A Small Operation
Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University and has been editor of the Southwest Review since 1984. His latest book, Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness, was published by Picador in 2010. He lives in Dallas, Texas.
Interview by Ben Leubner
How long have you been editing The Southwest Review, and what things of note, in that time, have remained the same about it? What things have changed?
I became editor in 1984, when the university provost phoned, out of the blue, and said he wanted a faculty member to take over the review after the pre vious, long-time editor had retired. I guess he thought that since I wrote about contemporary literature and actually knew various writers I’d be interested in, and good for, the job.
What has remained the same is my taste, and my decisions. I have had two managing editors, the first for twenty years, the second for the last six. We work together to determine the contents of the issue. We don’t deal with an editorial board or any decisions by committee. We have an advisory board, whose members help to bring work and people to our attention.
What has changed, of course, is the rise of the Internet and the decline of print journalism.
The Review itself is billed as one of the oldest continuously published literary journals in the country, something in which you no doubt take some measure of pride. Can you comment on the remarkableness of this achievement, on what it is that makes continuous publication of a literary journal, for a century, both so difficult and so impressive?
It’s a total mystery to me. Neither SMU nor Dallas itself is a repository of literary types, and it’s purely by chance that the Review has survived as long as it has. During the 1930s, Henry Nash Smith and John McGinnis used to meet Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, the editors of The Southern Review, midway between Baton Rouge and Dallas in order to arrange joint issues of the two reviews. When I took over at SWR, the previous editors had also run the SMU Press. The two organizations were split. The press has subsequently (as of last year) been more or less dismantled by a new, cost-cutting provost. There is some hope for its revival, but everything is shrouded in mystery. SWR has so far been spared the axe.
What are your thoughts on the state of the literary journal (or lit-mag) in general, today, in the early 21st-Century. Particularly, what do you make of the large shift from print to electronic publications? Do you think that the current explosion of electronic lit-mags can be at all likened to the profusion of print magazines and journals that abounded during the early 20th-Century?
This subject has been talked almost to death. I have no opinions different from those of the majority of witnesses. Writing will survive, in one form or another, and print publication, even if diminished, will continue to survive, if not thrive.
Do you find my using “journal” and “magazine” or “mag” as if they were interchangeable befuddling?
Not at all. I suppose “magazine” is used more specifically to refer to something with more than quarterly publication and something that appears in a non-book-like form.
A journal like Poetry seems to have gone through several changes over the course of its career, changes that often seem to occur whenever a new editor arrives (I think of Karl Shapiro changing the journal’s name from Poetry: A Magazine of Verse to just Poetry because he thought the two words, poetry and verse, were far from interchangeable). When you took the helm at The Southwest Review, was there anything about the journal that you felt needed to be changed right away?
Yes. In trying to cover the region of the southwest, and to represent the arts here, the magazine had made “regional” into something of a synonym for “provincial.” During its earlier days—the 20s and 30s—it strove for more national and indeed international connections, and the opening issue, in fact, had a piece by Edmund Gosse, of all people. One thing I have tried to do is to represent the arts, concerns, and themes of this region without being bound to them. We try to cast a wide net, and we also have a more than modest interest in writers and issues that pertain to the region, which is itself a large and diverse, almost indefinable place, with an increasingly international (and polyglot) spirit.
Travis Kurowski (editor of Luna Park) is under the impression that you run the Review in a rather unique way. I’m not sure what means by this. Are you?
No, I don’t know, either. We are a small operation. We print what we like. Jennifer Cranfill, my co-editor, reads and selects fiction; I do the poetry and non-fiction. As the late Howard Moss of The New Yorker said, when asked for his definition of a good poem: “A good poem is one that I like.” The best magazines/journals/reviews have always been ones that reflect the tastes of a single person, or a small group of people. The late Richard Poirier’s Raritan comes immediately to mind, as does the ongoing Salmagundi, which is a two-person operation—Bob and Peggy Boyers—along with some external supporting advisors.
Do you see the future of the Review as relatively set and staid? That is, can it continue largely as it functions now based on the strengths of the tradition which undergirds it, allowing of course for necessary adaptations to changes in technology, or are there forces at work which threaten it and which exceed such changes, making adaptation, and thus survival, difficult?
I have done this for 26 years. I can’t imagine staying more than 30. What happens to the Review will be determined by whoever takes it over. I hope a younger person (well, anyone will be younger than I) will be more Internet-savvy, and Internet-committed than I am. What we need now is both the time, the personnel, and the money, to get ourselves digitized, and to have some Web presence other than our own modest Web site, which is mostly a provider of information.
Jennifer Cranfill, Southwest Review co-editor, added the following comments:
Jennifer Cranfill: I’m as confused about what’s happening as much as anyone. As far as the future of magazines in general or SWR in specific, I don’t know what that future might be. In our case, so much depends on the university. Five or six years ago I thought there would still be a place for SWR for decades to come but going forward in this economic, cultural, and academic publishing climate I’m not as sure.
The trend is toward online magazines because they are less costly, they are considered to have more of a presence, many think they have an immediacy that traditional print magazines don’t have. The down side is to a certain extent they remain ephemeral. The 96-year publishing history of SWR shows the exact opposite: row after row of bookshelves lined with magazines. I’ve always thought the best of both worlds would be ideal: a print magazine and a website offering what the magazine does not (information about the magazine, perhaps interviews with authors, etc.). But I hate to think they are interchangeable. Both have much to offer but something would be lost if either were to become disposable.
I’m also struck by the fact that there are likely more people in America at this moment who want to be or who consider themselves to be writers than perhaps any other moment in our history. MFA programs continue to grow and more and more undergraduates and graduate students study writing with the idea they will make it their life’s work. SWR in particular has seen an upward trend in submissions in the last five years. We receive thousands of submissions. And yet our subscriptions have steadily declined. So as more and more people want to be published in SWR less and less of them are willing to subscribe.
Newspapers and mainstream magazines have experienced a true crisis in subscriptions, but that is primarily because of a general apathy for reading the news. In our case it is not apathy as much as a general lack of support of magazine subscriptions, possibly in favor of the free content offered by many magazines or e-zines, but I wonder if it says something about the lack of importance some writers are placing on reading the magazines in which they want to be published. Either way it isn’t a sustainable idea.
If you want to be published in print magazines it would be a good idea to support print magazines. Otherwise we cannot continue to provide the opportunities to publish.
Ben Leubner teaches literature at Montana State University.
This interview was originally posted at Luna Park.