My early literary life was powered by fantasies, most of them the standard “grandiose” kind having to do with landing brilliant pieces in glamorous places and winning the esteem of famous and beautiful people. But there were a few that were humbler, and of these one was the fantasy of editing a literary magazine, which, if I scratch away at it, was really much more about being in the thick of literary life than it was about doing the work of taste-making.
I knew nothing, and I still know nothing, except, self-reflexively, the all-important truth that is the first part of this sentence. I certainly didn’t imagine that fairly suddenly, at the age of fifty—in the middle of the cliché-ridden period of male self-reckoning—I would find myself emerging from the keyed-up isolation that is writing to take on, all-thumbs-feeling, the keyed-up quasi-public life that is editing. Here I am, though, dazedly emerged, and full of thoughts about what has felt like a dauntingly steep learning curve.
To begin with, I was more or less ignorant when I took the _AGNI _helm from my predecessor, Askold Melnyczuk, of what was meant by editing. I had allowed the word to become a kind of synonym for “putting together,” as in “Let’s put together a literary magazine.” Wrong. Assemblage, I discovered, is a late-game activity. It took only a few days on site (and taking instruction from the maestro, Managing Editor Eric Grunwald) to see that a magazine is, figuratively speaking, a receiving dock for the products of our collective dream-life—those “pure products” that Williams invoked—and that editing is, before readying manuscripts for publication, very much a business of cutting away the less essential in order to expose the more essential. I mean this both in practical and philosophical terms. Editing, I have found, is the search for signal in a sea of noise.
This winnowing of inessentials would seem to presuppose that one has a clear sense of what the essential is, and here the business gets interesting. I discovered quickly (and self-contradictorily) that I both do and don’t have such a sense. I certainly could not, for love or money, set out anything like a firm prescriptive aesthetic: this is what the best writing ought to be; this is what AGNI will promote. No, my allegiances, both formally and in terms of content, are too widely flung—I have no jihad to prosecute. But I have come to see that I do have a very acute set of preferences.
I almost wrote “personal preferences” but checked myself. If I believed they were merely personal I would not have taken on the position. I discovered long ago as a critic and reviewer, and now again in the throes of my self-interrogation, that I have preferences I feel are worth fighting for, worth promoting, and that if they don’t add up to a clearly defined aesthetic, they nonetheless do describe a bias. It is on behalf of this bias—and because of the beliefs and assumptions that underlie it—that I decided to try my hand at editing AGNI.
But this is far too abstract, and the editor here needs to edit himself. What I am trying to say is that I am, at root, moved and heartened when I find what strike me as the best words in the best order, never mind the ostensible subject. Language used with high artistic consciousness. Words arranged in a way that declares: here is a living mind; here is a spirit. A good sentence describing piece of gummy candy can telegraph this as certainly as any high-flown rhetoric on the soul or the fate of nations. Reading literature attends as much to the saying as to the said.
What’s more, when I read language that connects me to the world, I react, and my reaction has an outward fling: I want to carry the news to others. Before, I have done this by writing essays and reviews, and I’m sure that will continue. But the special attraction of editing a magazine is that rather than waiting for others to package the news for me to evaluate, I have a chance—neat reversal—to evaluate and put out the news myself. Is this vanity or public service? Probably both.
There’s no getting around it: Putting out a journal asks me to believe that my opinion stands for more than itself, that it has reach, that other people feel enough the same—or can be made to feel enough the same—about life. In other words, I have to trust that many of us go about in search of the quickening word, the phrase that can break through the fatigue of inundation, and the work that repositions the self, however slightly—as almost every good book did when we were younger.
I start out, then, with the belief that my longings, if not universal, are at least not just mine, and that if I can identify the work that honestly reaches me, then the broader dissemination of that work may have some value, creating a needed intensification where it counts, in the self of the reader. Askold’s thirty-year experiment showed me that this could happen in larger political and social ways as well. I only hope I can grow my biases outward with the same confidence he did.
Whatever I may have imagined and projected when I set out to edit my first issue, the fact is that as I write this I have the contents of my debut issue more or less in place. Instead of thinking in terms of what I would like to do, then, I can ask myself what I have already done, where my readerly instincts have taken me. Looking over the contents of this first issue, I will confess I am confounded. Squint at the list how I will, I cannot find—stylistically or thematically—anything that looks like the figure in the carpet. If I had less faith in my responses—if I doubted that they were somehow organic and integral—I would be more nervous.
But then the answer, the justification, comes: I see that what I need in this inspection is a change in the frame of reference. I have been looking for commonality in too narrowly defined a sense. So when my associate fiction editor, Jenna Blum, asked me these same questions yesterday, I answered, almost abruptly, “Each of these pieces is completely unique, completely unlike any other.” As soon as I said that, it felt right. Difference—uniqueness—as a basis of commonality, I like that. At least enough to make it this moment’s platform.
And now, with my own space running out, I will only add that I hope you agree and that you take the time to ponder how it is that so many universes can be collected in such a small place.
I start and end this reflection in the first person singular, but in fact the most vital realization of all has been of the importance—and pleasure—of the plural pronoun, the “we” that makes everything happen. I offer my special thanks here to Editor Emeritus Askold Melnyczuk, Managing Editor Eric Grunwald, Associate Editors Jenna Blum (fiction) and Rachel DeWoskin (poetry), Brian Staveley (poetry reader), William Giraldi (fiction reader), Tom Sleigh (ombudsman), and our spirited group of interns and volunteers: John Daniels, Elisabeth Donnelly, Adam Fagin, Heather Heckman-McKenna, Nick Klebaum, Katie Krell, Susanna Lamey, Renee Nichols, and Avi Yulish. Enjoy.
Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).
He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2022)