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After 51 years, a new editor

By Teresa MéndezStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2004



Back in January, Brigid Hughes quietly assumed the role of editor of The Paris Review. In doing so, she stepped into the oversize shoes of the late George Plimpton. A larger-than-life characterwho did little in his life quietly, the venerable literary magazine's longtime editor died last year.

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Ms. Hughes sounds muted and deliberate over the phone, speaking from her office in the Manhattan town house where Mr. Plimpton once lived and the Review continues to reside. She weighs her words carefully - and for good reason.

The Paris Review's summer 2004 issue hit shelves last week, the first issue compiled without Plimpton's guiding hand. Now, with the matter of a successor resolved, readers and the larger literary community are turning to a different question: Just how different will things be with Hughes at the helm?

Over the years, the slim quarterly has published fiction by Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel García Márquez, Ian McEwan, and Ann Patchett. The current issue includes a poem by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins - and works by the lesser-known Spring Melody Berman.

One thing Hughes is trying to do is attract more international fiction.

She's also working to incorporate more nonfiction into the pages of a publication perhaps best known for its "Writers at Work" series - author interviews on the craft of writing that have featured such luminaries as E.M. Forster and Ernest Hemingway. The summer issue includes a conversation with Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.

What Hughes has in mind is, in a sense, a new spin on this interview: ruminations on the larger creative process - "what writers think about, and what they look into when they aren't sitting down and writing the novel," she explains. For example, Aleksandar Hemon, whose first novel, "Nowhere Man," was set partly in Eastern Europe, returned to the region last year to research a new book. Hughes hopes he will weave that experience into an essay.

When asked how her literary tastes diverge from Plimpton's, Hughes demurs: "I'm not sure I'm the person to answer that." In fact, few seem poised to predict the exact direction she'll take the publication. But the consensus seems to be that wherever it may go, the movement will be incremental and gentle.

Robert Silvers, coeditor of The New York Review of Books and a Paris Review advisory editor who headed the search for Plimpton's replacement, says change "is not going to veer in a jagged, dramatic way, but will be more gradual."

The Paris Review was born in the summer of 1953. Discouraged by the way criticism seemed to be drowning writing in literary magazines at the time, writers Peter Matthiessen and Harold Humes set out to create a venue for fiction and poetry. They envisioned a publication in which literary criticism would be relegated "somewhere near the back of the book." Plimpton became its editor. He was 27.

Hughes was 30 when named executive editor of the Review. She started as an intern in 1994, her first job out of college, and became managing editor in 2000.

Plimpton was in his element in the spotlight. Hemade cameo appearances in films, and was famous for the parties he hosted and the "participatory journalism" he practiced - taking on the parts of boxer, coach, trapeze artist. Hughes says she prefers "the behind-the-scenes stuff: reading the manuscripts and editing and putting the magazine together."

But what they share, say those who know the magazine best, is impeccable literary taste and a hunger for undiscovered talent: He first publishedJack Kerouac, Mona Simpson, and V.S. Naipaul. She "has exquisite taste," says Ben Howe, a senior editor. "She has complete confidence in her own judgment as an editor."

These are undoubtedly tough times for literature. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently released a discouraging study. In sum, it said, we are not a nation of literary readers.

But Hughes seems concerned less with losing readers than with capturing new readers for her magazine, with its circulation of 10,000. "I don't think that we would ever have subscribers in the numbers of a Vanity Fair," she says. "But I do think there's an untapped group of people."

One way Hughes hopes to attract a new audience is through what she calls the DNA of literature project. To be launched in September, and supported by a grant from the NEA, it will make available on The Paris Review's website past author interviews with introductions by contemporary writers - such as Jonathan Lethem on Graham Greene.

Mr. Matthiessen acknowledges the decline of readers, but he, too, is hopeful. "There's a hard core that will persist," he says. Besides, he adds, "Writers being writers - and the obsessive, neurotic people they are - will keep writing, even in a vacuum."

Judging by the tenacious way in which the magazine has managed to remain in circulation for 51 years, the same might be said of a Paris Review editor.

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