Monday, August 18, 2008
Where the Big Fish Lie
What is Cutbank about?
Well, the simple answer is that the only idea is to publish quality writing. Writing that deserves to be read, but may not find a market outside of the literary press.
Of course, it's more complicated than that. CutBank will celebrate its thirty-fifth anniversary this year. When we were founded in 1973 (by graduate students at the University of Montana and essayist/novelist William Kittredge), the literary landscape in the U.S. was pretty different. Montana had one of only a handful of creative writing graduate programmes in the country, and the literary magazine market was considerably smaller. Today, Master of Fine Arts programmes in creative writing have sprung up like mushrooms after the rain, and almost all of them publish a literary magazine.
The result of that is a lot more work being published, presumably a lot more quality work, though I think in some ways we now have a much bigger rough from which to pluck the diamonds. The further result is that any given literary magazine has a smaller audience, and it becomes more difficult to differentiate yourself from the pack.
Some lit mags --- Ninth Letter comes to mind and also McSweeney's --- set themselves apart with graphic content and design. Which I'm actually very fond of, and I'd like to see CutBank move in that direction in the future. Short of an approach like that, though, I think the obligation is to sort of develop a distinct voice, a distinct aesthetic.
In the last few years, CutBank's aesthetic has, I think, leaned away from the traditional and towards a slightly more experimental writing, in both our poetry and our prose. The phrase I like to use is that we encourage the rejection of functional fixedness --- which is the psychological concept that tells us an object is only good for one thing, that a hammer is only good for pounding nails, etc. We like to publish work that shows interesting things being done with words.
But along with that, I think we've embraced a very slight regional bias in the last few years, and that's an okay thing, too. The American West is still a distinct literary zone, and though I think the writing we publish is a little too unorthodox to really come out of the saloon doors wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson, I like the idea that you can flip through the magazine and, if you're listening very closely, maybe hear a slight jingling of spurs.
While making an editorial decision what do you look for in a write-up?
To be very honest, I mostly push paper around. We have a rotating staff of six genre editors (two for poetry, two for fiction, two for nonfiction) that make most of the decisions on content. With the help, of course, of a small staff of readers and assistant editors. The "functional fixedness" line comes to mind again, though. In any genre, I think we're enticed by a writer who shows a mastery of the language, then a willingness to do build something beautiful with it, maybe beautiful and a little strange. Voice is a big deal for us. An elegantly written short story, however well-plotted or well-paced, will likely fall flat with us if its not delivered in a tone or using a vocabulary that challenges us somehow.
Do you think it is important for a writer to know her audience/reader?
I suppose the importance varies based on what you're writing. On the one hand, there are probably circumstances where a writer can finish a short story, page through their Writers Market for addresses, and send the same piece out to ten or fifteen different lit mags. And have a reasonably good shot with any of them. That being said, it's a pretty safe bet that an essay that works very well for CutBank wouldn't be right for, say, the Virginia Quarterly Review and vice-versa. VQR is a great journal, but a lot of their nonfiction tends to be topical and a tad journalistic. Personally, this is some of my favourite nonfiction. But CutBank's nonfiction pages have a more personal, story-driven emphasis.
When you're outside of the sphere of literary journals, it's a different ballgame entirely, I suppose. I do some writing for music magazines and, at the moment, I'm finishing up a sort of literate guidebook for a travel publisher. In one case I'm writing for a youngish hipster crowd and in the other for a more affluent group of travellers. You have to use two different voices in an instance like that, and to confuse your two audiences would be a mistake.
Do you think every novelist writes history, both at a personal and a social level?
Sure, I suppose so. As a nonfiction writer, I'm sort of immersed in a scene where no one makes any bones about writing from experience. My thinking, though, is that any piece of writing in any genre serves to presence its author in some fashion --- any piece worth reading, anyway. So in that sense, I don't know how any author could ever entirely divorce their personal history from a writing project. And why would you want to, really? Where the "social level" is concerned, I guess I'm not convinced that the distinction between personal history and social history isn't a false one. So the same principle applies. Show me a story that was written from a place outside of social history, and I guess I'll tell you if it's any good.
Do you think the world has become a dangerous place in which to live?
Compared to the Garden of Eden? Perhaps. Beyond that -- dangerous for whom, I would ask? Lately I've spent a lot of time in Yellowstone National Park, which is just south of us here in Missoula, some two million acres of wilderness. And I've been talking to a few naturalists, learning a few things. Is the world more dangerous for us than it is for an elk calf in the spring, when the wolves are skirting the herds in hopes of an easy lunch? More dangerous for us than for the cutthroat trout who have to evade a grizzly's swiping paws just so they might spawn? I don't know. But then, who ever said it was supposed to be less dangerous for us? I think we have it pretty good, all things considered.