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Draft Dave: Why Eggers Should Edit The Paris Review

By posted at 7:00 am on February 17, 2010 19

It’s a business-school truism that great leaders make for messy successions. Not only are their shoes hard to fill; no boss likes to contemplate his or her own obsolescence. (Think of Steve Jobs. Hell, think of King Lear.) And though its masthead is more likely to have graduated from Brown than from Wharton, the literary magazine is as subject as any other enterprise to the general principle. William Shawn‘s 35-year streak as editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, for example, yielded to the comparatively brief reigns of Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown. Roger D. Hodge‘s tenure at Harper’s, following the second long Lewis H. Lapham regime, lasted all of two years.

coverEven amid such tough acts to follow, the case of George Plimpton stands out. As the longtime editor of The Paris Review, Plimpton did the traditional things imposingly well. He charted the magazine’s direction. He developed features. He cultivated and supported good writing. But he also, through his journalistic talents and his presence on the social scene, expanded our idea of what an editor could be: founder, ringmaster, patron, host, impresario, fundraiser, cheerleader, public face, presiding spirit, and living embodiment of the brand. Though slender of frame, he cast a big shadow.

Upon Plimpton’s death in 2003, Brigid Hughes, then the managing editor, was tapped to lead the magazine. She was soon shown the door (a circumstance which led to the founding of A Public Space, with the help of a cadre of writers and donors loyal to Hughes) and the journalist Philip Gourevitch slotted into the role, somewhat against type. Gourevitch’s Paris Review has been more consistently appealing than one might have expected it to be. (A great reporter does not always a great editor make.) But, given that Gourevitch has been more of a caretaker than a visionary, it was no great surprise to learn in November that he would be stepping down to focus on his own writing…leaving The Paris Review searching for its fourth editor-in-chief in seven years.

The good news is that the pool of available talent is probably larger now than it has been in years. I’d happily read a Paris Review run by former Spy editor Kurt Andersen, who writes well, is interested in everything, and seems to have a Rolodex the size of a card catalog. Likewise Dan Menaker. In the wake of Hodge’s departure from Harper’s last month, his name has been thrown around as well. If I was on the search committee, I’d certainly be looking at Keith Gessen, who, though young, is something of a scholar of the little magazine. Or The Paris Review could again try to hire in-house. (Having had a piece edited by Meghan O’Rourke, who pulls double duty with Slate, I’d hire her for just about anything.)

Finding the next Plimpton, however, is more than a matter of editorial acumen. The Plimptonian editor must be out in the world. She cuts a figure. She makes fireworks, and shoots them off, too. Tina Brown, now of The Daily Beast, and Vanity Fair‘s Graydon Carter have certainly learned a thing or two from Plimpton, but the only editor currently working in the world of little magazines who fulfills the polymathic model is Dave Eggers. And so, as absurd as it may sound prima facie, I’d like to propose that Eggers is the best candidate for editorship of The Paris Review. And, somewhat counterintuitively, that hiring him for the job might be as good for Eggers as for the magazine.

coverEggers is an entrepreneur of distinction, a gifted fund-raiser, a networker, a talent scout, a celebrity, a philanthropist, and an accomplished graphic designer. Moreover, he has a particular editorial capacity that’s always in rare supply: the capacity for vision. At his first two magazines – Might and (especially) McSweeney’s – Eggers helped to distill into literary form the sensibility of those who came of age after The End of History…and before history unceremoniously resumed. Whimsical, highly aestheticized, conspicuously casual, reverent of childhood and its signifiers, bound by the dialectic of irony and sincerity, the style of McSweeney’s has become the style of post-post-Modernism. It is No One Belongs Here More Than You and Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever, yes, but also American Apparel and Avenue Q, the films of Michel Gondry and the career of Michael Cera. It is vast swaths of Echo Park and the Bay Area and Brooklyn.

The first obvious objection, then, to the marriage of Eggers and The Paris Review comes from Eggers’ side of the aisle: he already has a magazine. But the truth is that McSweeney’s (reportedly intended to have a forty-eight issue run, followed by a long hiatus) has, in its middle age, begun to run up against its built-in limitations. One need not slight the magazine itself (the recent “Panorama” issue, a loving tribute to the print newspaper and a manifesto on its behalf, reportedly sold out), or rehearse the whiplash speed at which subculture becomes mainstream, to feel that McSweeney’s some time ago made the move from innovation to institution.

The Paris Review, too, is an institution, but one with a broader mission and a broader potential audience – a place where readers of McSweeney’s, readers of Newsweek, and readers of The New York Review of Books might meet and mingle en masse. And because its appeal is less bound up with youth, it might offer Eggers, now pushing 40, new and different challenges…even as McSweeney’s continued under the able hands that one sort of imagines mostly run it now anyway.

The second obstacle to the union is that Eggers, like Gourevitch, is a writer, and writing takes time away from editing. But here, too, Eggers, for all his successes, seems like a man in need of a jolt. His literary talent has always recalled for me David Foster Wallace‘s description of the tennis player’s physique: hypertrophied in places and underdeveloped in others. This is true to some extent of all writers, but truer of Eggers than of, say his kind-of contemporary (and sometime collaborator) Zadie Smith. With impressive consistency, his books display visual acuity, inventive turns of phrase, and a fine ear for dialogue. Most importantly, they are full of compassion. But they also betray a countervailing tendency toward solipsism that the home crowd around McSweeney’s has been unable or unwilling to call Eggers on, and that has held him back from being the novelist he seems to aspire to be. Which may be a way of suggesting that Eggers is still in his literary adolescence.

covercoverThis solipsism expresses itself as constraint. There is, on the surface, a kind of airless stylization of the prose, all those floating pronouns and studied flatnesses. More deeply, there is the constraint solipsism imposes on plot and drama – on the interaction of characters, and thus, on their development. Of Eggers’ longer narrative works, three are more or less nonfiction, one is a rewrite of a children’s book, and two (You Shall Know Our Velocity and Away We Go) are lashed to picaresque conceits that substitute vignette for scene and propulsion for plot.

Most recently, these two forms of constraint – micro and macro – converged in the disappointing novelization, The Wild Things. Max goes to the island. Max does some stuff. Max does some other stuff. Then Max comes home. At no point in the book does Max, or his writer, feel the sense of discovery and possibility we saw in Spike Jonze‘s filmed sprint through the trees – or that marked the finest passages of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

coverThe oddity of this is that Eggers is profoundly interested in other people. His best book overall, to my mind, has been What is the What, based on the story of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng. (I have not read Zeitoun, which seems to follow a similar strategy in telling the story of a Hurricane Katrina survivor.) This reportorial interest in the wider world is one that The Paris Review could nourish, even as it exposed Eggers to an even wider audience – one that might be less satisfied with his tics, and more demanding of writing in proportion with his enormous gifts.

Whether or not Eggers seriously considers throwing his hat into the ring, The Paris Review could certainly benefit from having an editor of his stature. The task that awaits Gourevitch’s replacement may be more daunting than that which awaited him in 2005. In addition to hosting parties, raising funds, tending to the needs of writers, and serving as the public face of The Paris Review, the next editor will have to make the case to readers that, in this era of YouTube and the iPad, the bound literary quarterly is still worth their time and money. That’s a mission Dave Eggers has already proven himself to be committed to. And The Paris Review, for nearly 60 years, has proven its commitment to the kind of great American writing I’d like to see more of from Eggers. Odds are these two commitments will be pursued on parallel tracks. But wouldn’t it be great if they could meet?





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19 Responses to “Draft Dave: Why Eggers Should Edit The Paris Review”

  1. Dan Whatley
    at 8:56 am on February 17, 2010

    Re: the linking of Eggers to nonfiction & picaresque–are you suggesting an infusion of remix culture to PR ala Realtiy Hunger would be a good thing? Not following you here.

  2. Scholar of the Little Magazine
    at 11:38 am on February 17, 2010

    I believe that Mark Greif, not Keith Gessen, is the n+1 editor who studies the history of the small journal.

  3. opinion
    at 12:58 pm on February 17, 2010

    Eggers is still editing McSweeney’s, which is the distillation of his vision and tastes; why would he want to take over the Paris Review? Moreover, why would the Paris Review, with its tradition of in-depth, serious interviews and quality fiction, want to be made-over by a man with a preference for twee and “zany” lightweight-to-middleweight American writers?

  4. southridge
    at 5:38 pm on February 17, 2010

    Good God…are you kidding? Please, there’s enough hipster mediocrity infecting the literary world. Let’s spare the Paris Review.

    Read any issue of McSweeney’s (or the Believer, for that matter). Beyond fluffing up the magazine with Williamsburg Brooklyn local color, it’s clear that Eggers doesn’t know the difference between ‘good’ and ‘great.’ The best editors know that interval well.

    Getting rid of Brigid Hughes was such a mistake…

  5. Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 7:18 pm on February 17, 2010

    Opinion and southridge: Perhaps we’re not as far apart as it seems. I was trying to argue, but perhaps more gently, that the “makeover” might proceed in the opposite direction. I’m not sure “twee” and “‘zany” is really where Eggers’ talents lie, but it is for better or for worse part of the McSweeney’s model. Which is why a parting of ways might create some room for both to go in interesting directions.

    I guess I was hoping for some rapprochement between what you’re calling “hipster mediocrity” and the tradition of “quality fiction.” That somehow the two strains are in need of each other, as demonstrated by Eggers’ own fiction. At the very least, I think it would benefit The Paris Review in the long term to make an unsafe hire, and be willing to reimagine itself. But, Southridge, your point about the difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’ is well-taken. I’ve read some great stuff in McSweeney’s over the years, but also some only good and some not-so-good. Likewise in A Public Space. And in The Paris Review. Of course, the interviews are always amazing…

  6. Tom B.
    at 1:41 am on February 18, 2010

    Zeitoun is the only long piece by Eggers I’ve read (mainly because neither his memoir nor fictions sound interesting to me). It’s firmly in the mainstream of the nonfiction novel, a solidly reported piece written in transparent prose. There’s nothing twee, or zany, or post-post anything about it. He should focus on writing the books he wants to write. To edit the Paris Review correctly would be a full-time job — there are plenty of others who could do it — if it’s even a publication that should be continued.

  7. Literature News | Dark Sky Magazine
    at 4:03 am on February 18, 2010

    [...] – It’s a business-school truism that great leaders make for messy successions. Not only are their shoes hard to fill; no boss likes to contemplate his or her own obsolescence. (Think of Steve Jobs. Hell, think of King Lear.) And though its masthead is more likely to have graduated from Brown than from Wharton, the literary magazine is as subject as any other enterprise to the general principle. — Dave Eggers & The Paris Review in The Millions [...]

  8. Eric Anderson
    at 8:33 am on February 18, 2010

    In my opinion, Christina Thompson of the Harvard Review would be a great dark horse candidate for the Paris Review.

  9. Bookninja » Blog Archive » Who’s on deck for the Paris Review?
    at 10:33 am on February 18, 2010

    [...] Everybody. But Vanity Fair wonders about lame duck Harper’s editor Roger Hodge, and The Millions proposes Dave Eggers. Finding the next Plimpton, however, is more than a matter of editorial acumen. The Plimptonian [...]

  10. jawnita
    at 1:50 pm on February 18, 2010

    if that happens i may actually stab myself. cease eggers’ tenure now.

  11. Paris Review editor « Jon Sealy 2.0
    at 8:39 pm on February 18, 2010

    [...] notes the Paris Review needs a new editor, and George points to an article at The Millions that recommends Dave Eggers for the job: The Paris Review, too, is an institution, but one with a [...]

  12. elle
    at 4:32 am on February 19, 2010

    I vote for Eggers. I love the guys at N + 1 as well, Gessen and Greif. I think it would bring the Paris Review a generation of new readers/subscribers. Perfect match.

  13. elle
    at 4:35 am on February 19, 2010

    oh, and…anyone but zadie smith, pleeeeze!

  14. Carolyn
    at 10:16 am on February 19, 2010

    I think Eggers would be good for the Paris Review — I also think Brigid Hughes would have been good, or that Hodge from Harper’s could be. But I think Eggers has much more going on that would lose momentum without him (the 826s and McSweeney’s as a publisher). Even though I’d be very curious about what an Eggers Paris Review might look like, I don’t think I want to see an Eggers-less McSweeney’s empire.

  15. bark » the internet will suck your brain dry if you let it.
    at 11:20 am on February 19, 2010

    [...] millions made up some wacky idea about dave eggers taking over the paris review.  but, personally, i like the best american non-required reading/826/mcsweeney’s man right [...]

  16. Voice of a Generation - Joshua Malbin
    at 3:54 pm on February 20, 2010

    [...] Josh K-sky on Feb.20, 2010, under Books The Millions proposes that Dave Eggers take over the editorship of the Paris Review from Phillip Gourevitch. My first thought was “what’s in it for Dave?” My guess, uninformed [...]

  17. Blue Montakhab
    at 5:45 pm on February 20, 2010

    I say draft Lorin Stein!

  18. Lorin Stein Named New Editor of The Paris Review | Fiction
    at 4:18 pm on March 5, 2010

    [...] has been a lot of speculation about who will or should take over for Philip Gourevitch as editor of The Paris Review, but the [...]

  19. Publications « Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 3:07 pm on January 5, 2012

    [...] Big Back? * Draft Dave: Why Dave Eggers Should Edit the Paris Review * The Problem with Prizes, or Who Cares About the International Booker? * John Updike, 1932-2009 [...]

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