Little Magazine Fail

Back in January, 2009, I wrote an essay about Virginia Woolf and my grandmother. It’s a good essay. My parents think it’s good. Some pretty famous Woolf scholars have read and enjoyed it. I hope, one day, to publish it in a little magazine.

I entered it in a contest. It came in second. I was disappointed but still hopeful that it would find a home.

I sent it to the Yale Review. I got my PhD at Yale. Woolf published some essays in The Yale Review in the 1930s. I thought an old-fashioned personal essay that was about the love of reading and a mean Yankee grandmother written by a Yalie might find a home in the Yale Review. It was a longshot, but not utterly insane. The essay had, after all, come in second in a contest.

I called the Yale Review late in the spring of 2009 to check on the status of my essay. “Oh, my goodness!” was the flustered reaction. Profuse apologies for the lack of acknowledgment (not to mention reading or decision) ensued.

In the fall of 2009, eager to move on, I left a voicemail: I am submitting the essay elsewhere. It's still elsewhere. I still hope for news, dimly.

And now, awaiting me in my mail at work, is a note, dated July 28, 2010, from the Yale Review. It’s not a rejection. It’s an apology that, given the intense preparations for the 100th anniversary issue, they won’t be able to get to my essay until June of 2011.

Shame on them.

How I miss Gourmet

We are up on the St. Lawrence River for our annual month, catching Canadian cell phone lines and French radio, looking out on the rainy water and recharging from a year in the big city.

As ever, I have brought a couple food magazines with me, but oh, the loss of Gourmet is tough. Bon Appetit is just so ordinary and safe. Its whole attitude to its audience is vaguely condescending, like a mama trying to coax a child to just give the broccoli a taste. The July letter from the editor reassures us that “while you may notice that a few recipes call for some spicier notes, don’t be put off: The heat is often tempered with sweet.”

Ruth Reichl would never have written that. She dives right in to the calves brains and is so full of luxe enthusiasm that you consider following her.

Even More on Jessie Fauset

Ethelene Whitmire, a professor at U-Wisconsin, Madison, popped into the comments to note that Fauset’s fourth and last novel is being reissued by Rutgers this fall. Thank you! It sounds like a darker—more realistic?--version of There is Confusion, edited by Cherene Sherrard-Johnson (also of UW):
Comedy: American Style, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s fourth and final novel, recounts the tragic tale of a family’s destruction—the story of a mother who denies her clan its heritage. Originally published in 1933, this intense narrative stands the test of time and continues to raise compelling, disturbing, and still contemporary themes of color prejudice and racial self-hatred. Several of today’s bestselling novelists echo subject matter first visited in Fauset’s commanding work, which overflows with rich, vivid, and complex characters who explore questions of color, passing, and black identity.

Cherene Sherrard-Johnson’s introduction places this literary classic in both the new
modernist and transatlantic contexts and will be embraced by those interested in earlytwentieth-century women writers, novels about passing, the Harlem Renaissance, the black/white divide, and diaspora studies. Selected essays and poems penned by Fauset are also included, among them “Yarrow Revisited” and “Oriflamme,” which help highlight the full canon of her extraordinary contribution to literature and provide contextual background to the novel.
I can’t wait to read it.

A Happy Story from Publishing 100 Years Ago

I’m attending bits and pieces of the Society for Textual Scholarship Conference at NYU this week (and giving a paper there tomorrow). Today’s plenary panel was terrific. Bob Scholes gave an engaging paper on advertising in modernist magazines. He compared Pound's injunctions for writing imagist poetry with advice for admen written at the same time: it would be hard to tell them apart. Full of lovely irony. My old friend Cliff Wulfman gave a really smart paper about all the technological challenges of digitizing literature.

But, in light of the dire news about publishing that’s been floating around these past months, I thought you might be especially interested in George Bornstein’s “The Colors of Modernism: Publishing Blacks, Jews, and Irish.” (Shouldn’t it be “the Irish?”) He offered a history of New York publishing houses in the early 20th century.

While we think of Viking and Knopf as powerhouses of publishing, these houses were founded by Jews who’d hit the glass ceiling in WASP-dominated Boston. These editors, according to Bornstein, moved to New York, but couldn’t afford to acquire the established texts. So, while Houghton Mifflin up in Boston was publishing new multi-volume sets of Longfellow and Emerson (this made me laugh out loud, but I was the only one), Ginsburg and Oppenheimer of Viking and the Knopfs set out to find avant-garde texts, texts by other Jews, by immigrants, and by African-Americans. Harcourt Brace was the only Gentile-run house to join this trend. They did so because they hired Joel Spingarn, a Jew, an early supporter of the NAACP and colleague there of DuBois, and a former professor of comp lit at Columbia. Professor Spingarn had been dismissed from his job at Columbia for defending a colleague’s dismissal (ah! academic freedom!) so, his former students hired him at Harcourt, eventually making him a full editorial partner.

First among these was B. W. Huebsch, the first American publisher of James Joyce. Bornstein showed us Huebsch’s device, a seven-branched menorah (it looked like a fancy Georgian candlestick to me, but I trust him), on the title page of Joyce's Exiles.

This paper was a really lovely cultural history. A rich celebration of how a group of artists, exiled from the mainstream, became the mainstream by banding together.

Harcourt’s big moneymaker was Keynes’ Economic Consequences of the Peace and it’s through Keynes that they got their entrée to Bloomsbury. Harcourt remains Woolf’s American publisher to this day.

Bornstein’s story emerges, I think, out of a desire to counter a narrative, common in the 1990s, of high modernism as politically right wing, elitist, and narrow.

But it’s too easy to turn the cosmopolitan story into a dream sequence that overlooks the broader truths of anti-Semitism, race riots, lynchings, and anti-immigration legislation of the time. Or the facts of rifts within even the cosmopolitan circles of artists. I would like to have heard more nuance there, but it mostly flickered behind the paper. He told us that Harcourt is to be commended for publishing Sandburg’s essay on the Chicago race riots without pausing long enough over the fact of that unrest. He saluted Knopf’s courage in publishing Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven without pausing long enough (though pause he did) over the opportunism of that white promoter of Harlem.

He ended with T. S. Eliot, whose politics I don't admire (duh!) but whose "The Waste Land" I adore. Boni and Liveright, the house that made their name with Toomer's Cane were Eliot's American publishers. And, Bornstein argues, that Eliot's appearance on the Boni and Liveright list emphasizes the polyglot nature of the poem: something that was supported by the list itself. That is, every title on their list was jazz-influenced, so the jazz and pop elements of the poem, the parts of the poem that celebrate immigration and cosmpolitanism, and cultural hybridity, are all familiar to anyone who's familiar with that house. This, he argues, helps account for Ralph Ellison's somewhat surprising over-praise of Eliot. There is a lot more to say about that: about Eliot's racism, about whether or not people know books in the context of their publisher, about Ellison's snobbery, and about the greatness of both Ellison and Eliot.

I do think this is, in the main, a really really good story for us to know. As we think about Kindle and digital rights management (DRM to you) and the death of the newspaper, it’s really thrilling, I think, to remember, too, that 100 years ago, there were people in New York who loved great writing and didn’t pause over creed or race or ethnicity to publish it and, in so doing, were able to serve both art and commerce. So, though I have my questions about the emphasis of this paper, I mostly found it very, very interesting and inspiring. And though I've ignored the women here, Bornstein did not: he continually referenced Lilian Hellman, Nella Larsen, and more as crucial players in this story.

As we sit here, trying to earn a living with our tweets and our blogs, shaking our heads at the ginormous advances offered to another idiotic memoir by a celebrity, it’s moving and encouraging, I think, to imagine Knopf, Huebsch, Ginsburg & Oppenheimer, Boni & Liveright, gutting it out, making money, and bringing us great, great art.

Bornstein’s paper is part of a forthcoming book from Yale University Press. A chapter of it appeared in the September 2005 issue of Modernism/modernity (which may be behind a firewall for you). He has a very sweet pro-Obama op-ed here.

So THAT's where the money's been

I got an email yesterday from my publisher. My royalty checks have been going to my old address. They've come back returned. If I send her my current mailing address, she'll cut a new check in the new year (times are tough all over, I guess).

I am trying hard not to think about how much the check will be for. It was a fun email to get.

I'm hoping that it'll be at least twenty dollars. That'd keep me in lattes for a couple weeks, with some careful budgeting...

I'll keep you posted.