Gone But Not Forgotten: The Art of Hardcover Magazines
Richard Mathews has written numerous books on the subject of fantasy and science fiction, and is currently preparing an enlarged second edition of his book on J.R.R. Tolkien. He also continues to explore relationships between visual and verbal arts in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and in contemporary art and literature, including multimedia and Internet forms. He is the director of The University of Tampa Press and editor of Tampa Review.
Interview by Priyatam Mudivarti
As a poet, editor, journalist, and literary critic of science fiction and fantasy, how do you juggle between many genres while heading a faculty-edited literary journal?
The work in multiple genres has come naturally to me, as I think it must for many others. If you enjoy reading and writing, you don’t think of genres as having walls around them with “no trespassing” signs. I wrote for and later edited my high school newspaper, then worked for both weekly and daily newspapers in the “real world,” and I thought I was going to major in journalism when I went to college. But I found I loved literature--reading it, studying it, writing about it, and writing it myself. So I shifted to English and creative writing. At first I thought I wanted to write fiction, but I started getting my poetry published, and soon I found myself more of a poet than a fiction writer. But I never had a sense of walled-off genres between poetry and fiction--or even journalism. Given that, it was natural to me not to see much separation between literary fiction and science fiction and fantasy.
All this is by way of saying that “juggling” genres as an editor now seems perfectly natural. When I was hired at the University of Tampa in 1986 and invited to edit its literary journal, we expanded it from its longtime single-genre focus as the UT Poetry Review to reinvent it as Tampa Review, in which we publish poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art, including mixed-genre pieces.
On the journal website, it's mentioned, "Tampa Review promotes awareness of multi-dimensional relationships between outstanding contemporary literature and contemporary visual arts." Could you please expand on that?
All the arts inform, influence, and support one another. Books and printing have been mixed media from the start--places where visual and written arts come together. Writing itself is a visual representation of sound; oral language exists in relationship to material and emotional reality. Written language systems include the pictographic and calligraphic, both of which emphasize the visual. Moving away from brush and pen to the invention of movable type, a piece of type itself is a work of sculpture--and this brief little historic sketch simply refers to visual elements of writing and printing--not even to the woodcuts, engravings, and hand-painted illuminations that have been so much a part of the history of the book.
Tampa Review set out to reaffirm connections between written words and visual art in contemporary terms--so we continue to look for ways of presenting visual complements to the written work. Sometimes the relationships are representational or metaphoric; sometimes they may be direct corollaries, or they may be only obliquely related in theme, style, or mood. Most of the time we look to contemporary fine art for the resonances. However, a couple of our recent issues have drawn from historic periods, from work in our special collections of books about books. One issue drew from nineteenth century art and typography in our collections; and our most recent issue features the work of the Vorticists, who had their own literary journal, Blast, that included visual and literary arts in support of one another. Those artists and writers--Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, among others--were also some of the precursors or kindred spirits in affirming the creative partnership of literary and visual arts.
As a Fiction student at Pacific University, I'm delighted to know that my fellow student, Heather Sappenfield, recently won your annual Danahy Fiction Prize. Could you tell us about the inception of this prize and the process that goes behind judging the contest winner?
Judge Paul Danahy and his wife, Georgia, are both graduates of the University of Tampa, and both of them have been supportive of Tampa Review. Judge Danahy contacted us a few years ago and explained that he knew what a strong tradition there was for poetry, since the literary journal had been founded as a poetry magazine. He said he was glad to see us publishing multiple genres now and would like to do something that might call more attention to the fiction. That conversation led to the establishment of the Danahy Fiction Prize.
One of the direct results of this award is that the quality of short story submissions has increased, both for the annual contest and for ordinary submissions. As far as the process of judging is concerned, we decided that submissions for this prize—like the book manuscripts submitted for our annual Tampa Review Prize for Poetry--would be judged by the editors.
In the case of the Danahy Prize, the fiction editors read all the submissions and select those they individually like the best. The top manuscripts, probably somewhere about 20-25, are circulated among all three fiction editors, who narrow it down to finalists. Often they invite some of the rest of us to read manuscripts and offer feedback along the way. Some years the judges will agree right away; other years they may ask for a final round of readings and discussions with the rest of us. Eventually, we agree on a winner.
What are the top three things you look for in a story?
First, I’m hoping for something stylistically fresh and effective. I usually like a plot that surprises me—and I look for a sense of purpose, especially by the end of the story. I need to feel that I’m reading something that matters by a writer with intellectual and emotional understanding, depth . . . someone whose craftsmanship and artistry with language come into play.
In general, could you explain the working relationship between editors and your staff? For instance, are there any instructions that your staff adheres to while reviewing manuscripts? Is there a particular aesthetic that you and the staff share? Are there strong opinions that get overridden by you?
Well, first of all, the editors are the staff. We are small enough that we do all the work ourselves. And fortunately, all of us agree that there’s more than one way to write a great story (or a poem or a work of creative nonfiction, for that matter). Each of us has personal preferences about styles, subjects, and sensibilities we find most appealing. Possibly it comes from teaching undergraduate literature and creative writing courses, but I believe that all of us recognize and support excellence in whatever form it may be found. This tolerance for variety is probably our most common denominator.
Whenever an editor feels strongly about a submission, we all take that submission seriously. Sometimes we disagree strongly--and sometimes we will change one another’s minds. But because we each respect one another’s judgment, there are times we publish work we don’t agree on. I’m always proud of that. I can’t think of a case where I have “overridden” an editor’s strong opinion. I look upon my role as more of finding a way to promote dialog--and then to create a context where work that may sometimes be at odds with other work in an issue, can be arranged together into some kind of fit—into something whole.
What are some of the most common reasons you reject?
The content is not fresh or insightful. The language is flat, redundant, cliché. Sometimes the manuscript is error-ridden, though if other things are all well, we can overlook incidental surface errors and take care of those during the editing process. Sometimes it’s a simple matter that we have recently published a story that is too similar, or that we have too many “divorce” stories on hand and simply need variety.
Tampa Review doesn’t accept simultaneous submissions. There are skeptics and liberal artists who think that it’s an unfair process. Your take?
We try to respond quickly to manuscripts we know we don’t want or can’t use. Those that we hold longer and begin to invest ourselves in with repeated readings and discussions, we need to know that we are not wasting our time. While we also try to make positive decisions as quickly as we can, those decisions are often not easy, and we do end up keeping stories longer than we would like to.
We understand that writers want to keep their stories circulating. But we have made our peace with preferring submissions from writers who are willing to allow the editorial process to play out. These writers can in the meantime work on new stories, continue to submit others elsewhere, and grow as writers. If we regretfully return their work in the end, we hope that the time that has passed allows them to see the story with fresh eyes themselves. Rather than simply dumping that story back in the mail, we hope some writers will take another look at it, and make a good story even better.
Now, having said all this, I need to add that we do continue to talk about this policy. If we permitted simultaneous submissions, we would receive more work. We do allow simultaneous submissions for the Danahy Fiction Prize, but since there is an entry fee (even though it includes a subscription) that tends to keep the numbers manageable. We’re not sure we could handle the reading volume of fiction if we were to permit simultaneous submissions—but we do re-think this periodically.
In the stories you hold longer but eventually reject, do you advise the authors -- perhaps, for their future revisions -- what their next steps could be? After all, don’t all emerging writers cherish a word or two of genuine encouragement coming from an accomplished writer like you?
In an ideal world, we might be able to give advice, but we have learned from experience that it's usually not a good idea. It's so easy to be misunderstood, so difficult to find a good way to explain your impressions and suggestions. What we can do is to offer a word of encouragement, a short note saying what we liked about the story, or even just that we enjoyed reading it and look forward to a future submission.
In line with our discussion on writer’s receiving some feedback, most writers never get to know the real reason behind a blank rejection. That is: was it bad or decent but not good enough or it came so close but missed it due to xyz. Do you think that this lack of clarity is something editors could share with writers?
If we feel we can give a simple reason, we sometimes do this. We might say, for example, that the story is just too long to fit our available space--or that we have already accepted too many stories about death for the upcoming issue. However, the reasons for rejecting a story are often too complex or nuanced for a brief comment. And often what we think of as being a brief, helpful suggestion could sound curt, petty, or inappropriate to a writer and elicit an angry response.
The other thing is, we can easily be wrong about any suggestion we make. It might be that the story would be perfect, just as it is, for another editor. It might simply not be the right story at the right time for us. We all have had the experience of discovering a work that speaks to us profoundly because it comes to us at just the right time-- when we are perfectly receptive and ready to receive what it has to offer.
Being an editor means that you ultimately have to admit that your decisions are made subjectively, in real time. Even though you are trying professionally to be responsive and open to a wide range of work, ready to hear what each writer has to offer and not what you “want” to hear, you can’t help but fall short of that ideal. The simple rejection slip seems to be the best way to convey to a writer that the submission isn’t right for us at this time. It might be fine for someone else--or even for us at a different time. If we could get to know each writer individually and sit together in a workshop setting in which we could try to articulate the reasons for our reactions on this reading, we might have a chance of saying something useful, without being misunderstood. But otherwise, just offering a brief, standard response seems most honest and appropriate.
Could you tell us a bit about Tampa Book Arts Studio and the antique letterpress printing activities at your university campus?
This is one of the distinctive features of the University of Tampa Press. Our antique letterpress studio serves as an experimental book arts lab, a limited-edition print shop, a classroom, and a hands-on museum. It includes two nineteenth century iron hand presses, a few hundred cases of type for hand-setting, hot metal typesetting equipment and a Miehle Vertical cylinder press from the 1920s, a Monotype sorts caster, and two hand operated Vandercook cylinder presses. We do some limited edition productions there, offer a few short-term workshops and classes, and bring students from a variety of courses to visit to get a feel for the history and evolution of the printed word.
It is a place increasingly surprising to students as they hold metal type, see how it is cast, and gain insight into the third-dimension of raised type pressed into paper on which it literally makes an impression--the physical book. As an experience of material culture, it can be an important educational encounter with this physical print medium--so far removed from inkjet and laser printers--or e-book readers. Knowing of this living history of print may help explain why we are so committed to continuing to publish our physical books in hardcover as well as paperback format. We are deeply committed to this--and not at all firm about our relationship to e-books.
Being the only “elegant hardcover format” literary journal in the U.S, are you threatened by the burgeoning e-readers in the market?
We are intrigued by e-readers and all the associated digital technologies. We look forward to exploring their possibilities, but we intend to do that with our hearts and hands full with the task of conserving and preserving the rich traditions of the physical book. There is excitement in the instant access and convenience of e-readers, but they also embody a lack of permanence. There is something fleeting, transitory, and nearly unimportant about text viewed on a computer screen, e-reader, or mobile device. You never truly possess that text. You know that it can vanish--or be re-called. Or your time of ownership or right to access it can expire. You can’t pass it along easily to a friend or give it to your child. There is much that an e-reader can do well--but there are different things communicated, conveyed, and preserved in physical books.
Our hardback format is a statement that asks you not to discard the work between these covers. It asks that you consider that what we have taken great pains to assemble, arrange, and present matters to us--and that we hope it will be valued by you. We would like to make it difficult for you to give into an idle impulse to toss it away. We hope that you will want to read it more than once--to show it and share it with others--to pass it along as a gift. We hope that the writers and artists we publish share some of these wishes for their work, and that they enjoy being part of something not easily tossed in the trash.
If you had a wish for poets and fiction writers graduating out of MFA programs today, what would it be?
That they might have learned to love the rich embodiment and transcendence of language. It remains such a remarkable gift to understand words, to shape and be shaped by them. And the moments when words bring us together into one body--filled with a sense of fully shared human experience--are moments of high art. I would hope graduates could have experienced and retained this remarkable artistic realization and that it could matter to them beyond the count of distinguished publication credits and readings and royalties and applause—all of which I do, of course, wish for them as well.
Priyatam Mudivarti writes fiction at late nights, writes complex software code during the day as a freelance software engineer, and documents people's lives taking time-off as a traveling documentary photographer. He has earned his bachelors in Computer Science Engineering and is currently pursuing MFA from Pacific University. He is working on a collection of interlinked short stories and a novella, Yuti, set in India. He lives in Cambridge.