Reading and Editing: Interviews with Editors
AWP Editor | December 1979
|DeWitt Henry||Wayne Dodd||Michael Gorman||Al Young|
Editor's Note: For those who teach or write, reading for pleasure is hard to separate from reading as responsibility. We wondered what the editors of literary magazines and journals read for pleasure, how that reading influences an editor's handling of the hundreds (or thousands) of manuscripts he or she must read, each year, for the magazine. Is what an editor publishes entirely a matter of personal taste? If there are other influences upon editorial choice, what are they? Does an editor identify a "readership," and does that readership respond to the magazine in any influential way? Below three editors respond to these questions. (Second of a two-part series.)
Each issue of Ploughshares is edited by one of a group of "coordinating editors"—writers and teachers from the larger Boston area—who represent different literary viewpoints, and who are debating, as panelists on a forum, what constitutes good writing. As "general director" of the series, I serve as moderator, attempting to bring out significant contrasts, to pace, to unify, and to keep the discussion as lively as possible. I also have my say, periodically, as a participant, sometimes for the sake of my own needs as a writer, sometimes for the sake of the discussion , taking positions necessary for range and balance. Our audience, finally, is made up of the writers we select and reject (whose work is the proof and substance of our arguing) and of some 3000 readers. By editing this way, we hope "to pull together an increasingly fragmented literary community"; to do justice to a diversity of values; to provide contexts of merit, in which different works can be better judged; to explore the meanings of difference; to challenge provincialisms of taste, theory and acquaintance; and, in the urgency and spirit of debate, to bring alive the question of new writing and thus engage the judgment of readers.
An individual editor shapes his or her issue to make the strongest possible case for his vision of what the rest of us should read and care about. Often that issue serves as a retort to earlier issues or as a provocation to later ones. My own "special 'realism' issue" (2/2) was meant to do both. It was prompted not only by the casual disdain or ignorance of writers whose work counted deeply to me, on the part of my fellow editors and many editors elsewhere, but also by the frustration of seeing much good fiction rejected out of their blindness to kind. Another strong retort and challenge was a special poetry number (2/4) edited by Frank Bidart, with Lloyd Schwartz and Robert Pinsky. While earlier editors had shared Black Mountain and Iowa City enthusiasms, Bidart came out strongly for Lowell, Bishop, Montale, Ginsberg, Taylor, and Howard; and for longer poems, dramatic poems of voice, discursive argument, narrative and "transparent" style. Again later issues provided counter-argument, reflected new tastes and interests. Jane Shore edited an issue (3/3&4) that featured Bishop and Hugo and was praised in one review for including work "which is not entirely surrealistic in approach, serious in tone, or free in form." James Randall's second issue in the series (4/1) restated his affinities by featuring a lead interview with Bill Knott and strong work by Knott, Sirnic, Ashbery, Rexroth, Lux, Levis, Harrison, along with a remarkable section of "discoveries." The interests opened by Shore's and Bidart's issues were carried forward later, with a difference, by Ellen Bryant Voigt (5/1) and Lloyd Schwartz (5/2). Meanwhile, poetry has been balanced by fiction in special and mixed issues edited by Tim O'Brien, Randall, Rosellen Brown, and myself.
Each editor shapes his issue by soliciting work by writers he admires, by responding to the pressure of unsolicited submissions, and, after a certain point, by following the issue's own Gestalt. The integrity of the series—its larger argument and its standards of argument—also holds each editor to the task, regardless of his aesthetic direction; as does our general sense of format, with its deliberate mix of featured figures, younger peers, and "unknowns," and our special commitment to the New England writing community. Given equal quality among stories, for instance, I would go for a first publication by a local writer; I also favor contrasts to other work in the issue, whether in mode, tone, subject matter, or theme. Other times, other circumstances, there might be too much local work. Merit, except in cases of absolutely outstanding work, is not the final criterion. Final consideration is a process in which all these other factors come into play: the "needs" of the issue itself, as shaped by and shaping my choices.
Response takes many forms: letters, pro and con; the volume, nature, and quality of submissions; noticeable issue-to-issue changes in subscriptions and retail sales. We also measure response by "prize" anthology selections, the success of our writers with other publications, editorial reaction by other magazines, and criticism and advice by regular advisors in the writing community. For the most part, all these indicators have been consistently positive and encouraging. My favorite letter, the ideal letter, really, was one in response to Randall's 4/1 which said, "I don't like what you're doing, but I respect it," and included a subscription check. The worst are those (mercifully few) demanding refunds. Because our retail base is several times that of our paid subscription base (and most of our subscriptions come from individuals) we do not enjoy the library support that older quarterlies possess and which obviates accountability, on their part, to a more general audience. We have rejected a good proposal to do a "South American issue," partly because the topic would exclude creative work by local writers (except translations), because other magazines exist that could do it better, and because retail sales to a largely local audience, built up by successive poetry and fiction issues, seemed unlikely. We have to prove ourselves each time out, and maintain a standard of liveliness and excellence that will hold together an audience of varied preferences. We cannot afford to publish an issue off the point—even if anyone of us wanted to—or one divorced from the terms we've adopted for our argument; nor can we afford an issue to the point, if it is perfunctory in spirit or dull. The success of our departures, and there have been many, reaching out for new areas of competence and audience, is measured by growth.
While our audience has not grown beyond the 3000 mark (we estimate 5000 for self-sustaining operation), it has not dropped below that mark either, except briefly—for one issue in the last twelve. Meanwhile, the magazine itself has grown to genuine quarterly status, publishing twice as many issues and three times as many writers as it did three years ago. It has grown in range and quality of interest as well; and writers, editors and audience have grown with it not only in their sense of literature, but in their sense of each other and of the rich and complex moment we inhabit.
The Ohio Review
Surely when the literary history of this decade is written, perhaps with the clarity of perspective time and distance sometimes provide, it will be pointed out that never before had there been such a clamor of poets, such a great number of people willing—even eager to call, see, and offer themselves as poets. It may well be that the writers of this history will say the period was also a flowering of American poetry, producing not merely unwonted numbers but uncommonly high quality as well. And then again they may not. They may judge, finally, that the desire to write poems, shared by so many in the 1970s, was not matched by an equal capacity (or determination) to write significant poems, that these many hundreds of poets managed to produce nothing more than thousands of volumes of undistinguished verse. Or maybe the historians will say this period in the second half of the twentieth century produced the usual number of great and first-rate poets (never a large number at anyone time) but in addition vastly increased numbers of mediocre-to-competent ones.
I suspect the latter assessment is the more likely, also the one nearer the truth. But of course it's too soon to tell. However, there's no denying the numbers—the writing programs, the small-press books, the little magazines, the poetry readings, the avalanche of submissions to magazines of all sizes and quality.
And I believe there can be no denying the vitality of this outpouring—taken over-all. Or the richness and beauty of much of this writing. Or the challenge it presents—to sort out, to properly appreciate, to discern patterns and contexts in. This, at least, is the set of ideas The Ohio Review came out of-—almost a decade ago. We were (and are) excited by the good writing of our time. We wanted to identify it, to welcome it, to enjoy it, to share it, to foster it. Also to define it. Even, perhaps, to help shape it.
And that is what we have tried to do for the past nine years. Every poem we publish, every essay, every interview we do or special feature we commission, every story we accept, and every review we assign is seen and intended as a contribution to a representative matrix of contemporary American writing. Obviously my own personal taste is implicated in everything that is published in The Ohio Review: we have never published anything that I did not think was both good writing in its own right and also something that carried a sense of the present in itself. But I suspect my taste, in that sense, is less a limiting factor and more an enlarging one. Does a poem I read have that elusive but real spirit of the vital present in it, for instance? If it seems so to me, if my personal taste for the richness of the contemporary moment says yes, then I may be interested in publishing the poem. If it says no, I won't be. Needless to say, other essentials to a good contemporary poem are such more readily identifiable ingredients as skill, craft, energy, intelligence, awareness, etc. And my work as a poet and a critic and a teacher all contribute to my judgement of what are central movements and developments in contemporary writing. Since its beginning, The Ohio Review has been identified with a strong interest in poetics, as shown in our continuing series of interviews and special features on poets and poetics. Naturally something more than mere taste (in a limiting sense) goes into my (and my associates') decisions about what poets we will feature, whom we will interview. But it is nonetheless true that no extra-literary (extra personal) considerations go into those decisions. We feature who we think -and feel-is important, central, representative, presaging. And in several instances we have been considerably in advance of general public recognition, sometimes years in advance.
We do get reader response, primarily through unsolicited letters, but in truth these have mostly served to support us in our taste and judgement. Unquestionably, we have over the years developed a readership that expects certain things from The Ohio Review, because that is what they have come to identify it with. For example, we recently published a "special fiction" issue, in the belief that there is still a great deal of first-rate fiction being written and that it and the writers deserve better presentation than the constantly shrinking number of outlets for fiction provide. A considerable number of readers have written appreciation of the quality and range of the fiction in this issue. But one reader added to his praise, "Nonetheless I was disappointed, for I realized that what I had come to depend on The Ohio Review for is the poetry, which I always read first, in order to be reminded of what the best contemporary poetry is like." We have attempted for the past nine years to offer in each issue an enlarging context of writing: poems, fiction, a continuing series on American poetics, essays, reviews. The fiction issue didn't do that. More than one reader noted the lack. Which is to say, they were noting that over the years we have been successful in our main endeavor.
If some of the above sounds self-congratulatory, the demands of the present assignment seem to make it unavoidable. The editor of a literary magazine must, it seems to me, trust his taste and judgement. Completely. Of course he may, as I do, seek the advice and aid of his associates, but he has got to believe he can judge, for whatever complex of reasons, what is worthy. If, in time, his confidence is borne out by the acceptance and plaudits and recognition of others, then he is right to continue to believe in it. If it is not so borne out, then perhaps the editor should re-examine his role.
Quite literally, a list of contemporary writers I like to read looks like a list of writers who have appeared in The Ohio Review. For while there are of course some who are not there, the overwhelming majority are, many of them again and again. Philip Levine, Wright Morris, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Richard Hugo, Mark Strand, William Matthews, Patricia Zelver, Robert Penn Warren, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Robert Sly, Stanley Plumly, William Stafford, George Starbuck, John Logan, Adrienne Rich, Max Apple, W. S. Merwin, Mona Van Duyn, Robert Taylor, Lisel Mueller, James Wright, Gary Snyder, Hollis Summers... The catalogue would be too long to finish here. But I genuinely wish there were space to carry it on. For that list demonstrates, I believe, the success of The Ohio Review's editorial policy. And it is also simply a naming of a great many of the finest writers in America today.
Michael Gorman, Maggie Hivnor
Michael Gorman: Maggie, we've been editing Chicago Review for almost a year now; looking back, what are you most pleased with?
Maggie Hivnor: Well, I like the fact that Volume 31, Number 1 seems to have some unity to it—the pieces talk to each other and work well together.
Gorman: That issue is definitely my favorite, but I'm not sure I would describe it as unified.
Hivnor: O.K., "unified" may be stretching it. What I mean is that given our eclecticism—-and I think one of the main points of this magazine is that it is eclectic-—this issue gives the reader a thread to follow, through at least some of what he is reading. At times I feel it can be unsettling for our readers to have to jump from context to context with each new work.
Gorman: I don't think we should be too concerned with that. Publishing a more homogeneous magazine, either to create an image that would sell and a format that would soothe readers with dependability, or out of commitment to some literary school, has disadvantages. It restricts you. A literary magazine ought to publish the best of what is being written. If we organized every issue around a particular theme, we would have to leave a great deal of excellent writing out in the cold.
Hivnor: Well, I'll agree with that. The poetry staff had to send back a month's worth of manuscripts while the Black Mountain issue was underway, and our backlog is large enough anyway, even when we do publish an eclectic issue every three months. I suppose if readers are not expecting someone as experimental as Mella, Taggart, Fishman, or Peter Handke, it won't hurt them to take a look at something new. Or if they are expecting Handke, then we can remind them that William Stafford or Bo Ball are still worth reading as well.
Gorman: But our primary concern is that those who will appreciate a piece get a chance to see it. I'm not sure we should take it upon ourselves to educate readers, although it's an appealing idea.
Hivnor: Well, it's certainly not easy. But, you know, I find it frustrating not to know more about how our readers react to the material. I get a local consensus and a few reactions from New York, but what about all those libraries? And what about the readers we never hear from?
Gorman: We can't expect fan mail. The Black Mountain issue is sold out, so obviously someone enjoyed reading it. The number of unsolicited manuscripts we get—from Seattle to London—is an indication that writers understand what we're trying to do. We consistently publish the unknown writer's work and publish it right alongside pieces that have more familiar names attached. I think writers notice that.
Hivnor: It does seem, sometimes, that we are more responsive to writers than to readers. Many of our "special sections" are conceived in response to unsolicited material. The Very Short Fiction section in 30:2, for instance, was put together because we happened to receive a number of good short fiction pieces, and we decided to get more. So that even when an issue isn't completely eclectic, it is often a response to what is "being written," as you say.
Gorman: We're beginning to sound like we are so me sort of literary barometer.
Hivnor: Well, I think we are a literary barometer.
Gorman: But it's not so mechanical. Sure, we publish unknown writers, but only a tiny percentage of all the ones who send things. There is a selection process. We have a large staff, and many people have some say in what is selected. Granting the inevitable variety of taste, what sort of thing do we like to publish? Let me make it easier. What qualities would the ideal poem, the ideal Chicago Review poem, possess?
Hivnor: Wait. This is a university for neo-Aristotelians. Mallarme tried to write an ideal poem once, you know; I doubt he would recommend it. But to answer your question: I would say a freshness of language, a new way of thinking or seeing and of using words, Richard Cole and hans carl artmann, for example. Then there is power—something has to happen when you read the poem. Rhythm, of course, and control, a shape. The thing has to be convincing, too, so it must be intelligent, unhackneyed. One way I know we select poems is by reading and rereading them. They either keep getting better, or they get worse.
Gorman: One criterion I think we apply generally, to all genres, is that a piece be both challenging and intelligible. We go for things that require an attentive, thoughtful reader, and that on close reading reveal fine touches of meaning and language. I don't think we've published an issue that didn't contain a few very difficult pieces. Difficult to understand, even difficult to read. But here's where intelligibility comes in. When we publish a difficult piece, it's because we're confident that it has a discernible, appropriate structure, and that careful reading will be rewarded.
Hivnor: Every now and then a poem or story comes along that reveals itself in all its glory on first reading—I'm thinking of one of the translations from the Sanskrit, or David Lee's "Reporter." By and large, though, if a story is obvious or traditional we give it second priority. It belongs with another magazine.
Gorman: Of course, every piece must be well-written. We aren't literary consultants, nor do we see ourselves as copyeditors.
Hivnor: Yes, in the best of all possible (non-Aristotelian) worlds, every work we looked at would be the complete, final version, not the second-to-last draft. And CR would continue to put out special issues and special sections, balancing eclecticism with focus—actually, that's possible.
Note: Al Young co-edits Y'Bird with Ishmael Reed. The final issue of Y'Bird, tentatively titled Ishmael Reed's and AI Young's Farewell, will be out next year.
Among contemporary writers, whom do you like to read?
Young: I have unusual reading habits. I read magazines like Natural History and Parabola: Myth and the Quest for Meaning. I've been reading books like Lewis Thomas' The Medusa and the Snail and Lives of a Cell. And The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. The Tao Physics, by Fritjof Capra. The Dancing Wu-Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics, by an amateur physicist named Gary Zukov.
My interest in these things stems from a mysticism that's been a part of my working beliefs for a lifetime. I've noticed, from my experience as an author and teacher, that the arts and humanities have become increasingly un-humanistic. Scientists in physics and biology realized twenty years ago that their technologies were finite. They turned to the arts, religion, the study of myth to fill in some of the gaps. They've become more theistic than the poets, novelists, and others who should be concerned with the mystery of creation and man's place in it.
It seems to me that writers these days are less concerned with the experiences they write about than they are with becoming "stars." Poets are practically underfoot. It's almost like the late 18th century, when everyone was writing "poetry" that wasn't really poetic—as often as not, it was measured doggerel. What I look for in a piece of writing is a sense of adventure—a sense of entering new worlds that are partly known or intuited by me—but approached in a new way, a revelatory way. Few writers today seem to be genuinely in touch with the unseen—the known world which is also unknown. What led me to literature was a search for the truth. If that's what it's all about, then we have no quarrel with true scientists. And I'm not talking about technicians. They aren't motivated by passion. Truth can be arrived at by poetry, fiction, mythmaking, and by other investigations—including imaginative scientific inquiry. What's exciting about literature now is that the forms are merging.
I guess our culture leads a writer to assume that success means the Pulitzer Prize, an appearance on the "Tonight Show," your picture on the cover of Time. It's odious. It's aggravated by the conglomerates that are taking over the publishing houses—Holt taken over by CBS, RCA buying Knopf and Random House. Fiat owns Bantam. Mattel Toys and ABC are trying to take over McMillan. So you have an upper-echelon executive mentality controlling publishing. It's for profit; it has nothing to do with art.
How about your magazine: how do these factors influence your editorial choices?
Young: Our editorial policy at Y'Bird has always been eclectic. Our intention was to go beyond ideological and aesthetic limitations or biases. We discovered that there was an audience, particularly among the young, for the kind of multicultural literary showcase that we set out to present.
Back in the early 70s Ishmael and I realized that New York publishers saw black writing as a fad—one among many to come rolling down the pike. Something ephemeral, something to cash in on. What happened to "non-white" books, in the marketplace, was this: unless they were potential block-busters, they didn't receive serious attention.
Shawn Wong, for example, is an excellent writer who writes about growing up as an Asian-American. But since "Asian-American" hasn't hit New York yet, the publishers assumed there was no audience for the work. They look at color first, at the work later. Wong's book Night Rider still hasn't been published, but Home Base was just recently released on the West Coast, where it got rave reviews. Now he has a contract with MGM, and he's just been offered one by McGraw Hill.
Y'Bird, too, was a West Coast phenomenon that New York didn't pick up on for awhile. But the European market for the magazine developed quickly, and sales, orders, and the volume of submissions coming over the transom from all kinds of sources—from housewives to academics to arcane literary circles—indicated to us that we were doing what we set out to do.
In the world of music, a process known as fusion began in the 60s and continued through the 70s: Indian music, blues, rock and roll, classical, country, pop music from the past, Asian, Latin and Afro-Latin music started turning up everywhere. We wanted to see that kind of spirit reflected in our magazine. The Partisan Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Massachusetts Review and other established magazines tended to publish the same people over and over. If there were readers and writers who were happy with the status quo, with having the same staples around, that was fine. But we tried to do something different. We maintained our own high standards, but that didn't mean we'd only accept totally polished pieces polished to the point of sterility. We wouldn't turn down a submission because it had a certain rawness about it: often these pieces were the most adventurous, the most exciting. The last thing we wanted to be was dull. When we got letters from readers and contributors praising us for being "always unpredictable," it was a strong indication that we were accomplishing what we had intended.
Who are some of the other writers you read for pleasure? How about poets?
Young: It's important to know this about me: I think the best poetry is between two people—in letters, in conversations—that's where poetry really lives. Not in anthologies of bookstores, not "professional poetry." But there are some well-known poets I read for fun: W.S. Merwin, Gilbert Sorrentino, Emily Dickinson, Theodore Roethke, Mayakovsky. And Marge Piercy, Dave Etter, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Mei Mei Berssenbrugge, James Welch, Blase Cendrars, Jana Harris, Nicolas Guillen, Horacio Quiroga, Vincente Huidobro.
As I mentioned before, my tastes in reading are unusual. I started reading early: in my teens I spent a lot of time in the library reading very offbeat literature, which probably shaped my tastes. I also read Rimbaud, Kay Boyle, James Agee, Kenneth Patchen, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. So by the time I got to college I had already read all this stuff, and I got interested in writers who were using language to build alternative worlds that seemed totally real: writers who could construct myths, mythical worlds in which the reader could fully participate. Raymond Carver does it in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? which is full of bickering American couples—characters straight out of television sitcoms—that Carver has mythicized, turned into high art. William Denby does it in Love Story Black; Thomas Sanchez in Rabbit Boss. James Clavell's Shogun is another one, and so is Irving Howes' World of Our Fathers, which is a history. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn is another good example of what I'm talking about. It's about a Native American named Abel, who leaves the reservation to go to L.A. where he ends up with a group of derelicts in the city. It's a myth of American civilization: we're always, psychically, looking for the next big leap. All those middle-aged executives growing their hair long, taking self-help courses and drugs: we never placed much value on happiness and fulfillment; we're too progress-oriented. Not happiness, but the pursuit of happiness is our object. The best American writing reveals this.