September 2—Many in the literary community are aware that the aftermath of the death of Kevin Morrissey, who was the managing editor of Virginia Quarterly Review, has resulted in uncertainty about the future of that publication. Over at the Rumpus, Steve Almond, a many-time contributor to VQR as well as a contributor to Ecotone, has broadened the conversation. His points about the relationship between writers and editors are worth consideration, and I’ve commented there. What follows is an encapsulation of that comment.
Since I learned of Kevin Morrissey’s death, a day hasn’t passed that this unrelievedly sad and irrevocable situation has been out of my mind. I know Ted Genoways, the editor, and I knew Kevin—not as friends, just as colleagues. I don’t want to speak to the situation with VQR except to say two things: first, that the reporting of it has been incredibly reckless and irresponsible, often rife with little beyond conjecture, has caused lasting damage, and has done a disservice to the life of Kevin Morrissey and to the inscrutable mystery at the heart of any suicide; and second, that the University of Virginia’s decision to cancel the winter issue is distressing as a harbinger, and that regardless of anyone’s feelings about the matter it is a fact that the literary community will be the worse for it if UVA elects to shutter VQR.
Steve closes his essay, which is more about editors and writers in general than it is about the tragedy at VQR, by saying, rightfully, “There are no sides. There’s just the one side. And we’re all on it.” There are in every endeavor people with impure motives. Yet I think every good-hearted editor in America would like to convince writers that what Steve says is true. If an editor can publish, say, twelve stories in a year but receives thousands, arithmetic tells you he or she will be disappointing a lot of people. What can be done about that other than to ask for some understanding on the part of the writer? And remember that an editor of integrity must turn down work by even the most accomplished writers. The good editors, of which C. Michael Curtis of the Atlantic is one, readily cop to their mistakes. (Curtis admits rejecting Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” now one of the most anthologized American stories of the past quarter century.) I cannot speak for other editors, but there’s really only one reason I’m doing this, and that’s for the chance to be a part of something lasting, to midwife a piece of art that someone might still be reading in fifty years. James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” one of the greatest American stories ever written, was first published in the Partisan Review in 1957. It’s still read. That story means everything to me. The chance, however slim, that Ecotone or Lookout Books, our new imprint, may publish something that reaches across the time and space of fifty years to touch the heart and mind of a fellow human being is the reason I do what I do. If you’re a writer, isn’t that one of the reasons you write? If I have my druthers, I want to be gobsmacked by a piece of writing, and I can honestly say that I do not care who has written it. The next issue of Ecotone will include a few people you might have heard of, like Annie Proulx and Ron Rash and Nick Flynn, but it will also feature, for instance, a mind-blowingly good essay about the giant ichneumon wasp and the afterlife by Jill Sisson Quinn, a writer whom you probably haven’t heard of yet.
Often writers pine for a response from an editor or a magazine and conjure very bad things when that response isn’t quickly forthcoming. Perhaps writers imagine that editors are at leisure to do nothing but read all day, write a few notes, and then edit the pieces they accept. But writers who imagine such an idyll ought to know that many editors are forced to be at least part-time hucksters. This enforced shilling is not something I consider ignoble. We should get some historical perspective on it. All the hand-wringing that’s going on now about the dire financial straits of publishing or of little magazines in particular couldn’t possibly be older news. I just read a letter of Chekhov’s in which he was complaining about humiliating himself by having dinner with one potential donor after another in an effort to find a publisher for a journal he really admired that was in danger of folding: viz., “I’m upset by such manifest stupidity,” he writes, “and find it very hard to accept.”
Yes, aren’t we all upset by such manifest stupidity? And so not a little of my time goes to writing grants, trying to interest people with money in what we’re doing, poring over distribution reports to see if there are bookstores we should be going to but aren’t or ones we’re in but shouldn’t be, &c., ad nauseam. (And this is at a school, UNCW, where we enjoy clear administration support for what we’re doing with our magazine and our imprint. Situations elsewhere—cf. Middlebury, Washington and Lee, Northwestern, et al.—are considerably more challenging.) It is all done out of an inexplicable art-crush that those who possess know very well. And if Chekhov isn’t too good for it, neither—surely—am I.
It’s a good night here in Wilmington. Some of you may have seen that there’s a tropical storm coming on. I’m looking out at the darkened silhouette of the swaying pecan tree beyond my window. Deadline for fall is fast closing. I’ll probably be up until the wee hours reading and editing, and then I’ll grab a few hours of sleep and be up at 6:30 to get my daughter breakfast and hustle her out to the bus stop. Tomorrow: press repeat. I’ll do it because I love literature, I love writers, and I love the words and images and characters writers make that are living even right now inside me.
Again to go back to Steve’s quote: There’s just the one side. We’re all on it. I encourage you to subscribe to at least one of your favorite magazines. If you’re a writer, keep at it. We hope to get something astonishing from you in our mailbox very soon. But remember that nothing I or any other editor says to you can ever withdraw permission to write. And remember Rilke, too: “What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end—that is what you must be able to attain.” This is one of the most difficult things of all to do well. Its fruit—literature that is profound and has something to tell us—will always find a home in the world.