GNOMIC SAVIORS: EDITORS ON EDITING
What happens to lit mags in a recession?
moderated by Okla Elliott
responses by Jacob Knabb, Ben George, Aaron Burch,
Raymond Hammond, Anne McPeak, and Jodee Stanley
Okla Elliott: Everyone is talking about the current economic situation in the US. How is this affecting literary journals, and what are the solutions you’ve found?
Jodee Stanley (Ninth Letter): I think the economy has got us all biting our nails, looking over our shoulders. I’m interested to hear what independent journals have to say about the effects on their projects—for those of us housed and funded in part (or in full) by universities, we are finding ourselves looking for ways both to prove our value and to reduce our reliance on institutional funds, or face getting axed, I think. We’re seeing more journals, like Hunger Mountain and Marlboro Review, going to all-online publication in order to reduce overhead. The situation with New England Review, with Middlebury giving them the ultimatum of becoming fully self-supporting by 2011 or getting cut off—that’s made a lot of us very nervous. I think we’re not going to know the full effects of the economic disaster on literary publishing for quite some time, really.
At Ninth Letter, one thing in particular that’s been hard to take is the fact that our state arts council funds are disappearing—the Illinois Arts Council’s budget for 2010 is less than half of what it was for 2009, which means many, many programs are going to be cut, and the grants that are still being supported are going to be given in reduced amounts. This bodes ill not just for us literary publishers who rely in part on state grants, but also for all artists and writers in the state. If this is happening here in Illinois, I’m betting it’s happening elsewhere, too. Just at the time when we need to be showing our university sponsor that we can go out and attract support from outside campus, we face losing one of our most important off-campus sponsorships.
And of course, the bad economy means it’s harder to get new subscribers and find new donors, because people in general have less discretionary income—but this is where we’re putting a lot of our energy right now, into reaching out to as many potential readers and supporters in as many ways as we can—preferably inexpensive marketing efforts. And we’re also trying to reach out and make more regional connections, to find support, and to give support to others, within our immediate community.
Jacob Knabb (Another Chicago Magazine): I have no idea how to go about addressing this question. I don’t really handle the money matters at ACM. So I can’t speak to the particulars, really. Of course the economy is frightening, and we are quietly crossing our fingers in the hope that we won’t run into major problems as a result.
However, we are independent. Our budget is small, but we are very flexible, and we are only answerable to ourselves. This gives us a great deal of freedom. I’d imagine that we are not nearly as susceptible to a recession as Ninth Letter, for example.
We are currently exploring ways to use the internet to connect with new audiences. We use Facebook. We have a website. Most of our money goes into printing costs. We’re trying to broaden our audience and escape the confines of the Midwest—not that we dislike the Midwest, but we want to reach beyond the region more.
What I am trying to do more and more as an editor is to seek and to explore ways in which we can maximize the strengths of the printed page. It is senseless to compete with web-based literary journals, as we cannot do what they can. But, that said, they can’t do what we can either. So we are moving more towards having thematized issues, weaving tons of art into each issue, and trying to publish work that develops into a sort of dialogue from issue to issue.
Who knows if it will work? But none of us are getting paid for it anyway, so I have faith that we can pay for it in any case.
Anne McPeak (A Public Space): Here at A Public Space, we held our breath like everyone else through last winter, but we seem to have passed through the economic downturn mainly unscathed. The New York State Council on the Arts made ominous warnings about the decreases grantees should expect this year, but in the end, the change was not drastic at all. We renegotiated our printing contract, and we opted for an e-mail appeal campaign rather than a direct-mail one (though cutting costs was not the only motivating factor—marketing by mail just seems increasingly outmoded). We’re a young magazine, founded in 2005, so two of our three appeal campaigns were conducted since December of last year. The response to these letters, written on our behalf by past contributors Nam Le and Wells Tower, was encouraging and exciting, but we don’t really have past campaigns to compare them to.
One of my big projects in the last year has been to increase library subscriptions in order to get the broadest audience possible—and this has been the worst time to approach libraries, with many professors and librarians reporting that budget freezes made purchasing new subscriptions impossible. Advertisers suddenly got very quiet, too. At the risk of sounding overly optimistic, however, I seem to be having an easier time selling ads for our upcoming issue, and I’m holding on to that as a good sign.
I’m saddened by the changes that took place in publishing—there were days when it seemed as if the industry was literally imploding. This was more on the book side, of course, but it was shocking to see the waves and waves of layoffs and restructuring that took place. What does this mean for literary magazines? With the big houses inevitably taking less risks due to the financial constraints they operate under, literary magazines become more necessary than ever, publishing the new voices or the unconventional stories that otherwise wouldn’t be invested in. And it’s our financial flexibility, exactly, that allows us to do this.
Aaron Burch (Hobart): Chiming in a little late, but I think I’ll mostly echo Jacob’s sentiments. I guess I do handle money matters for Hobart, but that still doesn’t mean I understand the money or financial issues well enough to really talk about particulars. Our “budget” is pretty small as is and while it is harder to get people to, say, buy or subscribe to literary ventures when their expendable income is decreasing, we didn’t have a huge number of subscribers anyway. I’ve read a few anecdotes here and there—things like being too small of a boat for the storm to affect us too greatly anyway, which seemed to make sense when I originally read it but now, typing it myself, it seems to maybe not quite work as a metaphor, but maybe I am just botching it.
Anyway, the point is that it’s so hard to support an indie lit journal anyway, a little thing like a crippling recession seems to barely even impact the fundamental problems.
All that said, I just spent two weeks this summer on a reading tour for the Dollar Store Reading Series out of Chicago and we didn’t really make money, but a barbeque fundraiser in Chicago and a raffle in each reading city almost completely paid for both van rental and gas for a road trip that took us to 11 cities in 14 days and over 5,000 miles. So that was encouraging. I think the support is still out there—it just helps to bring something new and creative and maybe a little different (are those three things the same? maybe) to the table.
Raymond Hammond (New York Quarterly): Greetings all. I’m getting started a little late with this—my apologies for doing so but I wanted to chime in as soon as I was able. NYQ has not been affected very much by the economic situation simply because we have found that not having much of a base to begin with has left us somewhat recession proof. We are still building support to get the magazine back on its footing including building the board and conducting marketing research, etc., so I am noticing fundraising going a bit slowly but honestly do not have any better days to measure it against.
One tactic that we are working on that seems to be popular among fundraisers now is salons. We have put together some kits that we distribute to our board members and other significant supporters around the country that will assist them in holding an NYQ night at their own house or bar or coffee house. The idea is for these people to invite friends who will each donate between $10 and $100 to attend the event. The important element is that it is more of an excuse for the friends to get together than it is as a particular fundraiser for us. They are told a little bit about us in the course of the evening but it is not a hard sell—again, mostly friends getting together. We recently did this at a bar in Manhattan and everyone donated just $10 at the door, but we raised almost $500—we also gained an excellent board member in the process after they were exposed to the magazine.
Ben George (Ecotone): I think Jodee is correct that the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on literary-magazine publishing may not be known for some time yet. For instance, Ecotone’s funding for printing and production is fortunately secure—we enjoy an administration at UNC-Wilmington that values the magazine and is committed to supporting it in an ongoing way. However, our ability to pay our contributors appropriately, which comes from a cobbling of other sources, is not as secure. This fund fluctuates depending upon the amount received by the UNCW creative-writing department, and is augmented by grants. As of this writing, the 2009–10 budget for the state of North Carolina, which has the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the country and had an unexpected 40 percent drop in tax revenue over the course of a year, is still undetermined. I am not expecting good news. As far as grants, one would think that organizations like the NEA will be more generous under the new, Democratic administration. But time will tell. I consider it all but inarguable that a publication’s ability to pay its contributors affects the quality of the work it is able to publish. More to the point, writer and artist payment is to me a moral obligation. Exactly how moral Ecotone can be is at present out of our hands. If you’re dependent upon a state institution, only a hefty endowment, à la publications like the estimable Virginia Quarterly Review, can keep you entirely safe and inoculate you against a change to a less friendly university administration. Of course, state-university support does look very valuable indeed in light of the conundrum for the New England Review that Jodee referenced. It’s clear that winning awards and gaining recognition can ingratiate a magazine with its patrons, be they private or public. But fortune of this sort is only too capricious and generally beyond one’s ken, no matter the work ethic or editorial taste.
Solutions to economic difficulties remain enigmatic. Where are the gnomic saviors? Where is Ecotone’s Magwitch? There are two things I focus on. First, who is the Ecotone reader? What sort of person would enjoy the magazine, and how can we reach that person, as inexpensively as possible, to let them know about what we’re up to? This terrain is forever undulating. Second, and more important, am I publishing as good a magazine as I possibly can? Let’s be frank. We are all constantly bombarded by publications that attempt a claim upon our invaluable reading time, and not all of them are worth it. With unending choice for readers, you must make your publication essential, and that is not easy. In fact, it’s the never-ending challenge. But I honestly believe that this is a necessity, that there will be no long-term solution for a literary publication without this qualification having been met, and that if one makes one’s magazine essential, the solutions will present themselves. Look at the Oxford American. Earlier this year an anonymous donor gave $100,000 to the magazine to help it out of trouble. That magazine has had about four rebirths now. There’s a reason people have been unwilling to let it die.
Okla Elliott: I feel most editors get into the editing business at least in part to correct certain wrongs they see in contemporary literature. There is of course the love of literature in general that brings us to this work, but what kinds of literature do you see as needing more airtime and how do you or your journal try to provide that? (I know that at MAYDAY, for example, we feel strongly that more translation needs to be published, so we’ve dedicated ourselves to seeking it out and paying translators for the generally thankless work they do.)
Aaron Burch: Okay. Here goes. I don’t want to sound dismissive about this question, but I will admit that I didn’t really in any way start Hobart to “correct certain wrongs” or anything else I found to be lacking. Actually, I wasn’t really knowledgeable or even aware enough of the literary landscape to know what I thought might need more airtime. I started it mostly for selfish reasons (I thought it would be fun, it would give me something to do with my post-crappy-job hours because I don’t really have any other hobbies, etc.) and then just kind of fell more in love with it the more I did it, a cycle that perpetuated itself. So I was really just publishing stories that entertained me as a reader, the kind of stuff I really wanted to read, completely unaware if lots of other places were publishing these same kinds of stories or not. And then, as I became more aware of the “landscape” or whatever, I did see a lack of really, really well written stories about the dorky stuff that I loved, stuff like fireworks, and role-playing and video games, and long road trips. So it wasn’t intentional, but I think Hobart found something of a niche there that worked in our favor, though we certainly aren’t looking exclusively for essays about Magic: the Gathering or mooning.
Okla Elliott: If others are finding that this prompt doesn’t apply to the way they came to editing, we can move on—though I really like the way Aaron pointed out how later, after publishing stories he just liked for a while, he came to realize a gap Hobart was filling.
I guess for me, I was hesitant to get on board with editorial work, since it would take time away from my own work—lots and lots of time—but I did it because I saw lots of good writers getting too little attention, so I agreed to do it in an almost activist capacity.
Any other thoughts on this before we scoot along? This is an open conversation, after all, so we can be as informal as we like—skip things, come back to them, digress wildly, etc.
Jodee Stanley: I’ll just add briefly that I always assumed most editors got into the business for the same reason I did—the sheer love of reading. But I’m a career editor, someone who’s been lucky enough to carve out a living working at literary journals. I suppose I’ve developed two main missions along the way, and those are to discover and promote new writers, and to mentor young editors the way I was mentored at Missouri Review and Ploughshares. Those aren’t goals unique to me—I know plenty of other editors who share them—but they are what keep me going when I get bogged down with writing grants and balancing budgets.
Raymond Hammond: I suppose that I did in some way find my way into the editing business because of wrongs that I had seen in literature, but it was an indirect path to say the least. My journey to being an editor began with my love for NYQ, which I found after coming to New York to study poetry more intensely and after having read countless other journals that often didn’t impress me as much. Eventually I started working with the founding editor, William Packard, both as a student and for the magazine as an entry level editor. Since assuming control of the magazine in 2002, I have attempted to maintain the same editorial vision.
It was my love for that editorial vision that first drew me to the magazine and it is that love that has kept me working over these past years. So I suppose in a sense it could be a reaction to what I saw lacking in my own experience of reading other journals, but more importantly for me it is a case of finding it, loving it, and sticking with it.
As to what is lacking in literature I am not sure—possibly with the number of magazines currently out there nothing is lacking anymore. I do know that we tend to publish racier, or as I call them “tougher”, poems, but I agree with Aaron that we do not necessarily search those poems out—they just tend to find us. And we certainly won’t publish them based upon content—rather, it is the other way around. If we feel the poem is good, then we will publish it regardless of the content.
Anne McPeak: I went into publishing because I couldn’t believe there was a job where you could think about books all day. Of course, we all have our own aesthetics, and that steers what we publish. For me, getting to publish a story like Gary Amdahl’s “The Cold, Cold Water,” or Atsushi Nakajima’s “Li Ling”—two very different stories, but equally inventive and daring—that’s career-affirming. I see so much fiction that’s really very good—the language is beautiful, the story is smart & interesting, the characters nuanced & developed—but simply put, I’ve seen it before. What I’m looking for, & what I think A Public Space is making more room for, are stories that have all the attributes I just listed, but also approach narrative in a way that surprises me.
Okla mentioned work in translation. Part of our mission is to publish fiction with a global perspective, and that’s the motivation for our Focus Portfolios, which feature one country (or one writer or one concept). We’ve covered Japan, Russia, Peru, Italy, the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, and Antarctica so far, and we’re working on a portfolio of Cairene writers for our next issue. And we don’t limit ourselves to the Focus Portfolios: in the next issue we’ll also have a poem by the Slovenian writer Aleš Šteger, and a story by the Norwegian novelist Per Petterson. There are so many American writers who have meant the world to me—I couldn’t imagine myself as a reader, an editor, or a writer without them—and to realize that surely there are foreign writers who could have the same influence, but whom I’ll never read—that’s why translation is so crucial.
Ben George: Righting wrongs has a solid history in American literature. James Fenimore Cooper is said to have embarked upon his career as a result of his distaste for a particularly bad novel he’d read. Of course, Twain later pointed out Cooper’s many literary offenses, and I’m inclined to agree with Twain on the matter, Natty Bumppo notwithstanding. Irritation with a prevailing style can be a powerful motivator, but it is not, for me, a sustaining one. What nourishes me is the possibility of editing and ushering into print a piece of writing that might become indelible. I try to read “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, once a year. It might be the greatest American short story ever written. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was first published, more than fifty years ago, in Partisan Review, a magazine whose subscriber base seldom stayed in five figures. The story was almost 14,000 words, which echoes what some have already said or hinted at—namely, that a small magazine like Partisan Review at its zenith provided a respected and receptive home for work that was too daring and nonmainstream to appear elsewhere. Ecotone is publishing, in its next issue, a nearly-12,000-word story that is narrated by a man who has been reincarnated into the body of his nephew in the early-twentieth-century American West. I like being able to publish a story like that. But I do not care whether a story, essay, or poem has been written by a new writer or an ensconced, award-winning writer. I try to make my only allegiance be to the work. I labor mainly in the hope that I might contribute to something lasting.
Ecotone itself, on the other hand, could reasonably be said to have been founded with the specific idea of redressing wrongs. David Gessner started it, in part, to combat the hushed, clichéd tones of much of so-called nature writing and to promote a literature that engages vigorously with the natural world. It’s our belief that the sciences and the humanities have been balkanized and made hostile to one another. One of our goals is to break out of the pen of the purely literary and to wander freely between disciplines. We want to bring together the literary and the scientific, the personal and the biological, the urban and the rural. An Ecotone is a transition area between two adjacent ecological communities, a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground. We like to push the metaphorical understanding of the term. And so in our next issue, an interview with science writer and National Geographic environment editor Robert Kunzig and a feature about birding along the U.S./Mexico border share space with a full-length play by Denis Johnson, an essay about the work of Jonathan Lethem, and a graphic story, not to mention great new fiction and poetry from the likes of Benjamin Percy, Sherman Alexie, and Marvin Bell.
Jacob Knabb: I wanted to work with ACM when I moved to Chicago because it was a journal with a legacy of indie publication that took chances and basically did whatever it wanted to do. It was also kind of sloppy, rarely on time, and, I would learn soon enough, much beloved for all of these things. Once I started reading for the magazine I learned that we got to eat some amazing pizza every meeting, and that was almost enough reason to stay around (seriously—never discount the impact that yummy pizza can have on a poor, often underfed writer). After a couple of years with ACM, the Managing Editor position came open and I was suddenly running the journal. Everything was a mess, so most of my early goals were to correct internal wrongs, rather than to patch up the literary world around me. After some time, though, I began to get ambitious and wanted to see if it wasn’t possible to make something really cool happen with every issue and to publish writing that was powerful and engaging and not about middle-aged white people falling out of love and dealing with cancer and having affairs and petting their dogs and drinking Heineken by the ocean. I feel like we’ve been able to get closer and closer to achieving the kind of interesting content that was in the magazine back in its heyday during the late 80s and most of the 90s. It was also an excuse to throw really fun parties once each issue came out. I think that right now, more than anything, ACM is fighting for the printed page. Our print run isn’t large enough to make huge literary waves and we can’t afford to pay contributors at present so we’re not too apt to get the next great story by name writers. But we get great stories and we break newer writers. We’re trying to celebrate print. We are using more and more illustration and experimenting with themed-issues. We’re not using new ideas, necessarily, but I do think there is something new about what ACM is becoming. And that’s what matters to me. Pushing things forward, publishing exciting writers, having photos of baby pelicans devouring their mother on our cover. At the end of the day, I just want to keep putting out issues that would make me really happy if I stumbled upon them in a junkstore in some city where I’ve never lived.
Okla Elliott: The United States is unique in that we have literally thousands of literary journals, whereas countries like England or Germany have only a few dozen, and some countries have fewer than ten. Now, the circulation on some of these tend to beat ours, but not always. So, what is the effect of the massive number of journals in this country and the massive amount of stuff they publish each year, and what can a journal do these days to stand out from the herd?
Ben George: My own feeling, perhaps an unpopular one, is that there are too many literary journals in the United States, that not enough of them are publishing essential writing, and that there are too many aspiring writers who are not also dedicated readers. Strictly from an actuarial perspective, it stands to reason that the more journals there are, the fewer readers each journal will get, as everyone has the same twenty-four hours in a day in which to eat, sleep, meet obligations of every stripe, and then read. The glut of publications makes it difficult to chisel out a readership. I think writers ought not to submit to a journal on the basis of its reputation alone, but on the basis of whether the writer has read and enjoyed that journal. If it worked like this more often, the relationship between a journal and its readers and writers would be mutually beneficial. Each would be championing the other. And writers would cease to submit their work to an unexciting, run-of-the-mill journal just to see their name in print. They would be patient until they had written something worthy of one of their favorite publications.
The excessive proliferation of literary journals, though, is only one part of the problem—and I’m well aware that some would argue it’s not a problem at all but a cause for celebration. A tired but nonetheless valid and mostly irrefutable assertion is that a bigger problem contributing to dwindling readerships is the barrage of the other accoutrements of modern life (e.g., electronic social networking) that compete for our attention. Again, not to be a boor, but the increase in technology has not brought about an increase in one’s time. That will always be in short supply.
This being the case, the most important thing a journal can do to stand apart from the crowd, in my view, is to print material that people can’t afford not to read, to publish things that feel essential and lasting and may become part of Literature. Maybe that’s snooty. Or maybe it’s hopelessly naive. And there’s no denying that it’s tricky and maybe even pompous to try to chart what will be lasting. But it’s what motivates me. We are trying with each issue of Ecotone to say, “Here is a gathering of superb writing, and we believe that each piece assembled here will be worth the time that you give up to read it. You will be nourished in important ways.”
Beyond that, I suppose standing apart from the crowd can be accomplished by filling a certain niche that other publications aren’t filling. At Ecotone, as I’ve mentioned, one of our goals is bringing the sciences together with the humanities in a literary and compelling way. We like to flatter ourselves into believing that no one else is doing quite what we’re doing—that there won’t be another publication in the country, certainly not another literary magazine, where in one gathering you could read a full-length play by Denis Johnson, a comic strip by Jamie Tanner, and an interview with science writer Robert Kunzig about an innovative solution to global warming.
Jacob Knabb:To me there may well be too many literary journals. But that is a thing that tends to work itself out. The weaker journals fade. And they are replaced by others. It is hard to keep a literary journal going—especially if you are an indie and don’t rely on university funding to survive. However, I do think that the numbers are somewhat needed at present as the teaching of creative writing requires publication and most MFA grads want to teach. So, in the end, it’s a good thing that there are so many because it means that a lot of us get to live the dream and teach writing and think about craft throughout our workaday lives (though not myself, as I am one of a legion of MFA grads who teach composition).
A journal that wants to stand out from the herd, as you’ve put it, need mostly to put out good work and to be practical. Money does matter and many people go into this venture thinking that it doesn’t. Writing grants and raising funds and communicating with distributors/libraries/booksellers isn’t as cool as publishing an awesome poem or getting just the right font. But it is absolutely vital. Being mindful of the scope of your project is too. We’d all like to grow as large and as influential as Tin House, but we all can’t do that. The market will only bear so many Tin Houses at any given moment. And lots of journals grow beyond their means trying to do this and end up getting burned. We’re happy being an indie. We like being small enough to avoid having to worry about economic recession or being answerable to a board of funders or an institution. This allows us to do pretty much whatever we want when and how we want and as long as people like it enough to buy copies we are ok. We just try to make an awesome journal and to be smart about doing it so we aren’t wasteful. Hopefully that will let us do this for another 33 years, and I feel like it will.
Okla Elliott: What is the process by which your journal’s staff selects a piece for publication? And does it change by genre at all?
Jodee Stanley: At Ninth Letter we have a fairly large editorial staff, with three faculty editors for fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, as well as several graduate students who work as readers and assistant editors. The selection process is pretty much the same for all three genres: each submission is read by at least two staff members, and anything that gets positive initial feedback from at least one of those readers gets passed on to a third reader—submissions that get positive comments from two or more staff members are brought forward to editorial meeting. The editors are responsible for making the final selections for publication, but everyone on staff has strong input in the selection process—Ninth Letter makes a real effort to represent as wide a range of aesthetics as possible, and among our own staff we have as broad a range of tastes and interest as you could imagine. We want to make sure that everyone who works for us feels they have a voice in the selection process.
There are minor differences among the three genres’ process, I guess, based on individual faculty editors’ preferences (and the editorships rotate periodically). Some of our faculty editors do rolling acceptances over the course of the reading period, while others prefer to hold submissions of interest and make final selections closer to our internal deadlines for a particular issue. But in general we try to keep our turnaround times reasonable, and if a submission is going to be held longer than usual for consideration, we try to let the authors know what’s going on. Too-long response times are a real pet peeve of mine, so I tend to crack the whip a little when I think we’re getting behind.
Okla Elliott: At MAYDAY, our process might be a bit different from some journals due to our editors being in different states. We do everything electronically to allow for instant access for all the editors (and to reduce paper waste). We also have a certain amount of autonomy among the editors in that we each solicit a certain percentage of the material for each issue, or we come up with interviews or features (such as this editors roundtable) that each of us runs for a particular issue. Since we’re just getting our legs beneath us as a journal, our process is adapting as we go, but one of our primary interests is avoiding a singular voice or taste, to keep the journal fresh and diverse while we develop in increasingly sophisticated editorial vision for the magazine.
Aaron Burch: To kind of counterpoint that, I think one of the things I/we have ended up doing with Hobart is building toward having a more singular voice/taste, though this was never the intent at the outset. I’m kind of hesitant to say that because I certainly believe that we print a pretty wide of contributors and types of stories and whatnot but, at the same time, I think that is the advantage of a journal with either one editor or a small group of like-minded people, as opposed to more of a “team.” We just aren’t trying to appeal to everyone and I think, as opposed to hoping every reader will be able to find something they like in every issue, I want the readers who follow Hobart to live almost every single piece in the issue. I’m thinking of something like The Quarterly, which so obviously narrowed in on Lish’s voice. I don’t think of Hobart as Quarterly– or Lish-like in any way, but that might be an interesting goal. Except instead of being super voice-interested, we’d be the entertaining and immature journal.
I’ve gotten at the question kind of backwards, but the basic behind the scenes is that I read most, if not all the submissions, and choose the stories I like. With at least the last couple of issues, I had a lot of help from Elizabeth Ellen, who was reading submissions and soliciting the occasional person here and there, and then I’ve always had a couple friends who I have had read stories for me as a kind of second read, just to see what they thought. I’ve just a week or two ago set up a handful of interns as readers though because the sheer volume of submissions is just too great, so we’ll see how that works moving forward. Likewise with the website, whoever are the web editors at the time (currently Jensen Whelan and Andrea Kneeland) trade off on months and during “their” month, they read all the subs and choose the stories they like.
Anne McPeak: We have a team of volunteer readers who help with the submissions. A piece will accumulate readers as it goes along — in other words, if the first reader is impressed, there will be a second reader, and then a third, and so on. The only difference among the genres is who reads — we have fiction, non-fiction, and poetry readers.
Ben George: At Ecotone the selection process is mostly the same for each genre. We have readers for stories, for essays, and for poems—and an editor for each genre. The submissions that receive favorable responses from readers are passed along to the individual genre editors, who make decisions about whether to circulate a given piece for our editorial meeting. Based on the feedback from readers and editors and on my own instincts, I make a decision on publication. I don’t believe in democracy with a literary magazine. Literature by committee tends to produce something diluted in my experience. I believe in having a singular guiding vision. So while I can be swayed by a passionate argument for a piece, I’ve learned to make decisions and live with them, knowing that some of them will be sound and others will be mistakes. But if I make a mistake in passing up a great piece, it won’t hurt the writer. A great piece will always find a home. I’m comforted by the fact that C. Michael Curtis turned down Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried” for the Atlantic Monthly. And the Missouri Review once published a collection of obtuse rejection letters of great books by Knopf.
While it is a huge thrill to discover and champion a new writer (and I’m very excited about a riveting forthcoming story called “Laidlaw,” by Christopher Feliciano Arnold), like most magazines Ecotone also must do a fair bit of solicitation to fill its pages. Besides inviting submissions from fiction writers, essayists, and poets whose work we admire, we also have specific departments that need filling. For example, we’re now including a department called “Reclamation,” an effort to reprint masterpiece stories that, for whatever reason, did not get their due in the mainstream. We invited Antonya Nelson to make the inaugural selection, and she chose Eudora Welty’s “The Wide Net” and wrote an introduction for it. We also want to have in-depth essays on significant writers of our day in a department called “Field Study.” So we invited Rivka Galchen to do a lengthy piece for us on Jonathan Lethem, who has an important new novel, Chronic City, out this fall. We needed a specific sort of person to interview science writer and National Geographic environment editor Robert Kunzig; science journalist Josie Glausiusz did that for us. And for the first time we’re also including a department called “The Strip,” which will feature graphic fiction or nonfiction. Eisner nominee Jamie Tanner is kicking the series off for us. These are all items that we wouldn’t be able to publish if we hadn’t solicited them. As readers become more familiar with Ecotone and with our wide-ranging mission—to bring the sciences and humanities together, to break out of the pen of the purely literary and wander freely among the disciplines, to publish a vibrant rather than docile literature of place—it may be that we’ll receive wonderful unsolicited submissions in these departments, and that would make our jobs easier.
Jacob Knabb: This question and particularly this discussion cuts right to the core of one of the ways that ACM has evolved recently. Traditionally, ACM was more of a journal along the lines of what Ben describes. The editors made the ultimate choices and this led to some amazing work. It also led to some amazing crap. It made ACM an idiosyncratic journal and was a part of the magazine’s charm. We have shifted of late towards more of a group effort. We do this while trying to maintain the weirdness that is our legacy as ACM editors. We do not want a journal by committee at all and the mere thought of it makes me a little ill. But we have a really cool staff and I have been able to put my personal stamp on the aesthetic of this journal and find a lot of like-minded folks to work with me. It’s a real gift for this to have occurred and as a result I am more than happy let each of the readers weigh in on the keeper material. At present, no piece is run off of the desires of a single editor – even me. There must be a consensus or at least a general desire on the part of our editors and readers to publish a piece before it goes into the magazine.
Our process goes like this: Slush arrives and is disseminated at the weekly meeting. The primary initial goal is to trim the weakest work and pass along any story with even a modicum of potential. At the end of the meeting, the ‘keepers’ from that night are collected and we talk about them. The reader who found each one will have penned comments on the mailing envelope stating why it was a good piece and that’s that. After we have collected a healthy number of these ‘keepers,’ we will devote a night to eliminating all but the strongest pieces. This happens two or three times during the process of putting together each issue. At the very end, all of the pieces that have made the grade are spread out and we haggle over which ones fit best. Any piece that makes it past the first cut will be rejected, but we are certain to include comments on the rejection slip to encourage the writer and to let that writer know briefly what we liked about the piece and to encourage the writer to resubmit. We also work with writers who we see talent in and who we think are capable of revising a piece to make it amazing. Every time I have worked with a fiction writer, I have been told that I am the first to do so. I honestly think that hardly anyone does this these days. That’s a shame. Often the best work comes from working with a writer. A good but flawed story can become great. I find this particularly rewarding as an editor. I wish more folks felt the same.
We do solicit specific work from specific writers, but not as much as we did when I first began reading for ACM in ’02. At that point not as much from the slush made it into the magazine and a lot of what did make the grade was solicited (maybe a 60/40 split). This had led us to rethink and to change our ways. Now 70-80% of what we publish comes from the slush. We send out word if we are working with a specific theme and we tell ask lots of writers to send work. I am fond of scouting for writers at readings and very often I will approach a writer I am impressed with and ask that writer to submit. But we make no promises and reject a lot of work that comes from solicitations. As long as that is clear from the beginning, I’ve never had any problems as a result.
As a quick aside, Barry Silesky, the longtime Poetry Editor and the man who ran ACM for the better part of two decades went through a period where he published very sexual poetry. It was what he was interested in and some of the poems can make even a crusty fuck like myself blush a bit. It was his choosing to do so and it was pretty cool. However, as a result of this, we still to this day receive really gnarly sex poems form folks who are of the opinion that this is the sort of poetry ACM is into. We get stuff about diaper fetishes, clown sex, sex with walleyes, and what have you. Occasionally a run of these gems will emerge in the slush and it always seems to happen on a night when a new reader has joined the fold. You can imagine the raw beauty of these moments. As a matter of course, we make it a point to read the best stuff aloud and to savor the flavor. Most often, we reject it. This did lead to one of my biggest regrets as an editor. I rejected a story about a girl who wears her senile grandfather’s adult diapers, becomes obsessed with urine, and ends up holding her pee for 3 days before giving him a golden shower. It goes even further than that, but I will spare the sensitive eyes of your readers. However, if the writer of that piece, by some odd chance, comes across this please please pop contact me immediately! I would love a second chance to run that story as it was kind of amazing.
Okla Elliott: Since we’ve hit economics and corrective missions, it might be appropriate to talk about the place of politics in literature. It strikes me that American authors are so often unwilling to engage with anything political, whereas European, Latin American, and African authors do so almost constantly. I’ve even gotten the sense from many writers and workshops that American writers often see themselves (or at least their art) as above or beyond politics. What, if any, interest do you have in political (and I mean the word “political” very broadly here) writing? Political literature can also be very difficult to write because of the danger of devolving into proselytizing. What are some examples of political literature you’ve found successful?
I do think it’s difficult, nearly impossible, for a writer to set out to compose an overtly political work and avoid proselytizing. And wasn’t it Flannery O’Connor who said she would leave the proselytizing to the evangelists? That seems about right. I think works of art are most effective politically when they move us emotionally. There are always exceptions, I guess. George Orwell did all right with essays that were overt in their political intentions, and even managed to stay interesting and prescient in his politically imbued fiction. I think it can be especially tough to create lasting work that concerns itself primarily with politics, and as an editor, I want to be a part of publishing lasting work. I would argue that something like James Baldwin’s classic story “Sonny’s Blues” is political. But I doubt if that was Baldwin’s primary concern. He wanted to tell a good, affecting story, and to humanize his characters. He was successful, and that success is what makes the story a lasting one. If the story is also political, it’s only because Baldwin brings the world to life and makes us care deeply about the story of those brothers, especially Sonny.
Besides the danger of political writing coming across as mawkish, I think we also have to be honest about audience. Political writing published in a literary magazine will almost certainly be a sermon to the converted. Having said that, Ecotone is about to publish an essay that appears initially to be about birding but that really becomes an essay about borders and about immigration. We also have an interview with an editor from National Geographic, who talks about a relatively new idea for combating global warming—sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere with carbon-scrubbing devices. We’re running both of these features, though, because we found them very interesting and intrinsically worthwhile, and not out of any obligation we feel to be printing work that broaches politics.
Jacob Knabb: The question of politics is actually something I’ve been carting around in my melon for a bit now. Recently there was a thread over at HTMLGiant questioning where the next avant garde would emerge and what it would be like. I think it will be something that is political. Of course I may be wrong, but American literature has moved so far from addressing political issues that it simply has to swing back in that direction. What that will be like, I have no idea. Ben mentions “Sonny’s Blues,” and talks about the emotional core of that story. And that is indeed a powerful and particularly brutalizing story, due to that emotional core. I think the majority of writers take a similar approach to what Ben describes—at least here in the U.S. Most writers are happy if there are undertones or sub-narratives that are political in nature, but avoid mucking up the emotional core of the story by becoming too political. Now I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. That said, I don’t think it’s the only way to go about things.
There are other ways to go that route without running the risk of proselytizing or preaching to the converted. People often look to the Modernists for guidance or things to fight against and they think of writers like Hemingway and Faulkner (and dozens of others) who weren’t as political in their prose. But there are also highly political writers like Steinbeck and Dos Passos who were very political and picked fights. These writers were not afraid to appear dated and the work is indeed timeless (even if it isn’t as much a part of the canon as it once was). I disagree with Ben, I think. I don’t see how it is impossible to be overtly political and avoid proselytizing. For me the key is that the writer has to be obsessed with humanity. We don’t need more Michael Moores. We have enough of them already. But I think literature could do with a few more Steinbecks. It’s time.
I’m not certain who is doing it well at the moment. To be honest, my reading of contemporary literature is limited. I read what I come across or what grabs me in journals and I read some new novels and short story collections. But mostly over the past few years my personal reading has been centered upon reading writers who won the Nobel. This has led me to wonderful writers like Haldor Laxness and Naguib Mahfouz and Par Lagerkvist. Some of these writers are intensely political. The politics of Mahfouz are inextricable from the other aspects of his work, but this is a major strength. And his work is widely read none-the-less and not viewed as limited or dated. I’d love to see a school of writing like that emerge here in the U.S. I’d love to see that kind of writing pour into the ACM P.O. box. Sadly, I haven’t really seen much evidence of it yet. Perhaps I should set to writing some of it myself…
Okla Elliott: I have to agree with you, Jacob. I think approaching literature with some political interest or importing political concerns into literature—all the while being careful to avoid the pitfalls and pratfalls political writing is famous for—could be the thing to return some of literature’s lost cultural status.
Okla Elliott: Since one of my goals for doing this editors forum is to promote literary journals and hopefully garner subscriptions for the journals involved here and others, could you discuss what you think editors and writers could be doing to increase readership of literary journals? For example, one tactic I’ve used is to require workshop students to subscribe to one journal from a list of ten or so; the idea being that it both educates them as to what is out there in terms of publishing options and it promotes the habit of supporting an industry they eventually want to support them. What else can/should we be doing?
Aaron Burch: I really like the idea of encouraging and/or requiring journal subscriptions from students, but maybe that’s just because I have a couple people doing that in their classes right now and so I have just this week been the benefactor of a good number of new subscriptions. But, really, why not use some of that student money that would go toward a textbook anyway to support a journal or two and, in the process, it teaches them about what is out there, both as readers and writers. I am really just repeating what you said but, yeah, I like it.
What else? I don’t know. I’m often too overwhelmed with everything else in my life to think of new ideas to get the journal out there and, as often as not, I’m happy that this thing that I work on while bored in my apartment, in between Netflixing episodes of Dexter and Mad Men, gets out there at all. But if anyone has any big ideas, I’m all for listening to them, stealing them, and then using them for my own and Hobart‘s benefit…
Anne McPeak: Requiring students to subscribe to literary magazines is an excellent way to build good habits, for sure. But I’d also like to see more reaching out to readers who are not writers, or not necessarily interested in publishing in the journals they subscribe to. I think one of the biggest challenges for literary magazines is expanding our audiences beyond the usual suspects. Surely there are readers out there who have never seen a literary magazine, but would be really intrigued if they did. I was reading a copy of the Harvard Review on a New Jersey Path train once, and a couple followed me outside to ask me about it. They had been debating whether it was a book or a magazine—and they were surprised to learn what a literary magazine was, but seemed genuinely pleased by the information. Those are the people I’d like to spend some time reaching out to; the question is how, of course. We table at the Brooklyn Book Festival every year, which attracts 20,000 people who are interested in books, but don’t necessarily know about literary magazines. We also aim to distribute to stores that sell more than books—boutiques and galleries, for example—so that we diversify the group of people seeing us as much as possible.
This reminds me of Raymond’s description of the salons NYQ has been organizing. Much of what I do on a day-to-day basis turns out to be marketing, and the more inventively and honestly and generously I can approach this task, the better. I love that the NYQ salons are as much about community-building as they are about donating. If literary publishers want to keep publishing, we need financial support, and ideally, that goes hand in hand with building a broad community that is interested in, and believes in, what we publish.
Jacob Knabb: Students being required to subscribe is a nice thing and it is money that goes to a good thing. (That said, ACM hasn’t benefited from that yet. Maybe some folks out there could make their students buy the new Bestiary issue! We need the money, baby!) Textbooks are insanely expensive and after one or two workshops or lit courses, most students have an anthology with the baseball cards of American letters anyway. Why keep reshuffling the deck and paying 60 bucks a pop to do so?
Raymond’s salon idea is a great one and something I’ve been doing on my own already (though it didn’t occur to me to do it as ACM and to charge a small fee for attendees). This is a grand idea. Hosting a reading series can also be a great plan. In a city like Chicago there are tons of reading series, but this isn’t the case everywhere, and even in Chicago there are new and awesome series starting up all of the time.
But there are other, cooler ways to do it. Featherproof Books publishes free mini-books. Go to the site and check it out if you are not familiar with this concept. It’s very smart and gets them a lot of good mojo. Promotional efforts that also provide free stories and poems, instead of matchbooks and pins. Don’t get me wrong, I love matchbooks and pins, but those mini-books are even cooler. If you have good art and illustrations in your magazine, then I’d encourage people to make small runs of silkscreens. We do this, and it’s a good way of generating some extra funds while also featuring our artists in a larger format. The same can be done with Tee-Shirts. I’ve seen people successfully put together broadsheets with poems or excerpts of content and this has been another goof fundraiser. Some of these ideas require money upfront, but typically at least break even and result in some lovely artifacts and free advertising.
There are probably other, better ideas, but I am drawing a blank at the moment. Being proactive and DIY about things while putting out strong work is the way to go. You know what I think is the most helpful of all, though? Don’t be an asshole. Pompous people, editors with attitudes, and ‘inside scene’ types end up losing a lot more often than they win in the literary world. Writers don’t have time for it, and there is simply too much competition out there to make it feasible.
Ben George: I said earlier that I didn’t think writers should submit their work to a journal unless they had read and enjoyed that journal. This may have indicated that I think all readers of literary journals are writers who want to publish in them. But I didn’t mean to suggest that. While in my experience the readership of literary journals does seem to be frustratingly insular, at Ecotone we do come across readers with no writerly aspirations. And, like Anne, I would love to bring in more readers outside the clique of writing programs. We recently had a little mailing campaign where we sent out gratis copies of our “Evolution” issue to instructors of evolutionary biology, encouraging them to subscribe and to ask their institution’s library to subscribe, and offering their students a discount subscription rate as well. Time will tell whether this was effective. Getting and then maintaining readership is always a struggle with a literary journal. But when you put so much effort into winnowing and then editing and arranging compelling work, why not try to get it to as many readers as possible? I think as an editor you owe this to your contributors. If you don’t care to win more readers, what’s the point of the venture? Assuming your purpose isn’t just to provide one more venue for publish-or-perish teachers on a tenure line.
That said, I used to work as an editor at Tin House, and I can tell you that even the Tin Houses and the Zoetropes of the world are still relying heavily on writers, writing students, and people in publishing for their readerships. They’re just capturing a larger share of the market, to put it in business terms. So don’t forget your base, as they say. In short, yes, I’m in absolute agreement that using literary journals as part of a workshop is a fantastic idea, and Ecotone is working on ways to get the word out to as many students and apprentice writers as we can, and to give them affordable rates. It’s my belief that creating an interactive Web community is crucial to building readership these days, and we have been working for a while on a new site. The goal is to launch it with the next issue, in mid-November. We’ll see if we make it.