Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Essay in the Twilight Zone

I just got back from the AWP conference, and while I was there people kept asking me, as nonfiction editor at The Pinch, the same question: “What sort of stuff are you looking for?” This question, or some form of it comes up constantly, and I often do not have a real answer. So, I had something I was going to post here about what it is to be the nonfiction editor at the journal, but this question keeps bothering me. I keep trying to answer it and keep coming up short. For me, for this journal, I don’t think the question has a real answer.  
Because this question has no real answer, I often resort to the response, “If it’s good, we’ll publish it.” However, that is most certainly not the case. To be honest, I’m not really sure what that response means. “Good” is so subjective; and that response implies that everything that gets rejected is “bad,” which everyone knows is not true. What I mean is that I’m open to anything, so long as it is a “fit,” for us, which is another tricky thing to define. I do know that deciding whether or not something fits us is often much easier to decide than whether or not something is “good.”
There are plenty of times that I read a good essay that doesn’t fit The Pinch, for whatever reason. Or we might have stuff that some people really like and others do not. Editing a journal is a process of subjectivity, so to answer the question of what I want, I can only tell people to send me anything because, much like the famous Supreme Court definition of pornography, I don’t always know it until I see it.
For me, great essays exist in that figurative space known as the twilight zone, the space between the opening of a cave and the darkness of its interior, the same place where one would find ancient cave paintings. A great essay needs, at bare minimum, to have two meanings. It needs the meaning that stands out and the one that sneaks up and hits me in the gut. There's the meaning that is present, and obviously so, that is plain as daylight, and then there's the meaning that's not so clear. The latter exists in the ethereal realm, invisible but emotionally just as present as the former. The former represents the light at the opening of the cave; it is bright, shining, easy to see. The latter is the darkness, and not as easy to see, but just as integral. I’m not saying anything new here. In fact this all feels pretty universal. Many nonfiction editors will say the same thing in some way or another. The essay must be what it’s about and what it’s about
          I like to think we are a journal that is not afraid to publish anything—flash, memoir, lyric, graphic, experimental, traditional, or something in between—but I think what people want to hear is that we want what they write. We want their style or their material, but things are rarely that easy. 
          It is easy to remind yourself that an editor’s opinion is subjective, but it’s even easier to forget that fact. It’s easy to feel that tiny pang of disappointment when something gets rejection after rejection. But if something is good, I like to believe it has a home. This is where the term “good” falls into murkiness. And this is where one of the most difficult aspects of being an editor arises: judging writing. I think when I say “good” I mean, for one, the things that have the elements of good writing, things like clean prose, tight language, etc. but for another, it has to teach me in some way, or make me think about it after I'm done reading. A good essay should make me want to tell my friends about it.
Look at the Steve Adams essay, “Touch,” in our Spring 2012 issue. What we have first is a story about testicular trauma, but what we end up with is a deep appreciation for all things delicate in life. That essay continues to surprise me. To relate it to my previous point, another surprising thing about that essay is that it was rejected by18 literary journals before finding a home at The Pinch, and then it went on to win a Pushcart Prize.
“Wing Trace,” by Kathleen Blackburn, from our Spring 2014 issue does the same thing: it sticks with me and makes me think. That essay is about so many things. I could tell you it’s an essay about the flight patterns of albatrosses, which would be right. I could say that it’s about the death of her father, which would also be right. I could tell you it is about grief and loss and be right. But let’s say that piece lost one of those elements. If that were the case, it would almost positively lose its resonance. Those are just two examples of many that show my point.
Something that attracted me to The Pinch is that we welcome things that not everyone would. One of my favorite pieces we’ve recently published is the graphic memoir “Proof I Wanted,” by Kristen Radtke (Fall 2013). There is little that excites me more than form in nonfiction executed properly, and I think Kristen does that.  One of the first essays I read in The Pinch was Ander Monson’s “Solipsism” from the Fall 2007 issue. I read that essay wished I could publish things like that. Both of these exhibit the things I look for in nonfiction, they just happen to have the added benefit of experimentation with form.
Something else to consider is that a journal such as The Pinch, which is managed mostly by graduate students, is a living, changing thing that goes through its own lifecycles. Aside from a few, permanent editors all members of our staff last roughly three years. That means we are always evolving, for better or worse. We learn from those who have come before us. In that way we are able to maintain tradition without stagnation. Of course, having people on the editorial staff for three years at a time also means an inevitable fluctuation in taste and preferences. An essay that hits me will not always do the same for other editors. Also, an editorial staff that functions in this way must be open to discussion. If I were not open to the opinion of others, or they to me, some great writing would slip through the cracks.
The evolution also means just because I might fall in love with an essay does not mean everyone else will, or that my editor will want to print it. But if an essay is tenacious enough to stick with me, I can fight for its right to exist within our pages. I have the power to insist on its survival. Those heated debates about what makes for good nonfiction can be both the greatest and the worst things about being an editor.
Now, I suppose this has all been an unsuccessful attempt to answer the question of what I look for. But as I said, I have no real answer to that question, and I am sure I have not answered it here. I will say that being an editor on a literary journal takes some starry-eyed naivety that you are helping to put art into the world. It takes a willingness to fight for a piece of writing, and writing could always use more fighters. When I’m willing to fight for something, that is a surefire way to know I’ve found what I’ve been looking for. Otherwise, I have to rely on knowing it when I see it. 

Matthew Gallant is creative nonfiction editor at The Pinch. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, he now lives and studies in Memphis, Tennessee. He is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at The University of Memphis.


  1. The Pinch (I am fairly certain) once published an essay about being a tour guide in a former Colorado mine. The essay used footnotes (at the time this was still relatively novel -- I remember being excited by their usage when I read the piece) and the footnotes weren't use for the sake of being flashy and experimental. That form was additive to the meaning of the piece. I read that essay several times, relishing it, and that was when I noted to self, "This is a good journal. Pay attention to it." I'll have to check my bookshelf when I get home to jog my memory regarding its title.

    What's interesting about Touch, I felt, is that it does have that lingering effect -- much like body work itself. After I read it, I recall being dissatisfied, as it struck me as a "Oh, great, a straight guy is bragging about how open-minded he is, yawn." But--

    And that's the rub. The "but--" -- the & that is a kick-ass essay. Not only/but also. And stuff.

    There's a new book out by Barrelhouse that deeply reminds writers of the subjectivity of an editor's tastes, and your thoughts here remind me of it:

  2. Steven Church! 2007. Spring issue, I believe.