The Paris Review Is Looking for the Right Woman

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Two days after the widow of George Plimpton, the late founder of the Paris Review, threw a party billed “Last Call at 72nd Street,” the couple’s famous apartment — soon to be sold — served one last official function in the history of the literary magazine. On March 2, the living room where Norman Mailer and Gay Talese and Truman Capote once got drunk and burnished their legends was the site of a whirlwind series of job interviews. About a dozen people came before five members of the Review board of directors to make the case for why they should be the one chosen to replace Lorin Stein, who’d resigned three months earlier under a fog of sexual-harassment allegations.

Among the eight candidates we were able to identify, there are editors who worked closely with Stein and complete outsiders; journalists, poets, and artists; millennials and even a baby-boomer. Mostly, however, they’re white and in their 40s—and all are women. (Multiple sources cited one mystery “token” man.) “There was no doubt a feeling,” says one member of the Review staff, “that to do otherwise would be a middle finger to feminism.”

Board members tapped the candidates one by one, like pledges to an exclusive club. They were asked to submit memos and then summoned for 45-minute sessions in the riverside townhouse. The search committee, which includes novelists Mona Simpson and Jeffrey Eugenides, presented fairly conventional questions (e.g., which Review story they liked best, and why) — without revealing what they’re actually looking for in a successor to Stein. “It sounds a bit like being brought before a tribunal,” says one friend of a candidate. “It seems there was some theater of power.” Interviewees were told they’d hear more in a few weeks.

The roster of hopefuls, split between insiders and outsiders, suggests that the board is unsure of how much the future of the Review should resemble its past. Some women, like Leanne Shapton, are social animals; others, like Ruth Franklin, are prolific writers; and still others have strong international networks (like Granta en Español co-founder Valerie Miles). None have Stein’s combination of deep editing experience and Plimptonian party bombast, but of course the latter is what the Review hopes to jettison. “Replacing him is going to be very, very difficult, because he was a sensational editor,” says board member James Goodale.

Having tolerated Stein’s excesses until the #MeToo earthquake made them intolerable, the Review has to answer to both its own editorial needs and the cultural moment. Stein was supposed to be a longtime steward of the publication, guiding its growth and guarding its artistic mission. But now the little journal that miraculously survived its founder’s death has again been forced to reinvent itself. “The board is in an unusual position,” says Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg, who wrote a letter in support of candidate Meghan O’Rourke. “They’re not bringing somebody in to fix something obviously broken. But at the same time, a new editor can’t keep making the same magazine that the previous editor did.”

One way to ensure continuity would be to choose someone from inside the Paris Review bubble. Several candidates fit that description, which also means they’re entangled with its fraught recent history. New Yorker editor Emily Stokes has written for the Review and is, like other contenders, a friend of Stein’s. Nicole Rudick has been the interim editor since Stein’s sudden departure. Her candidacy evokes the yearlong tenure of Brigid Hughes, the woman who succeeded Plimpton after running day-to-day operations, only to be cast aside for Stein’s predecessor, Philip Gourevitch.

O’Rourke, a memoirist and poet who began her career as a fiction editor at The New Yorker, was a poetry editor at the Review and a finalist for the top job twice before. “She’s an amazing editor,” says Weisberg — while emphasizing that there are several stellar applicants in the mix. “There just aren’t that many people particularly of her generation who have learned how to edit longform pieces the way she has, and she has fantastic literary taste and is one of the best-read people I know.”

Shapton, a polymath author and illustrator who’s designed several Review spreads — and whom one supporter credits with “a really interesting mind” — is also backed by a strong letter of recommendation, which was sent to the board the morning after Stein resigned. Written by the novelist Sheila Heti and a few friends, the letter touts Shapton’s “unique and highly sophisticated vision,” genius, and charisma; its signatories include Zadie Smith, Rachel Kushner, Dave Eggers, Heidi Julavits, and ten others, including a couple of editors at The New York Times Magazine.

That’s a lot of firepower, but even Shapton’s backers now regret the perception that they acted with unsavory speed. Complicating matters is that, a week earlier — with Stein still in charge but the Review board and the Times both investigating allegations against him — Shapton, O’Rourke, Julavits, and several other women, many of them Review alumnae, gathered at Shapton’s home for a “tea” to hash out their feelings about Stein. Also present was Times book critic Parul Sehgal (who would eventually decline an interview offer from the board) and Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn, a Review alum who would later be quoted in the Times saying Stein “wanted us to be pretty.” Shapton, who encouraged Foley-Mendelssohn to speak, also gave the Times quotes but then retracted them, pending a meeting of the board planned for December 7. Stein stepped down on the 6th, and the Times quickly published what they had, leaving Foley-Mendelssohn as the only woman quoted on the record — much to her surprise. O’Rourke added an on-the-record quote for an updated version; Shapton did not.

Three hours after the Times announced Stein’s resignation, Heti and others started circulating the letter, petitioning for signatures. One friend of the Review had mixed feelings on seeing it just as Stein’s departure was sinking in: “Maybe it’s the kind of ‘seize the day’ attitude you would want from somebody ambitious, but I was also like, ‘Wow, no time wasted.’” (She didn’t sign it, needless to say.) But, on the evidence of messages from that day, Shapton didn’t know about the idea beforehand and stayed out of it afterward. Heti explains their thinking: She and others were worried the Review would hastily install a male editor to replace Stein. “We wanted them to have the name of an impressive female editor right in front of them if they were going to make the decision the next day,” Heti says.
 
Given the board’s slow reaction to the Stein accusations, a lightning-fast decision on his successor wasn’t the likeliest scenario. It took them three months to compile a list of candidates. In addition to the Barcelona-based Miles, they reached out to Gaby Wood, a Londoner who runs the prestigious Booker Prize. (Another Brit, the editor Mitzi Angel, is said to have declined an interview; last week it was announced that she’ll be coming to New York for an even bigger job — succeeding Jonathan Galassi as publisher of Stein’s former employer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It’s a small world.) Yet another contender, Eliza Griswold, is a journalist-scholar more in the Gourevitch mode.

Two weeks after those interviews at the townhouse, the board itself remains silent about the process. (One member, declining to speak, quipped: “Bob Mueller is running this thing, and he’s scary.”) An email went out to applicants on Wednesday reiterating the requirement of confidentiality. According to one source, the committee has requested second interviews for the coming weeks. But according to another, they are still soliciting suggestions for new candidates. The Review’s Spring Revel, its major annual fundraiser, takes place on April 3 — as hard a deadline as any for showing off a strong new leader to the people with the checkbooks. What that choice will demonstrate — continuity or radical change or something in between — is anyone’s guess. But we wouldn’t put our money on the token man.

The Paris Review Is Looking for the Right Woman