The Paris Review Ignites the Greatest Controversy in the History of Literature

by Salvatore Pane

Last week, Tin House ignited the greatest controversy in the history of literature. This week, The Paris Review did them one better. I’m not sure who exactly broke the story, but I first became aware of The Great Paris Review Poetry Purge of 2010 through Mike Young on HTMLGIANT who linked to a story by Daniel Nester on the always fantastic We Who Are About to Die. Nester writes:

Picture this: you have your poems accepted by The Paris Review.  Such an acceptance can mark the start of a great career, lead to a book deal or to be anthologized, or perhaps solidify a reputation in the small world this correspondent and others call Poetryland…

You have this acceptance.  Months, even years pass after this acceptance.  You wait for the issue with your poems to appear.

Then you get an email from Lorin Stein, the new editor of The Paris Review.  With perhaps the memory that there had been an announcement, written about in New York Observer, about a change at the Poetry Editor desk.

‘Dear XXXX,

Recently I replaced Philip Gourevitch as editor of The Paris Review and appointed a new poetry editor, Robyn Creswell. Over the last month, Robyn and I have been carefully reading the backlog of poetry that we inherited from the previous editors. This amounts to a year’s worth of poems. In order to give Robyn the scope to define his own section, I regret to say, we will not be able to publish everything accepted by Philip, Meghan, and Dan. We have not found a place for your [poem/s], though we see much to admire in them and gave them the most serious consideration. I am sorry to give you this bad news, and I’m grateful for your patience during the Review’s transition.

Best regards,
Lorin Stein’

Yikes. More news broke out throughout the day, some of it humorous (check out Blake Butler’s reaction) some of it not. The Rumpus spent a lot of time discussing the fallout. The comments section from their first post recently exploded, and a lot of well-known writers and editors are sounding off. Lincoln Michel of the recent literary journal rankings and Gigantic:

It is fair to note, I think, that according to Stein over a year’s worth of poetry was backlogged. So these new editors wouldn’t be able to put any poetry they wanted, not even 10%, for the next four issues.

I think this is a complicated issue. On one hand, as a writer I totally sympathize with people feeling awful about this and I know that I’d probably die if I’d gotten into TPR and then gotten my piece pulled. Of course, I’m a struggling starting writer, not an established writer like I assume most of the poets being unaccepted. On the flip side, as an editor I can’t imagine getting an editing job and not being able to do my job for several issues. If I didn’t like the work, I wouldn’t want my name attached to it.

And I must say I do think it is odd that, as others noted above, non-fiction routinely gets killed and it isn’t unheard of for stories to be unaccepted. What about poetry makes it unacceptable to be pulled if it is acceptable to pull other pieces?

Also, I disagree that there are no external pressures here, as Amy suggests. Lorin Stein was hired with plenty of buzz and noise and a mission to redo the journal, to make it more relevant and exciting again. He and his staff are, I assume, under plenty of pressure to make their mark and enact their vision. You can’t really hire someone to relaunch your journal and then tell them they can’t do much for the next few issues and by the time they can, most people will have forgotten.

I DO think they could have found a solution, such as a special web section, that would have worked for everyone. But I can understand why editors would want to edit.

Then this journal propped up promising to produce an e-book of all the unaccepted material. And of course, incoming PR Editor Lorin Stein’s response to the culling was dug up by The NY Observer:

Over the last month, Robyn and I have been carefully reading the backlog of poetry that we inherited from the previous editors. This amounts to a year’s worth of poems. In order to give Robyn the scope to define his own section, I regret to say, we will not be able to publish everything accepted. … We have not found a place for your three poems, though we see much to admire in them and gave them the most serious consideration… It’s never fun cutting things. But an editor’s job is to put out a magazine by his or her best lights, and that means you have to have discretion over what you publish.

So to sum up: a lot of anger, a lot of frustration. I’m not going to weigh in on this just yet, because like the Tin House thing, I’m more interested in what you all have to say. Is it cool that The Paris Review did this? Did they have any other choice after inheriting an entire year’s worth of poems? Isn’t this par for the course in the publishing world? Or is the literary journal playing field smaller, and thus, deserving of more courtesy? Let me know in the comments section.

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