The following is part of an interview series:
PRINT LITERARY JOURNALS in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW
via email in Spring 2019
As the oldest continuously published literary quarterly, how has The Sewanee Review’s mission evolved in the last 130 years, and in what ways do you anticipate the journal changing in the future?
That’s 127 years, to be exact, born, as we were, in 1892. As to how The Sewanee Review’s mission has evolved, in 1920, we first began publishing poetry, and will celebrate our centennial of doing so with an anthology: The Selected Poems of The Sewanee Review: 1920-2020. I took over a magazine that published the likes of Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Howard Nemerov, Mona Van Duyn, T.S. Eliot, Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton, and Wallace Stevens—and this is to list only a few of American literature’s titans that have appeared in our pages. As I near the completion of my third volume as editor, I’ve made a decided effort to publish some of the great women poets writing today, to redress what was a historical gender imbalance in the quarterly. So I've since published, or will be publishing, poets like Donika Kelly, Mary Ruefle, Heather McHugh, Tiana Clark, Katy Didden, Ange Mlinko, Karen Solie, Rebecca Wolff, Sharon Olds, and Olena Kalytiak Davis, while also tuning the magazine’s ears to the variegated polyphonics of English language poetry. Thus we’ve also published, or will be publishing, the likes of Edgar Kunz, Douglas Kearney, Kaveh Ahkbar, Ishion Hutchinson, Garrett Hongo, Carl Phillips, Christian Wiman, Paul Muldoon, William Brewer, Simon Armitage, Armen Davoudian, and Noah Warren—again to name only a few.
Greater breadth, then, is part of the magazine’s evolution. In 1942, we first began publishing fiction—another part of the magazine’s evolution. And editors previous to me published, among others, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Andre Dubus, William Faulkner, and Peter Taylor. Under my editorship, we have or will be publishing writers like Alice McDermott, John Wray, Garth Greenwell, Steven Millhauser, Megan Abbott, and Ben Fountain, while participating in the elevation of newly discovered or rising voices like Lisa Taddeo, Sidik Fofana, Catherine Lacey, Malerie Willens, Jamil Jan Kochai, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Alix Ohlin, Andrea Lee, Alexia Arthurs, Ben Loory, Jamie Quatro, Danielle Evans, and Lee Connell. And this evolution includes the remarkable works of nonfiction we’ve published, or will be publishing, by Richard Russo, Jon Meacham, Chris Bachelder, Michael Cunningham, Alexander Chee, Stephanie Danler, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Lauren Groff, Nick Paumgarten, Leslie Jamison, Josh Cohen, and Mary Jo Salter. How The Sewanee Review continues to change and evolve is, more than anything else, about the new voices it discovers and the ongoing relationships it develops with these writers.
What does the editorial team seek out in submissions, and how does this selection process make The Sewanee Review different from other literary publications?
We have three categories by which we consider all of our submissions, and they are the following: 1. Authority: Does the writer have total command of the world they're describing? Thus, if they've written a story about unicorns, do they know about unicorns from horns to hooves and thereby write about them with utter believability? 2. Stickiness. If we can't shake a piece days after reading it, we assume that it'll be the same for our readers. But stickiness, also, in the sense that the story, poem, or essay, sticks together, has coherence in its design and effects. And finally, 3. Does it bring news? (That was William Gaddis’s mantra: Bring me the news! I got to have lunch with him when I was an MFA student at WashU, St. Louis.) Does the story newly mint the world it’s describing? So in the fiction of, say, Sidik Fofana—who, I predict, will take over the world once his collection, Stories from Our Tenants Downstairs, is finished—his West Harlem housing projects and the characters who live in them are imagined in such a way that it feels as if you’re reading about this place and these people for the first time. And in the fiction of, say, Lisa Taddeo—who, I know will take over the world this summer when her book Three Women drops, and which Stephanie Danler reviews in our Summer issue, and more of whose fiction we’ll publish this fall—recalibrates our understanding of the ways in which women own their sexuality. What makes The Sewanee Review different, then, from other publications is the conversation that we have as a staff, and our individual tastes, which combine to create the magazine’s sensibility. I believe in taste. I affirm our taste, via the above-mentioned categories.
Why is print important? How do you use modern technology in an effort to still be relevant in the digital age?
Print’s importance is to me self-evident. The very thingness of a book (here, a bound quarterly), of this perfect technology, is as self-evident as any other keepsake. A book that we’ve read, taken notes in, or keep on our shelf because we someday mean to read it contains our very sense of time. That we have been here, are here, plan to still be here, someday soon, when we pull that next book down from the shelf, confirms our existence. My god, the paucity and distraction of our thumb-swipe-up existence and the bad posture and addle-mindedness it promotes. I hate it, I really do.
But sorry, I just got an email and then, after checking Instagram, read that incredible piece by James Wood in The New Yorker on my tiny screen. Screens are with us, so when I took over as editor, we built www.thesewaneereview.com, a paywall-protected website. You can browse our magazine on it, subscribe to us, buy a friend a gift subscription, and read us on your phone, laptop, or computer, if that’s how you consume. By the end of May, it’s where you’ll be able to listen to our podcast. We have, I think, beautiful social feeds, and we use those to keep getting the word out about what we’re doing. To quote Roland Barthes, “Literature is what gets read.” We remain relevant by striving to be read by as many people as possible.
What are the most challenging aspects of being an editor?
Balancing my time at my job with my vocation, with my other job, which is a writer. I’m finishing my third book, a novel, that Knopf is publishing, and I’ve been at work on it for six years now. The hardest part of the balancing act is twofold. First, there’s always something I can be doing for the Review. “The Review is an ever-flowing river,” I tell myself every morning I get up and head to my desk to draft, “so writing first!” But because I love everything about being an editor, and because I get to read for a living, and because this month I’ll be editing Christian Lorentzen, Molly Antopol, and Leslie Jamison, to name a few of the Fall issue’s writers, let’s just say that it’s very easy, each morning, pen held above the blank page, to say to myself, “Maybe I’ll skip writing today and go work on that Garth Greenwell story.”
The Sewanee Review is experiencing a sort of revival, if you will—as the new editor of the journal, what do you think needs to be done to keep it alive?
Do this interview with you. Continue to get the word out. Make noise about our accolades—that Alexia Arthurs won an O. Henry award for her story “Mermaid River,” and that Malerie Willens won a Pushcart for her story “Scandalous Women in History,” which we published in the Spring and Fall 2018 issues, respectively. That we’ll have a piece in Best American Essays 2018—Alexander Chee’s “The Autobiography of My Novel.” And as we continue to toot our horns and tweet our news, we’ll continue to try to publish the best writing in America. Because cream rises and, sooner or later, so long as you’re broadcasting, those with their ears to the ground get the word.
CARLING BERKHOUT received her BA in creative writing from Bennington College in 2019 and is currently a Kilpatrick fellow at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum.
ADAM ROSS is the editor of The Sewanee Review.