The Paris Review prints one or two of the more than 20,000 submissions it receives every year, and editor Philip Gourevitch said Tuesday that their taste is somewhat eclectic — citing published interviews with a professional mourner, a graverobber and a man who runs a public toilet.
Gourevitch, a former reporter for The New Yorker, discussed the history behind the Paris Review and the notion of writing as a catalyst for social change with approximately 70 students at a Branford College Master’s Tea.
When George Plimpton created the Paris Review, he was interested in work beyond standard essays and interpretive pieces, Gourevitch said. Plimpton, he said, wanted to create a more lasting writing style, and thus created the literary interview format. During its first four years, the Paris Review interviewed such authors as Ernest Hemingway, E.M. Forster and T.S. Eliot in this new style, which was quite revolutionary at the time, Gourevitch said.
“They used interview form to make real documents — to have a conversation, a transcript, to pass it back and forth and then to refine questions … so that it would not look like a bunch of stuttering idiots over coffee,” Gourevitch said.
Gourevitch said there is great freedom in working for a smaller magazine where the only requirement is to “do something that is entirely alive and fresh.”
While many writers may write with the intention of making the world a better place, Gourevitch said he does not view his book on the Rwandan genocide, “We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families,” or his other writings as expressions of a social agenda.
“It’s kind of odd if you think there is an activist impulse behind the Rwanda book,” Gourevitch said. “It presumes there is an impulse to knowing how the world should change.”
Still, Gourevitch seemed to acknowledge the potentially beneficial results of his journalistic work in raising awareness on otherwise overlooked issues.
“I’m not really convinced that doing stories or that even exposing wickedness in the world could make it better, but if it wasn’t done, the world in some way would be worse,” Gourevitch said.
Some students said they agreed with Gourevitch’s comments that a journalist’s goal should not be to enact change in the world.
“I think to a certain extent to do his or her job well journalists need to be seen as journalists, not as an activist,” Abe Koogler ’06 said. “Even if your article inspires social change, it needs to be because of your astute observations rather than your political agenda.”
But other students were more critical of Gourevitch’s views.
“I appreciate that he was not trying to simplify or condense it into a simplistic idea,” Nicole Wright GRD ’10 said. “But I do wonder when writers say that they don’t want to change the world, whether that’s just a reaction to the irony of our age where you can’t express an earnest urge to alter your surroundings without seeming naive.”
Gourevitch said the Paris Review is currently piecing together a story about a New Orleans man who was thrown in jail the Friday night before Hurricane Katrina struck and saw the prison flood while prison guards fled.
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