Saturday, March 21, 2009

Perusing "The New England Review"

The journal experiment has been such a glorious thing, with unexpected surprises. This office's first copy of The New England Review arrived, and again, it is different from any other journal out there. The more I practice this fascinating exercise of studying literary journals, the more convinced I become that the time-honored practice of writing a poem or a short story in private and then sending it various places to see where it sticks is less my style -- I prefer the notion of understanding a journal as an entity and writing just for it.

(Flannery O'Connor might argue with me. She had her own way, and in the late 1940s she resisted so strongly her first editor's pleas for conformity that they ended up not working together, with each party declaring the other intractable. Maybe she was right. But this is for now my opinion.)

My first impression of The New England Review is that its size and the unfussy quality of the paper combine to give it the feel of a workbook. Unlike The Georgia Review that is rich with illustrations, or The Virginia Quarterly Review that features photography leaning toward a global, human rights focus, this copy of NER has no images except black-and-white ones in the ads, and the simple cover is a closeup of an abstract painting. No fuss, no drumrolls, just the work, laid out page by austere page. There is a certain cleanness to that, a lack of sentimentality. Also, NER has less of the perceived pretension that kept me away from the literary journals for such an unfortunately long time. Dare I say, it seems approachable. (But then, so does Ploughshares in a different way).

Of the 27 contributors to this 30th-anniversary edition, nine are faculty members, and that's good news both for those employed within and without the academy. For academics, it is comforting to know that a full third of the contributions come from us. For non-academics, it is good to know that two-thirds work elsewhere and publish very well. The notion that there would be a robust representation of academics but not an overwhelming majority interests me. I don't know what it means, but it seems balanced.

The oddest thing about all of this is that I have begun to read more poetry. It has long been my greatest challenge, as I have consistently preferred prose forms. But the poetry showcased in these journals has tended toward the extraordinary, and I begin each day with anticipation of it.

To a reader who might ask if I read these journals in one sitting, the answer is absolutely not. I try to make one copy last about two months, with readings from it every day or two. Sometimes I'll go a few days and not read, and then other times I might read for an hour, but I do dip in and out. One goal of the journal experiments -- besides learning the nature of many journals by reading them as a regular subscriber, and besides heightening awareness of their richness for those aspiring authors who may benefit richly from discovering that world -- is to make shorter work such as short fiction and poetry part of the fabric of everyday life. I eat, I wash, I walk the dogs, I read poems, I garden, I visit friends, I read short fiction, I dance, I sing, I pray, I study, I read novels, I rise, I sleep, I worship, I read nonfiction. Amen.

Publishing cliché series -- is it true that "Editors don't edit anymore"?

I've decided to start a little series dedicated to the shopworn publishing clichés I hear in this goofy, amazing profession. The first is something I hear from unpublished authors mostly, that "Editors don't edit anymore." Then Ecco editor Lee Boudreaux brought it up again as a sore point in the March/April Poets & Writers. Boudreaux points out "Having worked at two different houses, I literally do not know who they're talking about. Who just acquires and doesn't edit? I feel like everybody I've ever worked with sweats blood over manuscripts. And you reap the rewards of doing that."

Agreed. My editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Elisabeth Kallick Dyssegaard, worked so hard. I was amazed at the dedication, the time invested in back-and-forth work over drafts, and the general sense of care and craft that went into Elisabeth's work.

When some people hoist this particular canard (and yes, I know that I'm combining clichés here), they also like to cite Maxwell Perkins -- the longsuffering editor of Thomas Wolfe's Southern Gothic doorstop Look Homeward, Angel -- as a real editor. Oh please. Even Wolfe finally decided that the interdependence had to end, and he left Perkins's publishing house, Scribners, to sign with Knopf. If you're going to cite Perkins as a real editor and the rest as pikers, then I'll consign you to a corner of literary hell where all you can read for eternity is The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises over and over and over and over again.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Corny song for a Friday

@Booklounge, the digital team of Random House of Canada, tweeted this goofiness for a Friday and the First Day of Spring. It's by '90s Canadian band Moxy Früvous.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hmmm, I may enter this contest

This gem comes from, a web resource to help you locate and shop at your local independent bookseller. It's sad that you'd need a website to find an independent bookstore any longer, but so many of them have closed that this really makes sense.

Announcing the IndieBound Voices of Indie Consumers Contest!

It's really easy: make a video, no more than 3 minutes long, about why you shop at indie retailers, what resonates for you about the Shop Local movement, why you feel passionately about your community, and maybe even mention a local store or two . . .

Post it to YouTube or Vimeo or any video-sharing site, and send us an email when it's there. One videographer will be chosen to win a bunch of IndieBound swag!

Details are available at the website.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

To understand a university press, know its catalogues

University press catalogues are indispensable to learning a press's tastes and culture. Yet I'm amazed when faculty members come to me with an interest in a certain press, but no particular drive to read its catalogues. One woman even gently asked, "Isn't that your job?"

Of course it is, but it is also the job of each author who approaches a press with a prospectus and a dream. The common-but-naive notion that the manuscript is what it is, and therefore should be shopped to 20 or 30 presses until one of them "gets" it, represents one of the most interesting bits of human psychology that I've encountered in this wonderful profession. It's not the author or the manuscript who should adapt, this thinking goes, but the press. If only the press would see things differently, squint a little and appreciate, read more deeply, then it (depersonalized, not an editor but an edifice) will at last understand.

In reality, publishing decisions are made by teams of actual people, and they are usually made at meetings, not in imagined solitude. One of the first things a group of editors considers when examining new prospectuses is the rest of its list. What else does the press publish and why? Where will this proposed book fit in? How will this author's reputation enhance the house? What about the press's other authors who publish similar work? The more an author understands those same questions via the study of catalogues, the better the chances that the prospectus will address these important considerations.

A case in point is this month's catalogue from the University of Minnesota Press. It arrived last week, and today I spent a joyful hour reading it. Not skimming it, not riffling through, but reading. I read book descriptions, I looked at cover art, I considered not only who was writing, but where they were placed in the catalogue, and I pondered the press in terms of its extremes (Native American studies at one end, the visual image at another, narrowly focused monographs at a third point of departure). The press publishes everything from potential bestsellers such as Paul Chaat Smith's Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong, a book that I can imagine selling both in the Museum of the American Indian, where he is associate curator, and in Barnes & Noble, where it might logically appear alongside work by Sherman Alexie. On the other end of the spectrum is Reticulations: Jean-Luc Nancy and the Networks of the Political, representing the scholarly monograph that many of us yearn to keep alive in university press publishing, and would hate to see pass away in favor of the potential bestseller.