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Editorial Roundtable

November 27, 2012

By Gemma de Choisy


When I learned to swim, I broke the rules.

I’m not speaking abstractly here. I remember the red print on a white board hanging off a chain link fence surrounding the Wagner, South Dakota public pool. The sign clearly commanded all children under the age of ten who had not attended swimming lessons to wear “floaties” – horrible little orange bubbles that fit like blood pressure cuffs around the sunburned upper arms of an entire town’s worth of youth. I felt nothing but contempt towards those monstrous inflatable symbols of summertime killjoy and so, with the kind of dramatic flair only seven-year-olds can muster, I tossed them to the concrete poolside and dove into the deep end of the water.

Okay, so it wasn’t a dive, in any real sense of the word. It was a bona fide belly flop.

But that’s what happened. I belly flopped, and I kicked like mad, and I swallowed a good amount of chlorinated water before a lifeguard fished me out. And then, I did it again. All negative reinforcement to the contrary, I got to be fond of that “sink or swim” feeling, of the challenge of trying my hand at something new and trying again and again until it worked.

This past summer, I jumped into another pool of sorts, and have been treading water there since. In August I signed on as the Senior Editor of Criticism for The Essay Review, a brand new, as yet in-the-works journal dedicated to the literary criticism of nonfiction writing.The Essay Review will be the only journal focused solely on the exploration of realities, confusions and identities within the genre of nonfiction in general, and the essay in particular – a topic near and dear to the last panel I attended this past Saturday at the 2012 NonfictionNOW conference in Melbourne.

The Nonfiction Editors Roundtable, moderated by Julianne Schultz, founding editor of the Griffith REVIEW, and featuring Overland’s Jeff Sparrow, The Iowa Review’s Russell Valentino and The University of Iowa’s own Robin Hemley, senior editor of Defunct, contended with the role of essay in the modern literary journal circuit and the role of the editor with regards to the essay.

“A magazine can take on the personality of its editor,” said Hemley, explaining the influence of editorial preference on the character of a literary magazine as a whole. “It’s essential to have a clear idea of what you want,” he added, as the magazines that last and have a lasting effect on literary culture do so because of their strong and singular identities. Sparrow had a similar but flipped perspective: “If you look at the essays in Australian literary magazines, it’s the essays that define them,” he said. But how do those identities form now, in “these changing times,” as Schultz put it, when many literary magazines and journals are shifting from traditional print formats to incorporate an additional online presence, or – as will be the case with The Essay Review – to exist on primarily on the Web, if not exclusively?

There is a call and response that happens within and around an essay between and editor and writer, as there is between a finished text and its audience. The subjective interpretations, observations, and conclusions put forth in an essay may be agreed or disagreed with, and augmented or amended depending on who interacts (read: reads) it. Valentino noted that, because many print journals are affiliated with universities -The Iowa Review included- they are often used pedagogically. Graduate students fill the masthead (all the better to learn the craft and keep abreast of contemporary writing) and account for the majority of readers, those brave souls who scale the unfortunately named slush pile to cherry pick the better submissions. Online magazines, on the other hand, have the obvious advantage of paying far less in production costs and might therefore have a better shot of surviving without institutional sponsorship or agenda. “Being online has given us this freedom of presence that lends us an international flavor,” Hemley said of Defunct, which has featured writers from the Philippines, Australia, and Europe in addition to American contributors, thus adding a transcultural component to the magazine’s ongoing conversation.

“As John D’Agata has said, fiction is ultimately a form of entertainment, while essays, along with poems, are a journey, a pursuit of knowledge,” says Elliott Krause, Nonficiton Editor for the Iowa Review, adding: “Thus a nonfiction editor must decide not only which deserves publication but also which conversations, which journeys he wishes to shape and cultivate.” How then, do those editors who work at magazines with a mixed media presence decide which essays fit the journey traversed within its pages? For Defunct (subtitle: A Literary Repository for the Ages), the conversation is clearer than most: What has gone the way of the Dodo, and wherefore do things go that way? For Sparrow’s Overland, the deal is politics, and left wing politics, specifically. As for The Essay Review, I wonder if the journal won’t become an essay in and of itself. Granted, I might be biased – we’re partial to the essay at Iowa, and I’m in this, the editorial jive, for love, not money – but doesn’t “What, and of what use, is the essay?” sound like the start of an essay to you? How about “Why do we write nonfiction?” Doesn’t that sound like the very question addressed by this entire conference?

These questions aren’t rhetorical. I’m asking in earnest; I don’t have the answers. Maybe that’s why I joined the masthead without having served on one before, because the questions themselves felt unanswered, and possibly unanswerable, but central to what it means to belong to a community of writers.

Of all of the topics attended to on this panel – the limitations of print, the dichotomy that exists between the artistic and the academic in nonfiction, the importance of publishing in a literary journal for a writer’s career – the one thing that was not talked about was the social contract between editors and between literary magazines. Maybe it was left out because it’s a less than congenial topic. We all happen to be in competition with one other for the best writing out there. We bid for the best essays, the best travel writing, the best memoir, with our prestige (Would you rather be published in a brand new journal or The Paris Review?) and what payment we can offer (Would you settle for a smile and a handshake?). For new and online-only lit mags, our only leg up might be the power of dissemination we wield by virtue of our medium and our staff’s technological savvy, by which I mean the speed and pervasiveness with which we can cast a contributor’s work out into the social media ether. In that regard, we newcomers to the literary magazine scene have our work cut out for us. It’s a sink or swim situation, only – and this is if we’re lucky – we’ll have bodies to carry besides our own.

As graduate students at the University of Iowa, which we all are on the masthead of The Essay Review, we’ve got a crack crew of lifeguards to pull us out of the pool if we get in over our heads with schoolwork. (We call them professors, and they know what to do if they see us drowning in high diction.) As the staff of a fledgling journal we’re swimming sans supervision, and the sensation is closer to the feel of wading out into the ocean, wider and deeper than any single one of us can know, than it is to dipping a toe into the town pool.

But perhaps an ocean isn’t the best comparison. Perhaps we’ll find ourselves mistaken in time. Perhaps we’ll come to regard the literary journal circuit like the entire body of literature as described by Jean Rhys.

“All of writing is a huge lake,” she said. “There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”

Feeding, yes, and diving in. And kicking and kicking until kick becomes swim.

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