Monday, August 18, 2008
The Heart of Literature
In an interview with Ahmede Hussain, James Engelhardt, Managing Editor of
Prairie Schooner, University of Nebraska-Lincoln talks about
his life as an editor.
What are the ideas behind your journal?
The idea we hold closest to us is that we're here to serve writers. Going back a ways, Prairie Schooner was founded in 1926 with the idea of representing Nebraska to the world while bringing the world to Nebraska. We have developed into a journal of international scope that strives to publish the very best work from new and established authors. Because our senior genre readers (in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction) change every few years, our interests are able to evolve. Those genre readers change because we're part of the creative writing PhD program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (very close to the middle of the country), which is one part of the very supportive English Department. An important aspect of what we do is to involve very active, very knowledgeable graduate students in the production of the magazine. We rely on their keen sense of aesthetics and wide-ranging interests. And, because they come from all over the country and the world, we find new, interesting, vibrant writers.
While making an editorial decision what do you look for in a write-up?
This is a difficult question to answer, but, like many editors, I will say that we're looking for writing that grabs us. Certainly, competency with language is the start, the first floor, the bottom line, but beyond that? The story should grab us with the first page, if the not the first paragraph, and the same holds true for a non-fiction piece. A poem should demand our attention with the first stanza. And then something beyond the mechanics of language, beyond the sparkling opening, should make us take notice as well. The premise, the idea, should make us understand something we haven't thought about. The piece should move us to think about the world, other people, experience beyond ourselves.
As far as topics go, we're voracious and omnivorous. We will get queries from time to time from people wanting to know if anything is taboo for us. The short answer is no. The long answer is that we don't want anything badly written, that's dull, that's too familiar, or that lacks an emotional resonance that reminds us of the struggles, joys and pains of being human in the world.
How important do you think it is for a writer to know his/her audience/reader?
I think it's both hugely important and entirely unknowable. You might, after a while, know who's reading your pieces, but who knows that starting out? And most of our writers, even now, don't have an audience that's large enough for the writer to know their buying habits, or even simply to hear from anyone. On the one hand, this is a great blessing. You can say anything! Be true to your own vision and see what happens. On the other hand, it is easy to form literary cliques with like-minded people, and then a certain conformity can take place. Thinking about an audience can help you push beyond your close friends.
I like the practice of imagining who your ideal reader is and then writing to them. Imagining an audience is useful, I think, but imagining that they might be criticizing every word you put down would not.
Do you think every novelist writes history, both at a personal and a social level? Question4: It will better if we go with it. It will be interesting to see how you see the issue as an editor. If you wish, I can change it.
I'm not a novelist, but every novelist lives, or has lived, in a particular time and place. The concerns of the era are in those books, but we must understand that those concerns might be expressed as a kind of negative; that is, they might be what the artist is struggling against. We don't publish novels, or very many novel excerpts, so I'm a bit unsure how to approach the topic. I think the time of the author resonates through their material, but to say that this is “writing history” seems a much larger claim, and one I'm not entirely comfortable with endorsing.
Do you think the world has become a dangerous place -- to live in?
Compared to when? There are clearly more people, so the incident of violence is greater, but per capita? I don't know. Maybe it's more dangerous because of knowledge, or how easily knowledge is distorted, but even there I'm not sure that our propaganda is any less insidious than propaganda from the past. Is life more “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” than it was when that line was written? I hardly think so.
And here's where literature helps: while humans and their inhumanity might be very similar over time, the circumstances change. There are new and different exploitations, and the raw numbers larger, so the stories that we tell change, even as the concerns at the core remain the same. That is, greed remains greed. But literature helps us to speak back, to reveal our crises and terrors. Do we learn from this? Will others learn from this? Ah, that's another question, the answer to which doesn't often leave me feeling optimistic.