Teaching workshops, giving talks and readings, switchtailing through the sluices of the so-called literary life, I often get asked the editing questions—how many submissions does AGNI receive, do cover letters and publication credits make a difference, how do the contents get selected?—and even as I listen and nod I can feel myself scrambling to figure out how to put the best face on things. As if my job is not just to edit, but also to keep alive whatever flame of literary aspiration may be burning in the room, to engage in a kind of public boosterism.
I confess: I do the necessary thing sometimes—too often—acting as though there really is some egalitarian principle working at the heart of this life, that hard work and patience and the neat processing of text make a significant difference. I don’t deride any of these qualities, of course, but increasingly I seem to find myself putting a high-watt bulb to my motives. There is a pull in the direction of first principles. Why do I go around masking what I know to be true—that in my editing, as in my reading, I am like a miner panning always for the beauty of the vibrant line, the sound-print of the elusive insight or sensation, and that if it were not for the occasional jarring affirmations of encounter I would have no reason to do this work?
I don’t always carry on the cover-up, of course. In certain settings, with certain groups of people—generally older, more experienced writers—I will state and explain my convictions. I trust, maybe too optimistically, that these listeners have ears to hear, that they can better handle what has to sound like a preemptively discouraging admission.
So why do I hold back with the others? I can think of two fairly obvious reasons right away. One is that their as yet undampened hope for the literary connects directly to what I remember from the years of starting out, and that for some—certainly this was true for me—an idealistic enthusiasm is essential for the first hard investments en route to artistic self-making. To put it simply: I do not want to nip any aspiring writer’s impulse in the bud, for it just may be that more time spent working with words will equip them to face down the hard news, even prevail against it. In our single-minded focus on the “how-to” we often forget that the pursuit of craft is also a deeper sort of schooling, that it grows and toughens the inner self and promotes what Freud saw as the aim of psychoanalysis: the colonizing of the anarchic id by the ego. Does this mean that if we write long enough we will all become sane? Alas, no. But that is another discussion.
My second reason for holding back on my real editing credo is straightforwardly self-serving: I do not want to be seen as an elitist—though in ways I am an elitist—by people who might not grasp the gradations embedded in that term. I resist being tagged as a highculture snob, or a mandarin, or any sort of purist connoisseur. I myself despise people who preen themselves on the exclusivity of their preferences, as if only that Mahler, only that vintage, only that novel of Henry James were worthy of the gift of their patronage. But how am I any different, expressing at every moment my preference for this phrase or this image over that?
It’s a tight corner, I agree. I would try to get out of it by differentiating between something I think of as categorical taste and the localized operation of preference. The former moves to generalize and divide and ascribes hierarchical values to its choices. The snob would not only say, “Proust is great, Zola is inferior,” but also, “I am better for liking Proust—his work embodies superior sensibility.” The latter, the local, looks more to specify: “I like this passage, these lines, better than those. I am moved by this; I am not moved by that.” Most of us make these concrete discriminations all day long, and not just with art, music, or books. Getting dressed in the morning is, at least for me, a veritable circus of either/or decisions, never mind the project of ordering lunch.
A day at AGNI is the same but different. The private inclination necessarily maps outward. And here I have to butt up against the elitism of personal taste. If I aspire to anything, it is an absolute honesty about my response to expressions of language. But how will I ever realize this? I fail myself every day in a thousand ways. I am too easily swayed by a writer’s intention (as I perceive it), or by the sweetness of a shared intellectual bias or sensibility, or by the fact that I like him or admire her as a person, and then find it extremely difficult to admit that “This piece just doesn’t reach me.” What’s worse, every victory I do score over the oughts and shoulds is provisional at best. As soon as I turn to read a new submission I am right back in the same boat, fighting the same currents and prevailing winds.
Still, I can’t get around it: For me editing means asserting my own taste as a kind of categorical imperative. I recognized quite early on (see AGNI 57) that I would have to take the leap of trusting myself absolutely. I worried, naturally—still do—that this was the most deluded kind of solipsism, but I couldn’t see any alternative, unless it was to make the journal some sort of literary sampler, a potpourri of expressions, modes, and aesthetic outlooks.
But what would be the point of that? Why clap covers around the undifferentiated swirl that is already all around us? A literary magazine, I think, ought to declare a particular brand of excellence and seek to rally adherents, the ultimate goal being the conquest of the world by that excellence. Ha! As for the accusation of hubris, isn’t this what we all do as writers: look for the will to emboss our idiosyncratic vision of things onto the page? Maybe the editor is just the writer posing in a public face.
Here, in any case, is the narrative of the ordinary morning in the office. I drive, I park (bear with me), I make my way across the BU campus to the building at 236 Bay State Road. My first stop is the fourth floor, where I nearly always find a mountain of mail, which I load into a plastic postal container and carry down to our second-floor office. There, lit up with expectancy—I can’t help it, I still love getting real mail—I pile and sort, separating out books and journals and junk, and slowly build my paper ziggurats. Incoming submissions, poetry and prose. The poetry I deposit into the back part of one brimming bin, the prose into another—these submissions will need to be logged. And then, sometimes with what feels like an exaggeratedly theatrical rubbing of hands, I remove from the prose bin one bunch of manila envelopes, and another, until I create a composite stack that is often a foot high.
Why do I lavish so much prose on so prosaic a sequence of actions? I do it to build context, to introduce tension, to set up the revelation—which is that over the next hour or so I will have worked through that whole stack, delegating all but a handful of submissions to the return (read: rejection) bin. The survivors get rubber-banded and passed along to my largely volunteer readers. Do the math. I pick my way through as many as fifty manuscripts in the span of an hour.
The straight-up truth is that in most cases I make a decision about a submission in under a minute. Can you see why I might be loath to announce this to a room full of writing students? Did you just hear that? Where does this clown get off? And indeed, I did hesitate before typing the words. But it is the truth, and the truth is supposed to set us all free.
What I am saying, in effect, is that I am making editorial judgments based in many cases on a reading of a paragraph or two of prose, sometimes less. These are the briefest of encounters, but they are usually enough to allow me to arrive at one of three decisive determinations:
One: This prose is, even from the evidence of a paragraph, not alive to me—it is either obvious, clumsy, or otherwise faulty in its presentation; the language does not arrest my attention.
Two: Based on what I’ve read, this prose might be accomplished or even brilliant, but it does not fit the tonality, the aesthetic texture of what I am looking for. (To say what this is would require another column.) I could be holding a story from Raymond Carver himself—God rest his fiery soul—and know that while it might very well be perfect for another journal, it is not right for us.
Three: This prose has something, a rhythm, a stance, an offering of image, a voice, that insists on a closer look. Reading one sentence, I want to read the next. I feel the lift of insight or the delicious sharpening that comes when the right words have been put in the right order. Simple, Coleridgean. These last submissions will exact a close reading, and not just from me.
If there is any heresy in what I reveal, it is not in the portioning of Gaul into three parts—every editor does something of the kind. More likely it is in the seeming speed with which I make my calls, though for all I know—and indeed suspect—every other editor does the same thing. They have to.
I am affirming an aesthetic assumption: Writing communicates its essential nature from the threshold. Sentences, even phrases, are not just units of construction, but organic tissue, encoded with literary DNA. Ten, fifteen strings of words, but for me they carry the breath, the vibration, the electricity of the entire piece. If I am wrong in my call? Then I must live with the conjectured loss of distinguished work. But I persist in my folly.
Confessing this, I realize, ups the ante. Certainly it puts a pressure of expectation on the contents assembled here. I can only cross my fingers and hope that the reader will agree that the work delivers the goods.
As for the qualities, the attributes, the instancings of vision I find myself searching for—how can I compose a coherent list? They are intangible, as variable as the plastic expressions of the face. But these selections, I believe, share something in common: They all go after the density and complication of inwardness, avoiding the feint of posed simplicity or the postmodern defensiveness of ironic self-consciousness. They offer up—from the floundering Jew to the foundering Finn to the prism of poetry and beyond—a sense of the irrational thrust of living, its comedy and its horror, and in this they honor, implicitly, the carrying power of the word.
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)