Dispatches | April 18, 2011

Literary editing, probably like any career in which trained professionals  select art by other trained or in-training professionals for a general audience that  includes a good percentage of amateur enthusiasts, is a sentence to benign duplicity and life on the pro/con/creative/scholarly fence.  In the past twenty-some years of editing, I’ve come to understand this, and reading recent blogs on this site by other editors and staff members (Michael Nye’s and Rob Foreman’s on memoir, Austin Segrest’s on creative writing vs. scholarship)  has catapulted me into a contemplative, confessional mode.

Let’s take the question of the editors’ attitude toward they work they read, consider, publish. This is something that develops over years. Our younger readers and interns often display a love-it-or-trash-it mentality. They’re ardently for or against the submissions they admire and dislike, respectively, and they don’t worry so much about the vats of submissions which could make the cut but don’t, or don’t enchant. The interns are young. Idealists. As they should be. But as idealists, they are attuned to the wonderful and the terrible; they tend to overlook the middle.

Almost three decades on, the middle is mostly what I see. As Michael noted in his blog on criticism of the memoir genre, the TMR staff abjures negativity. Literary journals promote literature for its own sake—and that’s a really valuable aim that I believe in. My daily job is to help and promote our writers. I also like them, enjoy their work, am grateful for the opportunity to mentally commune with individuals whose stalking ground for creative inspiration is different from my own. A rich education in art and empathy?  Indubitably. Wouldn’t trade it. Yet when I read an essay such as Genzlinger’s,  which Michael cites in his blog, honesty requires me to call up in memory the thousands of short memoirs I’ve read in my twenty-six years here. Most of them, again, in the middle in terms of quality.

And then what? What can I think, except there’s validity to complaints about the many ordinary, or lesser, specimens of the genre. As there is to complaints about ordinariness in any genre, any human endeavor. Here I am, then, on an uncomfortable fence:  support writers, commend them for their effort, encourage, assist? Sure. But claim that everything in print is always publication-worthy—even decently crafted works that are praised by fans of their authors? That would not be saying what I believe.

I’ve been in a mood to quote Browning lately (don’t ask why). “Ah, but a man’s reach should exeed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?” says “faultless” Andrea del Sarto, bemoaning his inability to quite attain the inspiration and emotional range of some of his less technically perfect contemporaries. Stated plainly, Browning’s Andrea has talent. But not genius. The double life of the editor is to think like a critic—note the absence of genius or even basic technical skill (and on the rarer occasions we live for, to discover the genius)—but speak and act like an advocate. Thank God I’m an editor, not a critic; but astute critics who are passionate about their role are the prophets of whatever field they’re operating in. And vital, if the handful of geniuses out there are going to be inspired, incited, to reach.

As for the editor’s position on the creative/scholarly fence, that can wait for a future blog.

Evelyn Somers is Associate Editor of the Missouri Review.

Photo courtesy Stuart Pilbrow.