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Simply Brigid 

The Paris Review enters a new era

I dial the phone number of Brigid Hughes, the new executive editor of The Paris Review, with a bit of trepidation akin to a freshman's first visit to an idolized professor. I'd heard she was young -- just 31 years old, and that she'd started at the magazine as an intern in 1994 -- but still, I mean, this is THE PARIS REVIEW.

"The reason there are literary magazines is because there is The Paris Review," says Marc Fitten, assistant editor of the The Chattahoochee Review and director of the Southeastern Literary Magazine and Small Press Fair, at which Hughes will speak this weekend.

I get Hughes' voicemail, which turns out to be a good thing because, presuming the highest of high cultural airs, I was going to put a French spin on her name and call her brizh-eed. But from the recording of her sweet, unassuming voice, I learn that it's simply bridge-id.

I shouldn't have been surprised. George Plimpton, the Review's editor-in-chief from its founding in 1953 until his death last year, made a name for himself with his first-person participatory reports of boxing, lion taming and whatever else his health insurance provider would permit. And the magazine rose to prominence by championing unconventional authors such as Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth and V.S. Naipaul before anyone knew what to make of them.

But at 51 years old, with the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass and E.L. Doctorow ready to grace its pages for the asking, and now the loss of Plimpton, can the Review avoid becoming (gulp) respectable?

"Goddamnit," Hughes mutters, then laughs, when I float the R-word in our phone conversation. "I don't want to change what The Paris Review is," she says, "but I don't want to have to worry about being respectable."

The entire editorial staff is made up of people in their early 30s, she says, much like in the early days of Plimpton's reign, and perhaps this offers an opportunity for a renewed focus on audacious writing. "I feel like, looking back through [its] history, that has always had a place in the magazine," says Hughes.

How, I ask, will the Review continue to support new writers with original voices? I expect a complicated answer invoking traditions and visions and prophetic editorial decisions. But she answers simply, "By reading and finding and publishing them," which, of course, is exactly right.

Plimpton was a larger-than-life personality -- a raconteur, a party host without peer, the familiar voice of the Review -- and the question of whether Hughes can ever replace him has become a hot topic of debate. The answer seems to be that she has no interest in doing so. She even retired his title. The literati gossip columns may lament this, but Hughes is precisely what a writer or passionate reader of literature wants: an editor who considers herself fortunate to spend her days reading new fiction and poetry, and who has no loftier aspirations than to offer readers "a good story, a good poem to take with you during the day, and an enthusiasm for that that I hope is evident." It is.


Brigid Hughes speaks at the Carter Center, Fri., Sept. 17, at 7:45 p.m. (doors open at 7). Other speakers at the two-day fair include Mark Bauerlein with the National Endowment for the Arts, Shannon Ravenel with Shannon Ravenel Books, Nat Sobel with Sobel Weber Associates, and T.R. Hummer with The Georgia Review. There will also be readings, writing workshops, a book fair and evening receptions.

Other worthwhile words this week

PushPush Theater presents two readings of Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint, a novel, written as a transcript, about one man's plan to kill the president with radio-controlled saws and marinated magic bullets, and another man's attempt to talk him out of it. The book is a fine musing on the preciousness of life, even the lives of those with blood on their hands.

Tues., Sept. 21 and Sept. 28, 8 p.m. at PushPush Theater, 121 New St., Decatur. $5. 404-377-6332.

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