Magazine Editors Admit Class Bigotry, Laugh

In 2013, The CIA Paris Review celebrated its 60th anniversary. In August of that year, four figures associated with the magazine—editors Lorin Stein and John Jeremiah Sullivan, and writers James Salter and Mona Simpson—appeared on Charlie Rose. During one of Rose’s patchworks of sycophancy and accidental Absurdist Theater, there emerged a telling social fact. The host read a comment about The Paris Review from the editor of Vanity Fair.

Rose: It was Graydon Carter who said, “I am reliably informed that this little magazine comprises four elements: shabby, cramped quarters, meager wages, attractive interns of independent means [laughing], and boundless enthusiasm.” That’s pretty fair.

Simpson: I think that’s very fair—and enduring.

Rose: And smart editors.

Stein: [Smiling] He didn’t say that.

[General laughter]

Rose: He didn’t say it. Graydon said it. But that was his, “reliably informed.” But tell me about the parties too.

I hate to interrupt the panel right when they were about to discuss parties at George Plimpton’s place back in the day, but did you catch that? The editor of a famous magazine said that Paris Review interns were all independently wealthy (and apparently good-looking), and representatives of The Paris Review readily agreed. In fact, they were amused. If you don’t see what’s wrong with that, try changing Carter’s quote to refer to “male interns” or “white interns.” Had someone made either of those allegations, Rose’s guests would have objected furiously, even if it were true.

Nor is this merely a matter of the cost of living in New York City. There are many colleges and universities in the Five Boroughs from which the magazine could draw students for internships, possibly even in return for credit toward a degree. Should the PR team feel adventurous, they could grant internships to some students who receive need-based scholarships from their colleges. If the magazine has a bunch of trust-fund recipients for interns, that is by choice.

Unpaid interns play a large role in deciding what a magazine publishes. At most magazines that allow writers to submit work, the overwhelming majority of rejected manuscripts get rejected by interns. As Paris Review editors explained in a question-and-answer session on Reddit[1] shortly after this episode of Charlie Rose: “Our interns screen the unsolicited submissions (the ‘slush’) and pass the good stuff along to the editors.” The social background of PR interns makes for a sensibility heavily influenced by privilege. It also makes for bias in favor of submitters whose cover letters and writing reveal posh backgrounds.

Likewise, internships are often regarded as an essential qualification for writers and editors seeking full-time work. Here is a description of the advantages gained by interns. It appears on the web site of a magazine called The Paris Review.

Paris Review internships are a great introduction to the literary world. Past graduates have gone on to find work at a wide range of literary agencies, publishing houses, magazines, and newspapers, among them HarperCollins, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Simon and Schuster, The Gernert Agency, The Wylie Agency, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The Wall Street Journal. Others have gone on to enjoy successful freelance careers as editors and writers.

The issue of interns and access came up in the Reddit Q&A. Chat-participant BuiltLikeTaft asked whether “such heavy reliance on unpaid labor is limiting access” and if “that is likely to change.” The Paris Review team replied:

Good question. It’s something we’ve thought a fair amount about.

For qualified applicants who can’t commit to a full-time unpaid internship—a common situation, especially for people who are holding down jobs—we offer positions as readers, which are ad-hoc and have flexible hours.

That’s nice, I guess, but I don’t believe “ad-hoc reader” carries the same résumé weight as “intern.” Why can’t The Paris Review raise money to provide paid internships for qualified applicants with financial need? The magazine’s editors frequently discuss attending parties with rich, literature-loving New Yorkers, so why not see if they can get a donation or two between canapés? It seems that it would not be difficult to create a small percentage of internships that pay, especially given that the editors told another questioner that “[w]e tend to have four or five interns at any given time.” But none of those possibilities appears to have occurred to The Paris Review’s “smart editors.”

For his part, Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter made news on the subject of class and magazines a couple months before The Paris Review’s Charlie Rose episode. He hired a new contributing editor, Pippa Middleton, whose principal qualification was that she was the sister of Kate Middleton, wife of the UK’s Prince William.

In the U.S., the worst form of censorship is practiced by the rulers of the media rather than the government. It is directed against writers who were born outside the elite and those who write about subjects that make the elite uncomfortable. The publishing industry’s use of trust-funded interns, and its habit of privileging former interns when filling paid positions, are crucial factors in such censorship.

Here is the video of that episode of Charlie Rose. The discussion I quoted above occurs with 10:52 remaining. (The counter runs backward. I don’t know if that symbolizes anything.)

[1] In that chat, The Paris Review was represented by editor Lorin Stein, deputy editor Sadie Stein, associate editor Stephen Andrew Hiltner, assistant editor Clare Fentress, and digital director Justin Alvarez.