the son of Peggy Guggenheim. Everywhere, you saw people working on books. Jimmy Baldwin was there. Bill Styron came through. James Jones came a bit later. Of course all that began to change when it got too expensive. I´m amazed that you´re able to survive there.
DA: Paris is a city one keeps coming back to over a lifetime. Much of its charm is the leaving of it only to return one day and leave again. When you return you must have favorite places to re-visit.
GP: I always go back to the Saint Sulpice area where we started the review and of course the Café Tournon. That area is very nostalgic for me. But there are a thousand places.
DA: There is lots of literary gossip about how well the different generations of Paris expatriates spoke French. How´s your French?
GP: Well, it has collapsed.
DA: The years you were here publishing The Paris Review, did you study French?
GP: I spent two years in France when I was very young and only spoke French. My father was a lawyer and was assigned to an American firm in Paris. When I was at Cambridge I was astonished by how little I remembered and I really had to start from scratch. I almost lived with a French girl for a while, which would have been the way to do it, but then a girlfriend of mine from America arrived and that was that!
DA: So you took the journal to New York in 1965?
GP: Somewhere around there. It just got too expensive. Printing in Holland, as we used to do, got expensive. Most of our subscribers were in the United States. So after a while it just didn´t benefit from being done in France.
DA: But surely after twelve years the decision to leave didn´t come easily. Paris must have been in your veins and part of the persona of the review. Was there regret or sadness or did it just feel like it was time to come home?
GP: It was time to come home. It is always sad to leave Paris.... I only lived in Paris for two years; I came back to the U.S. much earlier than the review. But, we always had a Paris editor. Bob Silvers, now the editor of the New York Review of Books, was the editor for a while.
DA: How much of the reputation of The Paris Review revolves around the notion of Paris as a beacon for expatriate writers? To what degree is that mythic in that The Paris Review doesn´t really have a relationship to Paris anymore?
GP: Well, I don´t know how to answer that. Of course, the name is really a misnomer. We´re not in Paris anymore, nor is the magazine a review. But certainly when it started, the issues were full of references to Paris and France and Europe, largely because of the considerable number of American and English poets and writers who were in Paris and writing about it. Today we publish anything we can possibly get our hands on that smacks of Paris or of the continent, trying to give the paper as much of an international flavor as we can possibly can...just to keep our hand in.
DA: From Frank´s point of view, Paris is no longer a place specifically of interest for American writers, or as a place of particular interest because of its Americans, but rather a crossroads of international cultures and literatures, with important constituents of writers from eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. Paris is where we all converge. And that´s what´s exciting editorially. What are the criteria that you use today in New York for judging the fiction and poetry you accept for publication? When, if ever, will the mission of The Paris Review be fully realized?
GP: I don´t know if there are criteria other than excellence or quality. There is no particular genre story that I prefer over another. We have interns here reading the 20,000 manuscripts we receive every year. I don´t think they are thinking about what I would like, but simply whether it catches their fancy and whether the piece shows that the writer has control over what he or she is doing. I can´t imagine anything more despairing than to have mediocre work sitting there in the Next-Issue File, or, for that matter, anything more exhilerating than the opportunity to publish truly interesting, provocative, unique material whether a clutch of poems, or an interview, or a piece of fiction. It is, of course, difficult to keep to an overall standard of excellence (unfortunate clinkers creep in more often than we´d like) but one strives for something outstanding in each issue.
The "mission" of The Paris Review seems a somewhat grandiose descriptive, but it will end, I would guess, when we run out of energy, money to survive, and there´s not much to hoot about in the Next-Issue File.
DA: Merci, Mr. Plimpton.