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Lorin Stein '91: "It's Not Exactly Taking Men Into Battle"

Lorin Stein ‘91, editor of the legendary Paris Review, says conventional leadership doesn’t work with poets, novelists and other creative intellectuals

It’s not always easy knowing the exact moment a school touches a child’s soul, but Lorin Stein has a clear memory of how it once happened to him at Potomac more than 30 years ago. His second-grade teacher, Sarah Corson, had arranged a visit by Ashley Bryan, an African-American writer and illustrator of children’s books. Bryan described the process of making a book—the writing, illustration, printing—and young Lorin was shocked at how long it took. But he was enchanted too: He loved making little books at home and dreamed of making bigger books.

Lorin tells this story as he sits behind his desk in the Manhattan office of the Paris Review, the venerable quarterly once edited by the illustrious George Plimpton. At 40, in his fourth year as editor, he has completed the transition from would-be novelist to book editor to leader of the nation’s largest and most storied literary publication, which has taught him a thing or two about leadership and its limitations if you are dealing with creative intellectuals.

The magazine’s office is in a building in Chelsea, a third-floor loft on the same floor as a high-end makeup company. On Lorin’s office walls are large Paris Review prints by Andy Warhol and Alex Katz, and on the desk is an ashtray, a vintage cigarette box where he keeps receipts, an old-fashioned Rolodex, a partially edited manuscript, and an Apple computer. Lorin—rail thin, with close-cropped hair—has had a busy week, including a taping of the Charlie Rose Show.

He was born in 1973 and grew up in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC, when it was a gritty and cool enclave of Latino immigrants and young liberals. “The family business has always been liberal politics,” he says. His father was a former community organizer who helped run a nonprofit organization, and his mother taught Head Start in an African-American neighborhood. Though not especially literary, his parents were well-educated and attentive to Lorin’s interests, giving him a subscription to the Paris Review when he was a teenager.

Lorin says that he “passionately loved” Potomac—especially the rituals surrounding May Day and Christmas, the woods, the big oak and open fields, and the time he was given simply to read. He also fondly remembers other favorite teachers, including Sara Hebeler in sixth grade, her husband, John, in art, and his Latin teacher, the “notoriously mean and universally loved” Imogen Rose.

But he often felt out of place as a city kid, from east of Rock Creek Park, in a suburban setting and enrolled on scholarship (by then his mother was driving a taxi, which she brought to a career day). He felt most at home on the bus rides to school, where he hung out with other DC kids who taught him “what was cool”—one of the older ones took him to see Eddie Murphy at a record signing in Georgetown. “To me the bus was a school within a school,” he says. After the sixth grade he moved to Sidwell Friends, along with his younger sister, Anna ’93, who also attended Potomac in the lower grades. She’s now a book agent in New York.

Lorin majored in English at Yale, then spent a year as a teaching fellow in a poetry-writing program at Johns Hopkins to see if he had talent as a teacher. He found writing good verse hard, and motivating students even harder when they had no interest in poetry. “It was a one-year experiment with very clear results,” he says.

Without waiting for his graduation ceremony, Lorin packed off to New York City, got a cheap room and made another stab at becoming a writer—this time as a novelist. “It seemed like that’s where the fun was and that’s where the glory was,” he says. But a book proved as impossible as poetry. Someone gave him a copy of Infinite Jest, the ambitious novel by David Foster Wallace. The book captured the world in a way Lorin had imagined doing in his own novel, and in a strange way he felt more relief than jealousy.

Lorin landed his first job as a secretary at Publishers Weekly, which runs short reviews of upcoming books. He got a chance to write, rewrite and edit items on deadline—2,000 reviews in 18 months—confirming that he had a knack for editing. He’d been editing for a long time—while in high school his father had given him a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and asked him to edit speeches and other documents from his office. He found satisfaction in improving the words of others, and editing didn’t induce the ego-deflating anxiety that sometimes goes with writing.

Next came a job as an assistant to Jonathan Galassi, the editor in chief at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a publishing house so exalted that young Lorin had once delivered a package to its office on Union Square just to see inside. Lorin followed along as Galassi rose to become president and publisher and moved up himself over the next 12 years to become a senior editor working with many authors, including Jonathan Franzen, and publishing his own criticism and translations from French.

At last, the little boy who made little books after his classes at Potomac was editing really big books, including winners of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.

All this put Lorin inside a New York literary universe that included the renowned Paris Review. Founded in Paris in 1953 by American expatriates (and moved to New York in 1973),the quarterly in its first five years published Jack Kerouac, V. S. Naipaul, Adrienne Rich, Philip Roth and Robert Bly. Since its early Lorindays, it had been edited by George Plimpton, known as the author of Paper Lion, in which he joined the Detroit Lions as an amateur quarterback.

Plimpton also was known for the parties he threw in his Upper East Side apartment. While at Publishers Weekly, Lorin was invited to the first of his many Plimpton parties. He knew no one and ended up talking mostly to a middle-aged woman who introduced herself as the mistress of a German writer whose novel he had just read. He also met Plimpton, who proved genial and worthy of Norman Mailer’s pronouncement that he was “the best-loved man in New York.” Thrilled, Lorin raced home to call his mother.

After Plimpton died unexpectedly at age 76 in 2003, Lorin’s mentor Jonathan Galassi was asked to suggest a successor; Galassi handed the assignment to Lorin. Their candidate didn’t get the job, but when it opened up again five years later, Lorin was again asked to come up with candidates. This time, he took the job himself, in part because he was discouraged by the future of the book business in the digital age.

Lorin says the Review deals with such a scattered lot of writers, sitting alone trying to craft great fiction and poetry, that they aren’t susceptible to much of what is thought of as conventional leadership. “People who write fiction and poetry—the ones who do it at a very high level—are simply different from you and me,” he says. “They have a skill that looks ordinary enough, because they work with regular old words, but really is as rare as the ability to compose a symphony or sculpt figures in the round.

“I’ve been very lucky, and have worked almost exclusively with writers who seem to me the best at what they do, so there’s never been any question of ‘leading’ them—more like trying to keep up.

“I’m in charge of what we publish and how we publish it—but this is just a matter of reading and having feelings about what I read, the same as anyone who’s got a stack of books on the nightstand. It’s not exactly taking men into battle.”

Still, Lorin sets the direction of the quarterly. Though he has relaunched the Review website and created a Twitter account and new blog, Lorin is very much a traditionalist who respects the magazine’s priceless legacy. The print version, circulation18,000 and growing, remains the heart of the enterprise and literature is its game. While his predecessor, the author and New Yorker journalist Philip Gourevitch, added reportage to the story mix, Lorin has returned to the magazine’s tradition of an exclusive focus on imaginative fiction and poetry, some of it tackling dark and edgy subjects. He also has continued the magazine’s renowned series of interviews with famous writers about their craft.

Lorin intends for the Review to extend its time-honored role as a literary gatekeeper and discoverer of new writers—often the appearance of a story or poem by an unknown prompts an email from an agent the day the magazine comes out. In the end Lorin’s choices of what to publish demonstrate new possibilities for literature to readers, which is leadership of a different sort: “I think it is our role to lead our readers a bit. We are not doing our job if we only print what they want. We need to show them what we love and make a case for it.”

“I’ve been very lucky, and have worked almost exclusively with writers who seem to me the best at what they do, so there’s never been any question of leading them—more like trying to keep up.”

Lorin Stein '91