Thanks again to Catherine Barnett for inviting me to participate in the Editors' Panel last week for the 2007 NYU Summer Intensive Writing Workshop at the Paul McGhee Division/Writing and Speech Program. A perfect complement to this summer's distinguished guest faculty Charles Bernstein, Carole Maso, and Michael Steinberg, the Editors' Panel addressed a range of perspectives to editing contemporary writing in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. I was there representing EOAGH, and featured also on the panel were Erica Kaufman (editor of belladonna), Jeanette Perez (of Harpercollins Publishers), Michael Steinberg (editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction), and Nicole Steinberg (Associate Editor of BOMB Magazine and Co-Editor of LIT). We were asked a number of questions that spoke to our roles as editors, for example what we enjoyed the most about the process of editing or how we got started doing it. Knowing from insider experience how thorny the world of publishing can be, I won't quote the participants, but it was interesting to see the range of responses, from some who employed the gatekeeper language of "literary quality" to some who were much more self-effacing.
A number of the editors talked about how they had inadvertently backed into their roles as editors because they saw a need and tried to do something that would speak to that need. Erica talked about how belladonna in its current form was born after she attended a reading with kari edwards in 2000 and she met Rachel Levitsky there. The need she saw was a depressing lack of a reading series at the time that was just women or that addressed avant-garde women's writing. Other trends included discussions on the nature of feedback, the question of how to give feedback to authors. Perez discussed the importance of giving positive feedback, improving the manuscripts of authors when there's a problem by focusing on other parts of the manuscript that are working very well and talking about why those are successful. This was not as much of a concern for those of us merely accepting and rejecting submissions, but it could become an issue (as one panelist pointed out) if one were to solicit work from an author and not like the work that was received. Indeed, I was surprised to hear that substantial portions of many of these publications are filled by solicited rather than submitted material, which made me feel better about my own humble attempt at a literary journal thus far.
Going back to this question of whether to play or not play a gatekeeper, I thought the most interesting question we received went something like this: "What are the choices you make in pairing older writers with younger writers, and what's the best way to approach this issue from a business perspective?" At first I splurfed my coffee when I heard this, but then I started to think, ok, let's take it from this perspective, not as gatekeepers but as an economic and cultural issue: why does literature make so little money and have such a small audience? Is there anything an editor can actually do about that, or is the role of taste-maker a broader one? How does one market literature? Is the impetus on publishers to start funding and marketing and distributing serious and interesting literature for a change, or does the blockbuster mentality of using a bestselling textbook to pay for everything else (all the "real books") on a major publisher's list hold no room for a genre such as poetry?
The economic machinery of the publishing market is antiquated and perverse - it discourages, rather than encourages, people to publish and buy and read books. There's a dispiriting attitude among major publishers that even if the stuff were put in front of people, readers wouldn't buy it (bully for them, I like the movies etc). From a business perspective, what would need to happen is a larger shift with regard to how publishers address the bottom line, as well as a cultural shift with regard to reading and taste, but I think this is a much more complicated issue than anything editors can accomplish. What editors can do is take up roles in building community and in manifesting serious reading and commentary about contemporary writing to show that audience, but in a situation where everyone's a gatekeeper (see my links which connect to your links), the value of this activity can be dubious, hence the increasingly larger online literary magazines which are beginning to occur. The phrase "business perspective" especially makes me cringe because for me personally (if perhaps not for the person who asked the question) it brings up the taste economy of creative writing programs and "the reader" that is always conjured up in those discussions, especially the unfortunate assumptions about a correlation between that reader and the low-expectations reader that is assumed by major publishers when they set up their marketing budgets for the year.
I was struck by a comment Charles Alexander made while visiting New York a few months ago...he noted that the audiences at New York readings seem to be about the same size as those in Tucson, which is true. I bring up this example because I fondly remember what it is to be giving and attending readings in a place like Tucson, AZ where there is such a vital audience for poetry. Admittedly, much of the audience there is conservative, but it was a valuable experience for my lethargic DeTocquevillian sensibility to see that so many people are indeed reading, and that those people are not always registering on the mainstream cultural radar. Maybe grassroots publishing is the answer in the networked age, or grassroots publishing in combination with the obligatory e-avatars. Anyway, I'm done with guarding the gate, let's go make some new writing. Thanks again to everyone who participated on this NYU panel and thanks to Catherine for hosting us.