Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Essay at The Cincinnati Review: What (We May Not Know) We’re Looking For

Twenty-five years ago, a friend and I decided to start a magazine called The Essayist. Like many big grad-school ideas, this one withered on the vine. We got no further than having a few conversations with the editors of literary magazines we admired, plus--this is how long ago it was, how squeaky-naïve we were--some low-tech stationery design to lend our correspondence with those editors a (sham, it turned out) gravitas. It quickly became apparent that the two thousand dollars we’d saved wasn’t going to get us very far, and neither of us had the time or the skill set to raise more money. But I still think fondly on the idea, which was that we would publish a journal that featured everything from old-fashioned belletristic essays to New Journalism to as-yet-undreamt-of hybrid forms, and that what we’d be looking for, first and foremost, would be the sense that the writer was, as William Gass put it, “essaying to be.” We wanted fierceness, ambition, playfulness, the sense of a writer looking to find or cobble together or sorcel up or hybridize or jury-rig a form and a tone to suit precisely the thing she or he urgently needed to say.
At The Cincinnati Review these days, we’re looking for similar essays. We publish just two or so an issue, plus reviews (usually three short review-essays on—or orbiting around—a single book, whether a new release or a canonical novel like Moby-Dick), but I’d certainly be open to publishing more. The truth is that I don’t know quite what I’m looking for, don’t exactly want to know: I want to be surprised and transported, fascinated by something I may not have known would fascinate me. One of the things I’ve always loved about the essay is that it seems to me, at its best, less a literary form than a mode of being: The shape and tone the material takes are as individual as a breath, and the most captivating essays often take on a improvisatory nonce form that depends utterly on the interaction, in this particular writer and subject and circumstance, of style, aim, introspection, and subject. An example of what I mean is Karrie Higgins’s “The Bottle City of God” (Winter 2014), which manages to weave together, in the span of about fifteen pages, meditations on Mormonism, urban planning, air pollution, utopian architecture, religious prejudice, and much more, and to do so using literary modes including history, memoir, participatory journalism, and jazz riff.
The one bit of advice I’d offer to potential contributors is this: Have the courage of your idiosyncrasy. For me as an editor, the saddest task is to read perfectly competent essays by skilled writers that do exactly what they are intended to do, but that never aspired to do enough.  Padgett Powell has, in workshop, the perfect damnation-with-faint-praise: “This story,” I’m told he says wearily, “was executed to conception.” I’d much rather read pieces that venture, that swing, that essay.

Michael Griffith is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in English at the University of Cincinnati. Besides serving as Prose Editor of  The Cincinnati Review, he is series editor of Yellow SHoe Fiction for LSU Press. His most recent novel is Trophy (TriQuarterly/Northwestern, 2011).

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