When I go to meet Lorin Stein, I’m expecting to find the man I’ve read about in various profiles: Lorin Stein owns a manual typewriter. Lorin Stein drinks martinis, smokes cigarettes in his office. Lorin Stein is a flirt, a social creature, a man-about-town, a cosmopolitan intellectual, and, as of April 2010, the newest editor of The Paris Review, which happens to be one of the world’s most legendary literary magazines.
It’s a lot to anticipate. And there he is, suddenly, appearing from his back office in The Paris Review’s Chinatown loft, extending a hand and giving a firm shake.
He’s tall, thin, and brisk—neatly buzzed hair shows off a bald head and elfish ears, and blue eyes that he fixes on me as we take our seats in his office, which is not clustered and twee as I’d imagined, but almost spartan. A desk, a broad table, and a tall bookshelf. Large windows frosted over. A hissing radiator.
At a time when good literary magazines are folding or moving online because they can’t afford to stay in print, The Paris Review is still being published—beautifully—four times a year. It’s relevant and widely read, which is saying something for a magazine devoted to poetry and fiction. Part of its continued success owes to the layers of caprice that surround it: staffers who used to dangle from the office’s windows in Paris in the 1950s and drop to the ground when they left at night, because they weren’t given keys; parties with jazz musicians on the Seine; the great editor George Plimpton, who pitched to professional baseball All-Stars and sparred with Sugar Ray Robinson. The Review ran early interviews with Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov; they published original stories by Jack Kerouac and Philip Roth. Most people know this, or they at least know something of it—a whiff of glamour trails after the magazine.
Which is a lot to inherit, if you think about it. When Stein took over the magazine’s leadership in 2010, people were already grumbling about the death of print; things in the publishing world haven’t really improved since then. So how can Stein do justice to something with such historic value at a time in history when its mode of existence is becoming obsolete? What happens to the steward who’s given a treasure he might not be able to protect?
But Stein seems neither flustered nor full of bravado. He’s calm and affable, leaning back in his chair with his legs splayed. “I got an internet connection at home pretty late,” he says. “I always resisted it, and I was late to getting a smart phone. We need a print journal because it’s harder to pay attention now—it’s hard to ignore a text message, or to forgo the possibility of a text message, when you’re trying to read Anna Karenina. Even though you know Anna Karenina will add more to your life than any text message you’re likely to get. I’d dare say the same thing about The Paris Review. We can promise a sense of style, an aesthetic, a way of spending time, a way of thinking about life, that does not—cannot—exist online.”
The magazine, he says, is aware of the pressures it faces. As a result, it has a larger online presence than it used to. With the help of Sadie Stein, who used to edit the fashion section of Jezebel.com, they’re launching a limited line of products: fountain pens, silk ties, retro lipstick and prints by Donald Baechler. They host social events like their Spring Revel. But these things are extraneous to Lorin Stein’s true desire for the magazine: to be America’s discoverer of new fiction and poetry. “George [Plimpton] established The Review,” Stein says. “He made it an institution—but an institution is only as good as its latest issue. It seems to me The Review has a bigger job to do now than it ever had before. George set us up to do that job, but we have to do it ourselves.”
So Stein spends most of his days reading alone, either at home or in the office. He worries about narrative voice and pauses over words that don’t sound quite right (that morning he questioned an author’s use of the phrase “per se”). When he goes home at night, he dreams about work. “I don’t care whether a thing is good compared to the question of whether it’s truly absorbing,” he says, “whether it cuts deep. It’s a matter of only publishing something that we find truly moving or upsetting.”
At the end of our interview we chat informally; it turns out we attended the same elementary school in the ’80s and had the same 5th grade teacher, whom neither of us liked. We joke about whether sex drives change seasonally. I start to see the person I’d read about—funny, charming, someone who’d do fine with a martini. But that only lasts minutes. Soon he says he needs to get back to work.