Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pinning Down Prairie Schooner

Unlike many lit mags, Prairie Schooner’s aesthetic and ambition are difficult to define. In recent Essay Daily posts, much discussion has been dedicated to identifying a vibe/mood/ambition/preference of a journal (some prefer experimental work; form-bending work; august, cerebral work; and on and on). This is a useful exercise. Don’t be a chump, we have been told. Read the journal. Understand their aesthetic. Figure out if your piece is a good fit. Sound advice, to be sure. And usually it’s easy enough to sort out. Reportage + strong narrative (perhaps) = CNF. Words + design (perhaps) = Ninth Letter. Etc. But in my afternoons spent poring through PS, I have yet to nail down such a convenient formula. I note an aesthetic range of authors in these pages (from our own edgy Ander Monson to writer-of-the-West Mary Clearman Blew).

Given that I am a confessed novice in the world of lit mags, I thought it wise to contact someone who could discuss, more knowingly, PS’s tough-to-pin aesthetic. I emailed Managing Editor James Engelhardt, and he was kind enough to enlighten.

JE: We like work that makes us keep reading. When a piece moves us--intellectually, emotionally, or just propels us through--then we take special notice. We look for pieces that risk something. A jump in logic, perhaps. A surprising insight. I think you can see that we don't have a particular aesthetic, though our ambition is to publish the best work we can find.

I find this unwavering dedication to fine work noble. Admittedly, the aspiring/submitting writer in me is challenged (if I’m trying to be un-chump-like and only submit pieces that I know will fit their bill, it’s more convenient if I can rely on X + Y = This Lit Mag). But the reader in me, and (eventually) the writer too, is impressed by such commitment. There is no gimmick here. No marketing strategy to set themselves apart with a catchy tag line about requiring this type of work, or that type of writing. If it’s risky, moving, inspired, it’s PS.

Switching gears a little, as a nonfiction-type (at least for the moment), I was inclined to consider the place of nonfiction in these pages. We’ve all heard claims that nonfiction can occasionally be forgotten in the shuffle of poetry and fiction. After all, there are still MFA programs that don’t offer the specialty; as mentioned recently on this site, many journals still lack nonfiction editors; other journals don’t accept essay/memoir at all. Admittedly, when opening a lit journal, I often scan the table of contents, checking for the number of essays. That PS has been a home to some of my most beloved nonfiction pieces speaks to its commitment to what we do. They’ve got nonfiction editors (a big plus), and for two decades nonfiction has found a home in these pages. But the skeptical reader in me noticed that PS offers book prizes in both fiction and poetry, but not non. Quickly, though, Mr. Engelhardt soothed my concerns.

JE: We may well include a nonfiction prize in the future, but the poetry and short fiction were the two genres that interested UNP [University of Nebraska Press, through whom the winners are published] the most. They don't usually publish poetry but were willing to take a chance on books that we vetted, and they agreed with us that the short fiction collection was--and still is--an endangered species that nevertheless still had much to offer to the literary ecology. UNP otherwise quite likes nonfiction, and it sells well for them, and that reality also cooled their interest in a nonfiction prize.

He is absolutely right. Many of my go-to memoirs have come from UNP. And I applaud that they are providing a forum for poetry collections (so competitive in that world, I hear), and while I’m not sure the short story collection is any worse off than the essay collection (especially in light of Phillip Lopate’s “In Defense of the Essay Collection” in the most recent River Teeth), I am excited that they have pushed for book-prizes in the first place (a mark of an impressive, established journal, I think). Most important, though, as an aspiring nonfiction-type, each time I turn to PS’s pages, I am nourished and inspired by the nonfiction they present.

And with that, let us segue into discussion of recent PS essays. (Clearly, for a blog post this is growing long, so these considerations shall be brief, too brief.) In the most recent issue, Floyd Skloot and Kate Flaherty contribute the essays, “Something to Marvel At” and “Method Acting,” respectively. The pieces seem thematically linked in their considerations of relating to/identifying with artistic works. For Skloot, it is the works of Jules Verne, for Flaherty, Shakespeare. Over the last decade, Skloot’s devotion to fiction has tapered, and through Verne’s works he remembers how deeply he needs those stories. “Verne found a kind of joyful freedom in the dream of fiction,” Skloot says. And he ends by confessing, “I lose myself in reading Verne, and it reminds me of the impetus to begin reading Jules Verne at age sixty-five, my desire for a fresh appreciation of something I had been missing, the marvel of original storytelling.” As Skloot identifies his need for fiction through the works of Verne, Flaherty compares her first lessons in love to Romeo and Juliet. Clearly there are thematic similarities; stylistically, though, the pieces couldn’t be more dissimilar. Where Skloot’s tone is cerebral, Flaherty’s is chatty. Skloot’s piece feels essayistic, while Flaherty’s tips toward memoir. Again, these stylistic variances speak to PS’s diverse strengths as a journal.

The summer issue’s essays are also thematically linked. Again, two pieces are featured, “Silence,” by Mary Clearman Blew and “Cartographies of Change,” by Tracy Seeley. Both pieces deal with loss (for Blew, contact with her son, for Seeley, her health). Where Skloot and Flaherty varied stylistically, Blew and Seeley aren’t quite so dissimilar. Both essays feature reflective prose, and both leave the reader a little stunned. I am reminded of Mr. Engelhardt’s proclivity toward pieces that move us emotionally, that are surprising with insight, and these essays are evidence of Prairie Schooner’s devotion to such compelling prose.

--Many thanks to James Engelhardt for serving as the voice of PS.


  1. "Silence" really blew me away - pun completely intended. Continuity of memory, death, snapshots in time, a resolution that isn't - but rather is simply an acknowledgement (if not full acceptance) of that breach. That's good stuff...

  2. I know. It was the real show stopper for me, too.

  3. Note that U Nebraska Press does support a nonfiction book contest, the River Teeth nonfiction book prize: