Dispatches | April 19, 2005

[By Gretchen Henderson]

Although I was unable to attend this year’s AWP conference, I could not help but wish from afar to hear the line-up of keynotes, which featured some of my favorite writers, including Anne Carson and Michael Ondaatje. Given the location of Vancouver, the Canadian connection linked many events, and this presence reminded me of a notable absence: Carol Shields. Almost two years ago, she died of breast cancer, leaving a collection of works that included The Republic of Love, Swann, The Orange Fish, Larry’s Party, Unless, and my favorite book of hers (which won the Pulitzer Prize and which is celebrating its ten-year anniversary), The Stone Diaries. This anomaly of a novel includes a midsectional stash of period photographs captioned with names of characters, leaving a reader to wrestle with the fact that this novel is fiction. Isn’t it? Who are these people: members of Shields’ family, friends, strangers, or (gasp, no!) the characters themselves?

The reminder of this author started me thinking about rereading. In Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering, Wendy Lesser (Editor of The Threepenny Review) writes: “Once I was a ten-year-old child whose life was almost all imagined future. Now I am a middle-aged adult with a substantial past to remember. I am utterly altered and yet still somehow the same, and I know this because there in my memory are the books I once read (and the movies I watched, and the paintings I saw), waiting to be taken out and looked at anew. The view from here is a different one, but there is also something familiar about it. That, I suppose, is what makes the process of rereading at once so pleasurable and so unnerving. I have loved being surrounded by my ghosts in this way.”


Currently, I am re-immersed in Moby-Dick, rife with its “Extracts” and allusions that attest to Melville’s own reading (and, assumedly, rereading) that leads simultaneously into and out from his text, casting a spell through the voice of Ishmael. Some novels demand rereading, as if aspiring toward poetry—which, since high school, I was taught to read not once but twice, at least, since a singular reading is almost neglectful and guarantees a loss of meaning. As Archibald MacLeish wrote about Emily Dickinson’s reader: “her first-time reader, often ends, not with a handful of poems, but with a handful of aphorisms such as: good comes from evil, having is taught by having not, suffering enriches. It is only by a second reading—or by another reading—that the aphorisms can be turned back into poems and discovered to mean something very different.” Other types of rereading are built into the authorial contract. Choose-your-own ending books from childhood may be a trite example, but these mere paperbacks yielded afternoons of pleasure, where rereading allowed this reader to shape and reshape plot. More common is rereading that accompanies used editions. A stranger has underlined phrases and scribbled marginally, leaving you to interpret the text like a palimpsest. The first and second readers may be the same, younger and older, as Henry James wrote:


“The beauty of this adventure, that of seeing the dust blown off a relation that had been put away as on a shelf, almost out of reach, at the back of one’s mind, consists in finding that precious object not only fresh and intact, but with its firm lacquer still further figured, gilded and enriched. It is all overscored with traces and impressions—vivid, definite, almost as valuable as itself—of the recognitions and agitations it originally produced in us. Our old—that is our young—feelings are very nearly what page after page most gives us.”


The topic of rereading makes me wonder not only about books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, but also about literary journals. How do readers (subscribers and otherwise) read and reread these volumes? What do they do with issues after the release of subsequent volumes? Are they thrown away, donated to libraries or doctors’ offices, kept and designated to their own bookshelf, like one of those ubiquitous collections of National Geographic? Unlike Time, Newsweek, or magazines whose contents outdate themselves on a weekly and even daily basis, literary journals attempt to choose short stories, poems, nonfiction, and visual art that aspire toward timelessness—making it very difficult for this reader, at least, to throw an issue away.


Having perused two AWP Bookfairs, New York is Book Country, the office of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, newsstands and library periodical rooms, as well as received some free subscriptions for story acceptances, I have amassed a small and motley collection of literary journals, and pass along advice once given to me, to try to support at least one journal a year. These not-for-profit ventures are devoted to ushering into the world good literature, to be read and hopefully reread (in Best American collections, anthologies, and in-and-of-themselves). The literary journal “scene” is relatively new to me, so I feel akin to a kid in a candy shop—even a bit overwhelmed—when viewing a display like that in the AWP Bookfair. My reading and rereading of literary journals is piecemeal, not from front cover to back, but rather dipping into various volumes by way of serendipity, to learn of something by a new author or by one who is established (whose other work I might be reading), cross-referencing, following an interesting title to its content or opening randomly to a page to see if the prose or poetry “sings” out of context, finding pieces to share with students, or tracing a reference from a secondary source to its original, to read the entirety.


A few weeks from now, I will introduce my Intermediate Fiction Writing students to literary journals by sharing my novice collection, highlighting the variation of formats: from Lesser’s periodical-like Threepenny, to sleek and savvy BOMB, the talismanic typography of Ninth Letter, One Story‘s simple singularity, not to mention a host of favorites (too long to list here!), to respected mainstays like the Iowa Review, the Paris Review, and the Missouri Review. I will ask my students for their initial thoughts on reading and rereading literary journals: What compels a new reader to pick up or subscribe to a journal, and what compels a regular reader to hold onto a volume to reread? From a single issue, what do you think is suggested about a journal’s aesthetic, with regards to both form and content? What might happen when the format of a journal changes, that is, redesigned—with the same content, but produced in different form?


This last question relates particularly to TMR, which will appear in its next issue in larger format, glossy with colored graphics and other typographic changes, while maintaining the same high standards of literary content. Personally, I am excited about this evolution and will close this commentary with questions to you, Readers and Rereaders: What compels you to pick up, subscribe to, and hold onto a literary journal? What intrigues you to indulge in “the beauty of this adventure” of reading and rereading?


Postscript: For those wondering about the photographs in The Stone Diaries that I mentioned at the beginning, here is an excerpt from an article entitled “What’s in a Picture” that Carol Shields wrote for Civilization a year after that novel was published (although the novel is not mentioned): “It’s one of my pleasures to visit antique fairs and postcard markets in search of unknown women. They are easy enough to find, since it used to be the fashion in the early decades of our century for people to have their photographs put on cards to send to friends; this has always seemed to me to be an exceptionally agreeable custom and one I would like to see revived. I suppose I buy my photographic images out of a muddled desire to redeem these forgotten women, just by taking notice of them and spending a dollar or so to bring them home.”