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An editor's farewell to Michigan Quarterly Review
April 14, 2009
Thirty-two years ago, as a newly tenured professor in U-M's Department of English, I was invited to be the editor of Michigan Quarterly Review, the University's flagship scholarly and literary journal. Now the time has come for me to pass the red pencil to my successors: Jonathan Freedman, the new editor, Michael Byers, Associate Editor, and Vicki Lawrence, Managing Editor. The current issue of MQR is my last.
MQR has helped to define my adult life even as I labored during 128 seasons to give a compelling definition to the journal. How odd it will be not to read through the mass of manuscripts arriving at the Rackham Building office every day! How strange not to be constructing tables of contents in my head, or composing letters to solicit new work from distinguished authors as I walk to campus or take mental pauses from my class preparations. Truly, editing is the ultimate 24/7 job. Sometimes upon waking I realize I've been dreaming of marking infinite stacks of page-proofs with that red pencil.
Of course I was not the journal's first editor. When MQR started almost fifty years ago, I was a freshman at UCLA and totally unaware that Sheridan Baker, about to become famous as the author of the composition handbook The Practical Stylist, had founded MQR, on the model of eminent quarterlies from peer institutions. "If we can make the university universal, the intellect amiable, and the magazine readable, we shall rest content," he wrote in the inaugural issue. And he presented essays by Saul Bellow and Arnold Toynbee in that issue to show he meant business.
Baker served in the position for seven years and his successor Radcliffe Squires did the same. Suddenly it was 1976 and I was asked to become editor number three. My first thought when invited to take the reins was that I was now free to realize my apprentice dreams of writing to admired authors with the expectation that they would write me back. My first letter of solicitation went to the distinguished aesthetician Rudolf Arnheim, on the U-M faculty, whose work had influenced all my thinking about film, visual perception, and modern art. By return mail he sent me a manuscript that has since become a classic text on "the late style" in the work of artists such as Goethe, Monet, and Verdi in their senior years. "This job is a cinch," I thought, but the next dozen letters yielded nothing but polite postcards promising to keep MQR in mind for future work. And then Arthur Koestler sent a short story, and Carl Sagan an essay, and Arthur Miller, who kindly agreed to be a Contributing Editor, the first of many essays. Joyce Carol Oates, also a Contributing Editor, directed some of her prolific output in my direction.
If you build it, they will come. Announce a forthcoming theme issue like "The Automobile and American Culture" or "Detroit: An American City," and boxfuls of submissions show up as if by magic from around the world. Make a theme issue sound attractive enough and writers like Margaret Atwood, John Updike, and Wole Soyinka sit down to help fulfill your desire to produce a landmark anthology on a culturally significant subject. Knowing the time would arrive when readers might not be so willing to rely on paper-based reading matter, I worked with a sense of urgency to make the print journal prominent for the time being.
As cultural tastes changed, the manuscripts did too. Writers working ahead of the mainstream constantly reshaped my standards and my sense of the world. The only way to keep current and fresh was to read omnivorously and take informed chances on innovative manuscripts in all fields. Sure, it's a no-brainer to publish, as I did, a long essay by Toni Morrison on African American literature, or interviews with David Riesman, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiyun Li, Denise Levertov, and Jorge Luis Borges; but what about a short story by a U-M undergraduate named Mary Gaitskill, or a tyro with one story to his credit named Charles Baxter?
Most stories and essays in MQR run about 15-20 pages, but like every other editor in America I came under the sway during the 1980s of minimalism as exemplified by Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie. The shortest piece I ever published was a page-and-a-half specimen of "flash fiction" titled "Eggshells" by Phyllis Moore. (Oddly, I never heard from her again.) But by the end of the 1980s I was feeling the need for a maximalist splurge. (And the literary world was hungering for bulk as well.) When Nicholas Delbanco guest-edited a two-volume special issue on "Contemporary American Fiction" he received a manuscript from Lynne Sharon Schwartz of some fifty pages. Was it thinkable to publish a work bordering on novella-length? Nick (and I) considered it a value judgment in more ways than one when he made room for the story, the longest in MQR history.
And don't get me started about the 90-page nonfiction manuscript about an African American undergraduate at U-M, the privileged daughter of a distinguished Detroit family, who during the 1930s "passed" for white and befriended authors like Arthur Miller, Langston Hughes, and Ernest Lehman in New York before committing suicide. I called the author and said I would edit the sprawling manuscript down to twenty-five pages but only if she would promise in advance to accept the results. "Oh thank God," she exclaimed, "I was praying that an editor would say exactly that!" (See Kathleen A. Hauke, "The 'Passing' of Elsie Roxborough," in the MQR archive at our website.)
Finally, it's the authors, eminent and emerging, who make the magazine exciting or not. Editors trust their nerve, and test daily the depth of their commitment to new movements like minimalism, magical realism, the literary memoir, the bloglike free-form riff, the "skittery" poem that bends the rules of continuity and coherence, and the book review that features the reviewer as much as the author. (Should essayists and reviewers write so much about themselves? It's part of the new spirit of the age, but where do you draw the line?)
MQR, like The New Yorker, had never published a "dirty word," but like my fellow editors in New York I knew that the taboo had to be broken. The unlikely agent of change was Sidney Fine, the much-loved teacher and historian at U-M. In an essay on the Detroit riots of 1967 he quoted some salty language by rioters as recorded by the police. And the floodgates were open, though like all academic journals MQR has preserved a species of decorum. And in special double-issues devoted to "The Female Body" and "The Male Body," some writing and artwork prompted a few outraged cancellations, though the issues, reprinted as books by the University of Michigan Press, have influenced a great deal of writing in the ever-growing field of "body theory."
The worst part of the job, no question about it, is the necessity of rejecting about 98 percent of the work submitted for publication. Our format includes two short stories per season, yet we receive about fifteen stories a day. Poetry likewise: six to eight poets in an issue, but a flood of manuscripts into the office. I always felt disconsolate after a long Friday of sifting through the week's backlog and then carrying the reject envelopes out to the mailbox. I write poetry and essays; I know what it's like to get the news from an editor that your hard-won efforts are not good enough.
The best part of the job is discovering young talent with an obvious future. I remember getting a lively essay from an aspiring writer on the subject of Robert Johnson, the great blues singer. The author had traveled to Mississippi to find the crossroads where, legend has it, Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his astonishing talent, and he had interviewed some people who remembered Johnson. The author wrote effusive thanks for my acceptance of his manuscript and said he was turning his attention to a book-length project. A few years later when The Perfect Storm became a worldwide best-seller, Sebastian Junger said in at least one interview that the best writing he'd ever done was his essay on Robert Johnson.
The standards keep changing, the culture keeps changing. What doesn't change is the editor's responsibility to serve as a guide, at best a pathfinder, through the thickets of everyday discourse. For thirty-two years it was all decisions, decisions, decisions. Now the pressure is on my successor, Jonathan Freedman. How I envy him, working those late nights, testing the value of thousands of manuscripts, making his contribution to the ongoing enterprise of good reading.
is Professor of English at U-M. Since beginning his teaching in 1970 he has published three books of literary criticism, most recently "The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History," four books of poetry, most recently "A Room in California," and eight edited books, most recently "Writing Ann Arbor: A Literary Anthology." He teaches courses in modern and contemporary poetry, William Faulkner's fiction, and "The Literature of Los Angeles."