Dispatches | February 03, 2014

By Michael Nye

For week two of the Internship in Publishing class, I asked all the students to read the winter issue (just released!) in its entirety. I didn’t give the students much guidance beyond that, such as how to read it, what to read for, particular themes to pay attention to, things of that nature. Early in the semester, I prefer not to prime my students to read for anything in particular so that there isn’t a tendency to approach the work with “What does Michael want me to think and say?” attitude, but a general curiosity about the text based on the student’s background and knowledge. After all, there’s plenty of time left in the semester for me to turn into a tyrant.

I suspect, though do not know, that many TMR readers do not sit down and read the entire issue from cover-to-cover in one week. I could be wrong. But as a subscriber to seven or eight literary magazines, and a few of the big national magazines, I know that I never read the whole thing in one sitting, with the exception of One Story, mostly because, of course, it’s just one story.

Reading an entire issue of The Missouri Review creates links between the various pieces that we publish. Speer’s foreword lays the groundwork for readers, and then, sprinkled throughout the issue, are explicit and implicit ideas. A reader may not see, or may disagree, with the thematic links we present, but that’s perfectly fine. Ten years ago, when TMR was redesigned, one of the central concepts of our design (and content) was that literature is a conversation, and that we should approach our material as something not just to be read, but to be discussed.

Our class discussion started with a quick look at the way the physical issue has change over thirty five years. I had copies from volume two, seven, twenty three and twenty four, and talked about why the various changes were made of the years. Then I turned it over to the students and asked what they thought of the content of the issue.

–We don’t predetermine theme. The theme for the issue starts to germinate in our mind somewhere around the time we have seventy percent of the issue filled. Speer starts thinking about his foreword, reviews the pieces we’ve accepted, and starts bouncing dozens of possibilities around. Sometimes, he instructs us to look for pieces that might fit a general theme idea he is thinking of and other times, the theme comes about after all the pieces for the issue have been selected.

–Apropos of nothing, the classes three favorite pieces were Jennifer Atkinson’s poetry, Nick Neely’s essay, and Kris Somerville’s art feature on Ruth St. Dennis.

–What about repeat contributors? This didn’t come up in class discussion, but our current issue features seven writers we have published in previous issues of TMR. One of the things literary journals aim to do is publish new voices. Is an issue with several previous contributors a failing on our part?

I’d argue it isn’t. I’m not sure a reader picks up our magazine and thinks “Writer X again?!” As a quarterly publication, we have plenty of room to publish authors throughout the year. We also are really only concerned about the work. It would be embarrassing to publish work by a writer (let’s call this hypothetical writer “Peyton Manning”) if the work isn’t good and is published solely because it was written by “Peyton Manning.” The quality of the manuscript is really all that matters to us. Cynics who get up in arms about this typically have never worked on a literary magazine.

But we do have to be careful. Perception is important. We have published several new voices in recent years and we want to remain an outlet for new writers. Every literary magazine wants to be an outlet for new writers. It’s part of our mission statement, and that will never change. We have shifted an accepted piece to a forthcoming issue (say, from spring to summer) in order to create balance. We also might push a piece to a future issue if the story is particularly long or short (length isn’t an issue for our poetry features) because we always try to bring the issue in at 192 pages.

–Don’t watch the Bradley Cooper movie The Words. It’s really, really awful. Just trust me on this one, all right?

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