The following is part of an interview series:
PRINT LITERARY JOURNALS in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW
Stephen Corey served as editor of The Georgia Review from 1983 to 2019. The journal’s new editor is Gerald Maa.
via email in Spring 2019
You’ve been on the staff of The Georgia Review since 1983. What has been the greatest change that you’ve seen the magazine undergo in this time?
I’m glad you have begun with an easy question—not easy as in “the answer is simple,” but rather in that “I know immediately what realms I have to enter.” When I walked into my office at The Georgia Review in mid-July of 1983, the high-tech machines there were an electric typewriter and a push-button telephone on the wall beside my desk. Paper manuscripts poured in by the hundreds—by the thousands in the course of a year—via the United States Postal Service, and the rejected manuscripts went back to their authors via the same route. (Virtually every submitter sent enough postage to have his/her manuscript returned, not wanting to face the prospect of retyping before submitting to the next magazine of choice—with simultaneous submissions also a thing of the future.) Accepted and maybe-to-be-accepted-after-revision manuscripts were marked up with red and blue pencil using a standard set of proofreader’s symbols, which the typesetters at our printing company of the time—Heritage Printers of Charlotte, North Carolina—would work from to create galley pages (long rolls of newsprint-quality paper) printed out via hot-lead type formed on the spot on Linotype machines—one of the most remarkable, complicated pieces of equipment known to humankind. (Side note: in 1983 we would have said mankind.) Those galleys were mailed back to us for proofing and final corrections, then sent back to Heritage for final typesetting followed by printing and binding. The finished copies of GR were literally objects to be touched: with closed eyes, concentration, and fingertips lightly grazing a page, you could feel the slight indentations created by the pressure of the printing press.
The Internet… what was that? E-mail?… ditto. Cellphone?… ditto ditto.
I know I am beginning to sound like someone heading down Sentimentality Lane, but that really isn’t my main intention, so I’ll step back to point out that I think (and hope) I am giving at least some of your readers useful bits of historical information. Large-scale letterpress printing certainly had its downsides—relative slowness, of course, which can also be an upside for final-product quality, but more importantly the human health concerns related to workers being around all that molten lead in the Linotype system. Still, the satisfying beauty of what can be created through the letterpress process ought to be appreciated and not forgotten, especially given that all of us still refer to our—yes, the anachronism joke is on us—manuscripts, a term whose first two syllables were becoming false information well before the discovery of the computer keyboard.
At the start of this response I said “realms,” and I have to mention the other most notable change across the past three and a half decades, a change both linked with and not linked with the technological revolutions in printing and the dissemination of printed “items”: the exponential growth of codified writing programs in our country’s colleges and universities. When you multiply thousands of new, professionally intended writers times the ease those writers feel about distributing their work… well, if I were to go down that rabbit hole here, we might never get to another question. So, I will arbitrarily choose to suffice it to say (though “suffice” it really won’t) that I sense the double edge of everything, the boons and banes of magical technology and more codified writing instruction: may we never fool ourselves, or at least fool ourselves no more than is absolutely necessary, about there being any genuine time-savers for, or shortcuts to, the moving and enduring writing we all seek.
Could you characterize how, and if, the magazine speaks to different subjects in 2019 than it has in years prior?
Well, I’m inclined to begin my answer to this question with a question about the question: Do you want to know if GR is intentionally trying to present (and/or focus on) different subjects now than in the past, or are you asking whether we are ending up presenting different subjects because “different” is in the air and is leading us to follow it?
For the sake of argument, I will address both possibilities.
For the most part—I might even say “for nearly all the part”—we have tried, and continue to try, to be driven by the distinctiveness/originality/memorability of a submission rather than by its subject/content. (In other words, a smart and surprising work about a slug is going to have a better chance with us than a dull and garbled one about God.) So, if our pages have spoken to different subjects, for the most part such changes would have been initiated by what’s in the air among writers, not because of some intentional actions on our part. The one crucial exception is that over the past twenty-five years we have become more and more committed to publishing outstanding writing—in all genres, but particularly in the essay camp—that addresses the critical issues our planet faces in its escalating degradation on so many fronts from so many now-recognized problems. (We have also on occasion decided to do a special-focus issue: Women and the Arts, Southern Writing, The Nobel Laureates of Literature, The Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, and probably a couple of others I’m not recalling at the moment.)
We are not, and could not be, entirely removed from “what goes on” in the largest senses in the world, so shifts in writers’ interests may well have an influence on the what in the essays, stories, poems, and especially (I think) book reviews we publish, but we and our potential contributors must always be mindful of our quarterly publication structure. We are not a breaking-news outlet or a current events monitor; of intention and necessity we are always trying to have and take a longer view of everything. We can never say for certain what will matter to readers in the future—we can’t even say for certain how many readers there will be in the future—but what we print has to feel to us like something you can pick up five or ten or more years from now and find to be of quality and value.
What specifically do you look for in submissions? And, contrarily, what will automatically turn you away from a submission?
In some ways I’ve already addressed these matters, and I suppose I could close off my response quickly by saying (1) I don’t look for anything specific, but rather want submissions to tell me what I’m looking for by making it impossible for me to stop reading and to want to reread… and reread; and (2) I am wary of saying there is anything that could automatically turn me away, since my job is to be open not only to what I believe makes for outstanding writing, but also to content and approaches I have not yet considered.
However, I should say a bit more. I always try to come up with different takes on questions/topics that may arise more than once, but across many years I have been unable to shake my faith in something I wrote during the process of applying for the assistant editor’s position at The Georgia Review in 1983. Asked to give my definition/description of excellence in writing, I offered this: “physically pleasing flow of language, fresh metaphor, connection with the ongoing human world, wholeness of the particular realm created (be it factual or imagined, smooth or ragged), and surprise—with this last quality perhaps (though not necessarily) including the absence of one or all of the first four elements.” These qualities have little or nothing to do with content, of course, so they do not speak to your first question. They are born from an unquantifiable mix of (1) my entire life’s reading and writing experiences—I should drop in here the fact that I am always thinking and feeling both as an editor and as a writer, and that I was the latter first—with (2) whatever the heck has gone on with my genetic makeup and its innumerable encounters with the world, among the latter fearing the wrath of my parents when, at age four, I had to abandon my brand-new cowboy boots in the muddy side wall of a new-home excavation pit in my Kenmore, New York, neighborhood, and being amazed and befuddled one summer a decade later when my life was much altered by the broken zipper on my girlfriend’s khaki shorts.
But, I digress—somewhat. The points are that my editorial tastes are a knowable and unknowable blend of the objective and the subjective, and the only measure of my success, such as it has been, is whether readers have found the work I love and find valuable worth loving and valuing.
So, all of that is about the “what I look for.” Now, as to what automatically turns me away: In an ideal world nothing, because my job by definition includes remaining open—see “surprise” in my five-item list above; however, that definition also involves having an underlying belief that all the arts—and I include here in “the arts” both philosophy and logical argument—must somehow open new territory if they are to go to the head of the class of value and memorability. So, as soon as I recognize that a given submission does not recognize this requirement… does not recognize the stakes involved… does not show a sufficient education about all that has gone before, that submission I have to let go. And, sadly but truthfully, such recognitions often come to me within my reading of only a couple of sentences of prose or lines of poetry.
What other literary journals, if any, do you read? And what, to your mind, makes The Georgia Review unique?
I wish I had more time for extensive reading in other journals, but of course I wish I had more time for reading everything other than GR submissions. That said, I’ll also note that I try to stay at least minimally aware of as many journals as possible, and I have the good fortune of easy access to the several dozen ones we receive at the GR office—many by exchange and some by paid subscription. Among the long-established titles I maintain respect for and interest in, among others, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Callaloo, and The Threepenny Review. One Story is one of those rare “concept” publications that seems to work pretty well, though I have found its offerings uneven—but where’s the surprise in that statement, given how subjectively objective we literary types can be? Ninth Letter has endured as a reminder to me of how many ways various envelopes can and should be pushed, but as often as not I find that journal’s contents to be exhibiting glitziness or cuteness rather than meaningfully new-path work.
How is GR unique? The epigraph to one of Harry Crews’s books—I think it is his wonderful A Childhood—reads, “Survival is triumph enough.” So, maybe one of GR’s identifying qualities is that it has managed to stay around, in unbroken quarterly fashion, since 1947. To that I would just add two more notions: first, our commitment to an egalitarian quadruple-pronged content, with enough essays, short stories, poems, and reviews in each issue that any given reader would feel well served and satisfied, no matter which genre was her or his favorite; second, we have worked and will continue to work to create print issues whose every detail, from interior-page layouts to cover designs (front and back), gives our readers and contributors a literally pleasurable experience.
Do you feel aspects of your journal are affected by its location in the American South? Do you see yourself as a southern literary magazine? Ultimately, how significant is Georgia to The Georgia Review?
The Review’s founding editor, John Donald Wade, announced in the inaugural issue (Spring 1947) that GR would “limit its bid for distinction to two items: one of trying to be especially honest and sensible, and the other of trying to make its contents of special concern to Georgians.” However, in the Summer 1947 issue Wade backtracked from and reasserted the “Georgia” in The Georgia Review: “We learn that a few potential contributors have refrained from sending in any manuscripts to us because of the ‘Georgia’ limitations placed upon the Review’s contents. This is regrettable. Our last [apparently more recent than that spring issue] announcement for authors says that the Review is anxious for material that transcends locality and era, and that for the rest it is specially interested in material that relates to Georgia by subject, authorship. Or implication.” I’m honestly not sure how to read these sentences, but in a curious way they seem to foreshadow what would take place over the next twenty-plus years: a gradual widening, and then in the 1970s a radical widening, of GR’s intended reach—for both contributors and readers. For upwards of fifty years the Georgia has been a geographical locator rather than an indicator of likely contents—though we have nothing against Georgia (or other southern) contributors or subscribers, and no literary periodical with a state (or city or region) in its title can avoid the tendency of some writers to try out their work on publications in the geographical neighborhood. To me, The Georgia Review—which I first came to know and love while living in New York, and then continued to follow and care about while in Florida and South Carolina—is for all English-speaking writers and readers. GR is inextricably and importantly Georgian because of the continuous and generous support provided by the University of Georgia, and we were honored to propose and bring into being a special issue (Fall 2012) devoted to work by and about members of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, so I suppose one could say we stand firmly, as that great Judy Collins song puts it, on “both sides now.”
RUBY MCCALLUM is a second-year visual arts student at Bennington College.
STEPHEN COREY served as editor of The Georgia Review from 1983 to 2019. The journal’s new editor is Gerald Maa.