What I Knew
I knew when I assumed the editorship of "Prairie Schooner" that I would learn a great deal as I did the job, and much of what I would learn would have to do with my personal view of literary journals.
While I have subscribed to many journals over the years, I have come to realize that I have done so for very particular reasons, which have to do with being a writer and not for the most part to do with being a reader.
Of course, distinguishing the reader in me from the writer in me is decidedly tricky; after all, I write largely because I enjoy reading—and I do enjoy reading. But often, and this is since I have been serious about a writing career, I have read for writerly reasons. I have read to test the quality of my writing. I have read to check out my competition. I have read to see if the publishers of the journals I am reading might find my work publishable. I have read to stay abreast of the writers I admire and seek to emulate. I have even read in search of talent—authors I want to publish, program, or teach. I have read to teach what I have read.
Pleasures of Reading
But I can’t say that I have read journals largely for the sheer pleasure of reading. This idea of the pleasure of reading is one that is worth paying attention to, since for the most part, as a journal our intention is to find and satisfy those people who do read for pleasure. Reading for pleasure is something I did as a child. The impulse was simple but profound, I think: the moment I discovered that hidden inside the pages of books were whole worlds, whole stories, whole people, and whole ways of seeing the world. I discovered that inside books was a great deal of information that existed nowhere else. I discovered that in books I could find myself in different places, in different mental states, and in the company of different people. There was something inventive about reading—something that effectively transported me into a new space and a new way of seeing the world. Beyond anything else, all this transportation and movement filled with alarm, terror, sadness, and an overarching sense of glee—the kind of glee that came from realizing that something immensely pleasurable was available to me at any time and for very little cost at all. The thought that someone was responsible for creating this kind of pleasure must have enticed me because I eventually started to imagine that in the absence of a book from a store and in the absence of stories that spoke specifically to my imagination and desire, I could actually create such stories myself. This revelation may well be the reason I am still writing. But the “pure” reasons listed above for my pleasure in reading would become perverted over time, and sadly, this by the processes of education. But I should hasten to add that education has always been the source of greater pleasurable reading for me.
School introduced other readings for reading, and much of what would happen inside of me around reading would have to do with finding reasons, despite the idea of reading for a grade, to still retrieve the pleasure of reading for pure reading reasons. This was not difficult to do. Indeed, I eventually focused on a field of study that allowed me to enjoy the rich pleasures of reading and understanding. So I can’t blame education for somehow spoiling reading for me.
The Business of Writing
The culprit was the business of writing. Once I began to write, I began to read as someone in search of the secrets for good writing. I became someone who was interested in the mechanics of writing. It is important to consider this point carefully. There is a difference between how a critic reads a work of literature and how a writer reads a work of literature. Where the critic/scholar is better served to treat the work of literature as a completed entity in whatever state it might be in, the writer will be inclined to test that assumption of the completion of a work of literature. The writer will seek out the flaws of the work; the writer will try to get inside the language to see how it is used and manipulated. These are mundane things, but they can remove the all-important suspension of disbelief and trust that is required for readers to truly enjoy a text.
Now there is clearly pleasure in reading a work as a writer does. But it is a different pleasure and, I daresay, a pleasure that can somehow obscure and make unavailable the pleasure that comes from fuller trust in the text. We writers bring so much distracting baggage to reading that we at times consume a work without what I imagine to be a pure engagement in that work.
Of course, all experts on reader-theory will point out that everyone, writer or not, reads a work with a complication of “distractions” that have to do with out distinctive baggage, and no one person’s baggage is more “baggage-y” than another’s. That said, I think it is important for me as an editor to think carefully about the readers I am trying to reach with this journal. Ultimately, I do well to think of my readers as people who have found pleasure in reading in general. But more specifically, I have to see these readers as people who have discovered the peculiar pleasures of reading from a journal instead of a book or even an anthology.
As editors of journals we may embark on a fool's errand when we devote a great deal of time trying to attract non-writers to be subscribers, our main readers.
Were I to be tortured I would admit under special interrogation that I far prefer reading a single authored book of poems than reading a literary journal. The problem with this confession is that it highlights the problem with torture. When tortured the best we can offer is what we think we know and more, what we think our torturers want to know. Sometimes we know nothing even if we think we do.
The problem with journals is that you never know exactly what you are getting. A journal offers something that requires trust. And the reader has to trust that the journal is committed to a certain quality of writing, even as it is willing to take risks and even make mistakes in the choice of work included.
But where quality is a deeply subjective and highly unreliable thing, what is not is the promise journals make to always offer the new. And it is our hunger for the new as a quality in and of itself that provides one of the surest values of journals for readers.
While we may not always be dealing with new authors, we are always dealing with new work—work that has not been published elsewhere before. In other words, the journal is almost always at the vanguard of the literary world. This has to be exciting for readers. And for journals, it constitutes both a challenge and a guide to how we approach the selection of work. In many ways we are somehow painting a picture of the contemporary world through the imaginations of the writers who submit work to us. This should excite us and encourage us to take chances even as we affirm those things that reinforce traditions that have come before.
Good journals serve as a fascinating venue for us to get a sense of where contemporary writing is going. But there are limitations to this quality. Journals are shaped by the quest for the familiar in so many instances and indeed journals are often a place of static, stultified sameness and not of innovation. After all, savvy writers make a great effort to know what a journal likes to publish and they give exactly that to the journals.
A Small Conundrum: Tradition and New
If one can say, “This is a 'Prairie Schooner' kind of essay,” or “This is a 'Poetry' kind of poem,” or “This is a 'New Yorker' kind of story,” and if the chief quality of such work is not “something different, something not seen before,” then those publications are studiously maintaining a stultified status quo.
But as an editor I realize that a significant part of what I do is solidifying the status quo of style and discourse in literature until such time as an author or several authors convince me that the status quo is passé. I am often at the front line of these negotiations. Or to put a finer point on it, my readers/editors are on the frontline.
And this can be a problem because, at least for this journal, the editorial readers are heavy brokers and stake holders in this discussion. They are, after all, the competition for many of the people who submit work to the journal. It is impossible for them not to consider work submitted in direct relationship with their own work. Ironically, MFA and PhD writing students are not necessarily at the forefront of risk-taking and grand experimentation. They are being taught and teaching rarely lends itself to leaps into the impossible. Teaching is almost by definition conservative. Resistance comes after the degree or sometimes after failure.
Since many of our editorial readers are graduate students being trained to curtail the quest for the new, and since, I venture to say, most of the writers who submit work to the journal are in some ways direct products of these MFA programs, there may be some validity in the often-expressed complaint that such programs are producing a certain conservative quality of writing—work that is safe and predictable. And by extension the work coming into journals is of the same ilk, the argument goes.
Couple that with the fact that a journal like ours, for better or worse, has come to have a reputation for publishing a certain kind of work (despite hearing it stated again and again, I have not yet been able to get a good definition of what a "Prairie Schooner" story or poem might look like), and we have the perfect recipe for the affirmation of the status quo.
Oddly enough, this does not bother me terribly. And the reason is simple: despite what may seem to be an inevitable march towards sameness, there is another impulse that drives editors and readers. It is the dislike of the predictable, the oft-repeated, the cliché. Thus we arrive at a strange contradiction in the motivations of readers and editors: at once a quest for the exceptionally familiar and the exceptionally new.
This has to be healthy because I like to think that it is this unsettling feeling that opens the door to new work even when that work comes from different literary traditions and cultures. I believe that this is also healthy for the reader, and by this I mean the general reader.
So picture this: an early morning coffee in a train station, a bus station, a familiar greasy spoon, a cluttered office, a ruffled bed—imagine, then, finding yourself tasting delicacies of the mind, small wholesome morsels. You need not worry about an overly pricey commitment of time and money—just enough to be alerted to the beauty and power of language to distract and enlighten.
The "Prairie Schooner" Winter 2012 issue’s offerings include a bracing journey into the imagined and real psychic and physical landscape of Native Americans, some brilliant writing from India, a strange meditation on bullying and violence, and more. Not a bad way to be reminded of why we exist as humans and how we do so.