Wednesday, August 19, 2015
On New England Review's nonfiction and taking the long view
New England Review’s approach to nonfiction is a little unusual. When you turn to the table of contents you see headings for Fiction and Poetry, but there’s also a whole assortment of other categories, among them Provocations, Reflections, Rediscoveries, Testimonies, and Investigations. Also: Film, Art, Music. (We’ve recently added the word Nonfiction, like an umbrella above them, so readers can more quickly take in the landscape.) The reason for so many headings is that there are so many different kinds of nonfiction, with different purposes and priorities, and many of those appear in NER.
As editor of this journal for the past 1.5 years (and prior to that managing editor for 10), I’ve embraced this longstanding, rangy approach to nonfiction, while no doubt interpreting it according to my own sensibilities and in response to changes in the art of nonfiction itself. Like Stephen Donadio before me, I aim to have what we call “meaty, third-person” essays as well as “lyric,” first-person, or interpretive essays in every issue. We—that is, nonfiction editor J. M. Tyree, a small group of astute readers, and I—are always on the lookout for essays to which our immediate response is yes, we must have this!, but also for essays that have at their core something arresting, something we’ve never heard before, though it might still need to be teased out through revision and editing. When we encounter an essay whose subject matter intrigues us, whose ideas are bright and moving, we are willing to edit. We do edit. We love working with authors to fine-tune their vision for a great work of nonfiction.
What we get in nonfiction submissions (which are far fewer in number than in the other genres) tends toward the personal essay or memoir, and to balance it out we often go beyond that field, ears to the ground, to find essays on other subjects, from other worlds of expertise. In addition, we encourage writing that looks outward through our NER Digital series “Confluences,” which presents writers’ responses to other works of art (with “art” loosely interpreted) in brief essays online. Basically the guidelines say, Put yourself in the picture, but put something else in there too.
When I first considered working at New England Review, what most thrilled me about the prospect was the sense that I’d always be learning new things, and not just about the art of fiction and poetry, which are absolutely central to the magazine and to my own passions, but also about, say, Neil Young’s guitar solos, Hannah Arendt’s deep and complicated friendships, and the 19th-century practice of “bundling.” Without being an expert or an academic in the areas of philosophy, history, and music, I could still access those areas of inquiry and apply their ideas to my own growing and always-changing understanding of life on earth. And so I want reading New England Review always to give the reader a sense of discovery—who knew that certain salamanders hold an annual nuptial dance known as “Big Night,” and that our most famous Flemish painters were once considered crude? An opportunity for inquiry—how is the chambered nautilus related to the art of collage, and is age a function of time or is age what gives time a measure of reality? And possibilities for self-interpretation—what do I lose if I gain my sense of hearing, and what have I really learned from reading the “great books”? We’re not looking for a catalogue of intriguing facts that we could just as well find in a quick Google search; we’re looking for a human mind at work with those facts, deciphering patterns, probing its own responses, going out into the world and bringing back treasure.
Given the variety and abundance of material available to writers of nonfiction, and given the shifty nature of memory and reality itself, there’s still an awful lot of room for imagination in nonfiction writing. Even language that appears utterly transparent has something up its sleeve. The degree to which imagination is involved varies greatly in nonfiction, of course: very little imagination is permitted in, say, an instruction booklet; very much goes into figuring out, for example, how to best tell the story of one’s own past in relation to racial segregation or why a certain passage from Proust continues to haunt and provoke us.
Because nonfiction slides back and forth on a continuum with “just the facts” at one end and imagination at the other, and because writing itself is both a tool at the disposal of every literate person and a medium for creating art, it’s hard to draw a line at what is “literary” nonfiction vs. what is not. What distinguishes the kind of nonfiction you find in NER from reportage, from op-ed? In an attempt to define literary nonfiction for our magazine, I’d say that it must be interesting to non-specialists and beyond our current moment. Nonfiction in NER might have something to say about a specific event—current or otherwise—or about esoteric subject matter, but if it succeeds it will still be of interest to readers in 15 or 150 years, as more than just an artifact of a moment in time, and to people who haven’t given much thought to that subject before. We are all specialists in our current moment, after all, and good writing can take its readers beyond its field of specialty even as it engages it. There are plenty of outlets for news, facts, and opinion writing, which is very important writing indeed; but writing in NER takes a longer view.
While not every issue contains every category of nonfiction—we only have so much room, and a great “Letter from American Places” only comes along once a year or so—every issue does contain a ranging variety of nonfiction, sliding back and forth on that fact/imagination continuum and covering a lot of territory in terms of subject matter.
Take our current issue, just as an example.
• Marianne Boruch talks about poetry, Sherlock Holmes, a cadaver lab, and how poetry is a kind of diagnosis for what ails us.
• Camille T. Dungy visits a small town in Maine with her baby and, being the only black person for miles around, is treated with utmost civility, to the point that it takes twice as long to go from point A to point B; at the same time she examines Maine’s anti-slavery history and eats a whoopie pie.
• William Ralph Inge (who is no longer with us, as this is a “Redisovery” from the 19th century) looks at Rome under the Caesars, which is eerily like China today, or is it more like the United States?
• James Naremore hurries right past the iconic Citizen Kane to bring us news of Orson Welles’s other passions: teaching, documentaries, and Shakespeare for kids.
• Jeff Staiger, who has read and absorbed and clearly loves David Foster Wallace, tries to figure out how the late, unfinished The Pale King was to have trumped the magnum opus, Infinite Jest.
• Chinese author Wei An, by way of translation by Thomas Moran, observes the minutia of his surroundings, the bees, the sparrows, the sunrise, having absorbed Thoreau in Chinese translation and lived through an era of great environmental change.
• Wendy Willis goes to Alcatraz to check out Ai Weiwei’s show about surveillance and human rights, and in the bright blocks of Lego and the spectacle of it all recognizes the limitations of art at this scale and how it relates to the limitations of democracy.
• And finally, Eric Wilson recalls his time, years ago, as an interpreter/escort for Faeroese poet, a guest of the United States, with whom he shared no language, and who did not speak academese as expected, and who made himself far too familiar with the hotel mini-bar.
And that’s just one issue: up next, we’ve got Anglophone Indian author Mukund Belliappa on tiger-hunting in the colonial period; German-American novelist Ursula Hegi on finding the fiction in the facts; and French historian and scholar Paula Schwartz on her friendship with Fanny Dutet, a Jewish Communist activist in the French Resistance.
All of us literary magazine editors get excited about good writing that grabs us with an unusual voice or irresistible subject matter, but we also recognize that a slow burn can have just as much payoff, and often more. An article on Buzzfeed about, say, ten ways to be happy, might have an enticing immediacy and even a compelling first sentence, but it will likely have been written by an exec in search of clicks and will leave you empty-handed. In NER, we want to give our readers more than just bright and shiny objects with which to fritter away their time. We want to give them something to take away, a reading experience that rewards their attention and effort and offers an opportunity for absorption. When reading submissions, we might not immediately recognize what’s happening in a given piece, but we’ll read on to find out what the author is up to. If it fails to deliver we’ll turn it down. If it builds, we’ll shape it into the pages of NER, and if you find it there we promise it’ll be worth your time.
Carolyn Kuebler is the editor of New England Review. Before coming to NER as managing editor in 2004, she was an associate book reviews editor at Library Journal and founding editor of Rain Taxi. She has published fiction and criticism in various magazines, including the Common, Copper Nickel, and Conduit.