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.