Interview: Philip Gourevitch

Philip Gourevitch is editor of The Paris Review, a literary magazine known for its intellectual clout and high-quality fiction, poetry, and art.

Interview: Philip Gourevitch

Philip Gourevitch is editor of The Paris Review, a literary magazine known for its intellectual clout and high-quality fiction, poetry, and art. Gourevitch came to the publication in 2005, after the death of George Plimpton, and years spent working as a staff writer at The New Yorker. Gourevitch is also the author of several books, including the award-winning “We Wish to Inform You…” about the Rwandan genocide.

PRWeek: What are some initiatives you've put in place to keep the quarterly cutting edge?

Philip Gourevitch: One of the things that the magazine has always done is to seek out new writers, writers who have, as yet, published very, very little or not at all, and essentially to introduce them to a broader national and international readership. And, that was something that had been a part of the tradition and was not something that had been done much or excitingly in a while. I really wanted to make sure we made that very central to our mission.

Writers, like Benjamin Percy, who won our George Plimpton Prize for a story of his that we published called “Refresh, Refresh,” about young men in an Oregon town when their fathers go off to Iraq as reservists and was [subsequently] selected for Best American Short Story. And, he has won a number of national prizes for his work since and has been published much more widely and in larger magazines. It was a stepping stone publication for him to be in The Paris Review, and to be recognized and exposed that way.

We also had the first short story of an excellent writer called Lisa Halliday from whom much more will be heard.

We published a number of debut poetry portfolios and selections. We published a Chinese writer called Liao Yiwu, an extraordinary writer who had never been published before in English [and] who documents the lives of Chinese in a book that's come out over here. [It's] based on a lot of the interviews we did in The Paris Review that he was writing, called The Corpse Walker. It's a book that's been reviewed widely in The New York Times Book Review and so on. Again, something we, at The Paris Review, were able to bring to light.

I felt that the visual element of The Paris Review had always been very, very strong, but that one of the things that really interests me, and that hasn't been getting as much publication as it should these days, is serious photography. Photography is so much used in magazines as illustration, and I feel that the whole tradition of the photo essay is a form of narrative and the kind of artistic expression that is also documentary work, where the two things are working very closely together as storytelling. That used to be in mid-century, very much a part of the photogravure section, or the Time magazine or Life magazine approach, but it's less so now, since [it's] easier to take and reproduce photographs.

So, we re-introduced that, [and] the magazine won its first ever National Magazine Award, a year and an half ago, for a portfolio of photographs by magnet photographer, Jonas Bendiksen, a young photographer who had published relatively little of this big project he was doing on the way people who were living in this great poverty and [the] mega-slums of the world - as we have mass urbanization - how they live in one-room homes. And, we published these in double gate folds, so they would fold out so each of these four walls was actually a page and almost formed a physical box. And, they're extraordinary photographs. It's the kind of thing this magazine is able to do that hadn't been done. We even retooled the way that we present photography.

[Poetry] had always been presented piecemeal throughout the publication, a poem here, a poem there, much the way it is in other magazines that published poetry. And, I felt it kind of looked like spot art, honestly. I felt that poems got lost that way…I assumed that a lot of us who care about poetry did most of our poetry reading in college, if we're not actually poets, and don't spend as much of our adult life discovering poets. We might find a poem here, a poem there that we like.

And, I thought we're really a writer's magazine. We should be featuring poets in a way that makes it so that you're not just encountering a poem, you're encountering a poet. And, so we created portfolios of five or six poems of a given poet, where you actually get this experience of a slice of their work. And, these have obviously been greatly appreciated by poets, but also by readers. I think it's made a real difference to the way you experience the work in the magazine.

And, we've also had some excellent reportage, so the magazine is firing on all cylinders very strongly.

PRWeek: Would you say there has been an increase in non-fiction work?

Gourevitch: No. That has been said because I'm a nonfiction writer, but Plimpton, too, was a nonfiction writer. He called it ‘features.' But, if you go back through the archives, there's actually a great deal of it.

And, really the feature of The Paris Review, that is the most celebrated and well-known are the writers' interviews with living masters, the Writers at Work series, and those are of course a form of non-fiction - writers talking very deeply about their craft at the peak of their powers. We're just now publishing volume three of a selected Paris Review interview set, that's going over very well.

The real difference now is that it's much more closely reported, rather than personal essay-istic. We really look for people who mix tremendous literary gift with powers of reportorial observation and shoe leather, really putting the shoe leather to go out there and experience and explore the world, because it seems to me we're living in times that we barely understand, and the more close observation we have the better.

PRWeek: With the rise of new media, do you think there's been a change in the way readers relate to the magazine, and conversely the way the magazine relates to readers?

Gourevitch: The magazine is still really alive on paper. And, you might think that that makes it old-fashioned or anachronistic or almost dinosaur-like in our current age. But, I think that it actually complements the experience of a blog mentality or a blog appetite. I read a lot of blogs, but I read blogs to read relatively short entries of several paragraphs that are extremely timely and pertinent to the day on which they are posted.

And, then when I really want to settle into a chair and really devote my attention span to something timeless, something like a quarterly or The Paris Review, which is of course timely in the moment it is published with the idea that it has value best if it endures, if it feels fresh a year from now, two years from now.

I don't think that's at odds with the blogs, but serves a separate function and that the two actually go quite well together. You get your quick fix in one medium and you get a kind of enduring experience elsewhere, and that's the part of one that wants to settle in. And, really read something with the idea that it's not fleeting. And, for that I still think the page is better, than the screen. It's easier physically on the eyes. It goes with you anywhere. It involves the same physical reading experience that one has always had. And, it's striking to me that in the last three and an half years since I've been at the magazine, that we've more than doubled circulation. And, that seems to be a testament, to that the fact there is an appetite for this. And, a lot of that circulation seems to be coming from young people.

Now simultaneously, we have a Web site, and we're putting more and more of our archive online. And, in the years, I've been at the magazine, we've really focused on, making the actual, physical, paper and print magazine, the centerpiece of our project [and] meet the standard of excellence we want it to.

Our next big step is to make the Web site, which actually gets a lot of traffic, just for the archive, to make it start to have its own ongoing content and to draw more of our readership into a kind of relationship with the magazine legacy to its contents, to its traditions, as well as to create a kind of community that is immediate and that may involve things like creating a blog, that would connect what The Paris Review has always been about to a present time, but isn't in a sense competing with what's in the magazine, but complementing it.

PRWeek: Could you describe the psychographics of your readership?

Gourevitch: We're not big enough to make it financially sensible to do surveys, but what we do know is that [readers are] very, very loyal. Our renewal rates are, last I checked, in the 70% to 80% range, which is terrific. And between that, and a readership that is growing very steadily. We feel that our readers are obviously people with great taste. We know that they're of all ages because we get letters from different people here and there, but we don't do audience or readership surveys, to find that out.

PRWeek: You said that circulation doubled. Anything you'd like to attribute that to?

Gourevitch: I think that we have made more of an effort to acquire circulation, but I think that really what we've noticed is that the biggest drivers of circulation and that of new subscribers for us [is] what we've been publishing has drawn attention. It's received prizes and press. People have responded to the work, and that has an amplifier effect, that word of mouth and word of press, that makes people who are aware of The Paris Review as a title but may not have been actively checking it out, issue by issue. But they started to realize, ‘Wait. Something's happening here. We want to read.' And, as more and more of these pieces acquire a life beyond the magazine and the writers, who have written pieces and gotten their first break from the magazine, go on and write more and more visibly from the magazine, to greater success and international profile, and credit, The Paris Review… creates a living organism that sort of grows.

The Internet has been a place through which we get a lot of subscriptions now - fewer and fewer people are subscribing by paper. And, it was only this summer, for the first time, that we have gone out and done a very limited direct mail, which has been successful, but we have not pursued expensive circulation growth campaigns, because that's not within our economy and our whole approach is to try to do things efficiently and by making sure that we're present to the people for whom we matter, and that's writers and readers of serious writing, wherever they may be.

PRWeek: How often are you pitched by PR professionals?

Gourevitch: We don't do reviews, for instance. I get a lot of pitches from PR people asking us to review a book or a movie or review writer, and we don't do that. That's not ever been a part of The Paris Review's tradition. It might be something that we do more of in our own way. We'll find a way to do conversations with writers and things once the Web site [is] in its next iteration, a year or so from now. We tend to be editorially quite independent in the way we find stories, writers, and materials.

PRWeek: How could writers best send submissions to the magazine? Would going through a publicist help?

Gourevitch: The ways that we receive work are really three-fold. Either the writer simply sends the work directly to us and we read everything that comes in, or the writer's agent submits the work. So, going through an agent, is essentially the way that publishing business works, who would be dealing with us on a number of writers, and would submit the work to us. And, sometimes we receive work, through a writer's publisher because we keep in close contact with out publisher, seeing what they're interested in, what's coming up years down the road, that they're looking forward to, and asking them to present us with that work. But, for the most part, the publicist would enter the picture later, when the work is actually published, and trying to draw attention to that publication.

Name: Philip Gourevitch

Title: Editor

Outlet: The Paris Review

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