Moveable Type: Talking with John Barton, Editor of the Malahat Review
September 1, 2014
AWP had the opportunity to interview John Barton, editor of the Malahat Review, one of Canada’s longest-running and best-acclaimed literary magazines.
Tell us about the Malahat Review. [Our] reputation is built [on] almost 50 years of remarkable writing. Our readers know that what they will encounter between our covers is going to be of good quality. They may not always like it—and I believe a mixed reaction to what [we] publish is a good sign, for it means that we have a better chance of appealing to diverse tastes. Along with a handful of other journals, [we’re] at the apex of Canadian literary-magazine publishing. I don’t do much solicitation. We are in a symbiotic relationship with the writers wanting to publish with us, though I am always delighted when we push outside what we are “expected” to publish. Canada’s literary culture is remarkably diverse and vibrant, with many, often conflicting, aesthetics being pursued.
How are submissions treated? The work submitted [here] is carefully screened. There are three boards, one for each genre, and once a submission is screened in for further consideration, it is read by every board member. Typically the boards each meet twice to choose material for each issue. After a submission is accepted, I work with the authors, passing on any editorial suggestions board members have as well as copy-editing the text to bring it to final publishable form. Four years ago, we formalized a mentoring process, whereby we tentatively accept promising work, assigning a mentor to work with the author under the proviso that the resulting revision is something publishable. We’ve had positive results, with mentored work often being nominated for or winning national awards.
How significant are contest entries? The contests are the lifeblood of the magazine. While many past contributors do enter them, they usually attract writers we have never previously published. Also, many of our winners go on to win major prizes, including National Magazine Awards (the Malahat has won more of these than any other Canadian literary magazine). [Our judges] typically report that the reading was a pleasure and the decision-making hard, which is the ideal I aim for.
What does it mean to be a contributor to Malahat? “I’m on my way because I am a Malahat irregular!” Even if it’s no longer true, writers often see being publishing [here] as a watershed moment in the struggle to establish a much-sought-after reputation. Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi), whose first publication was in the Malahat Review in the late 1980s, has told me that the magazine’s early support was crucial to building his confidence. Acceptance by us—whoever “us” may be—lends a writer’s bons mots temporary credibility and potentially lasting cachet. We use the word “essential” in our subtitle (“Essential Poetry, Fiction, Creative Nonfiction”), and perhaps, in the minds of writers and readers, it confers “a necessity to be read” on what we publish.
A final word? I believe there is still a place for well-curated journals whose editorial values help shape and focus literary acumen and taste. If [journals] are not exactly the equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and mandated to safeguarding our literary health, they are beacons and arbiters of excellence—with as many versions of what excellence is as there are magazines. If you want to publish in such an environment, you need to subscribe; you need to send us your work. Your karma will be better as a result.
To subscribe and submit your work, visit http://web.uvic.ca/malahat/index.html.