Dispatches | August 23, 2010

Recently, we were having a quiet day in The Missouri Review offices.  It was one of those Missouri days in August when your vision gets hazy from the heat rising off the concrete and once inside, you still don’t stop sweating for at least an hour.  With a stack of manuscripts in front of us, editorial assistant Sara Strong and I were reading carefully for poems and stories for the winter issue.  There’s a good-sized conference room that is a little bit cooler than our other offices and so it took us a little while to realize there was a person hovering at the door.

When we finally did, I said hello and asked how I could help him.

“I have a question about my subscription,” he said.  “I didn’t get the last issue yet.”

He was serious.  I directed him to our office manager, gave Sara a really? look, and didn’t give it much more thought (I was reading a pretty good story at that moment).  But, it turns out, he was sticking around for a bit.

The subscriber, Brian, had just driven his friend Ari from Tempe, Arizona all the way to Columbia and the good ol’ University of Missouri, where Ari will begin as a PhD candidate this semester.  (Note: that’s a long drive and a good friend!).  Since they were here and had some time, they figured they would swing by our offices and check things out.  Ari meet Speer, who showed him around the offices and talked a little shop about The Missouri Review and writing workshops.  And, then, yes, we got a copy of the summer issue in Brian’s hands.

It was strange, harmless, and kind of fun.  How often do we get to meet our subscribers face-to-face?  Other than the AWP conference, it’s probably rare for a magazine to meet one of its readers in person.  I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that this doesn’t happen too often at Time Magazine or Tin House.  However, I’m not suggesting that any readers should just swing by our offices and knock on our doors and say “Yo. ” Even if we are pretty friendly and we’re centrally located in deepinthehearta-Missouri.

One of the challenges of publishing a literary magazine is that we can’t give the reader exactly what he or she wants.  If you’re reading a news magazine—let’s say The Economist—what you want is relatively clear: what the Obama Administration is doing, what Congress is doing, the cleanup of the Gulf Coast, and all sorts of world news.  Like us, The Economist editors have a style, taste, and focus particular to their magazine.  There are decisions to be made about every issue and how it is examined, but for the most part, the content is already provided by world events.

It’s not that easy for a literary magazine.  Art is subjective.  The taste of our editors varies greatly though there is probably an aesthetic to The Missouri Review.  One of my close friends recently asked why we keep exchanging book recommendations when what we like varies so much: for example, she loved Being Dead by Jim Crace (meh) and I raved about Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (she didn’t even get halfway through it).  With our readers, each and every person has a different literary aesthetic: how can we make everyone happy?

We can’t.  Which is why the emails, letters, posts, and comments we receive are so valuable.  It’s great to hear how much Rachel Riederer’s essay “Patient” affected you.  Or M.C. Armstrong’s moving essay about Ken Kesey.  Or how engaging Fiona McFarlane’s prize-winning story “Exotic Animal Medicine” was to read.  All of which are just a few of the pieces that I’ve heard wonderful things about during the last few weeks.  The editors of literary magazines and the writers of all those stories, essays, and poems really need to hear from our audience.  These things aren’t being written and then printed to be stuffed in the back of a desk.  They demand to be read, and when they engage you, we want to hear from you.  We need to be reminded how much it matters to you.  Because discovering the literature that engages and moves our audience is the most important thing we do.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review