Interview with a Gatekeeper: Graywolf’s Jeff Shotts
An Independent Press on the Front Lines of Diversity in Publishing
My exchange with Jeff Shotts, Executive Editor at Graywolf Press, was a crash course in his editing style: thoughtful, joyful, empathetic, humble, generous, smart. It’s no surprise those adjectives also describe the books he’s published. Despite his humility (as you’ll soon see), he’s a passionate advocate for his authors and for the philanthropic community of Minneapolis, Minnesota where Graywolf Press is based.
Kerri Arsenault: How did you come to editing?
Jeff Shotts: I woke up through reading. Books provided me with an intimacy, a conversation, and a social awareness I don’t think I would have been capable of any other way. They saved me. At some point I discovered they were saving other people… they could save other people. “Here, read this” is a statement of generosity I listened to.
KA: What’s the earliest book you recall feeling this way about?
JS: My older sister essentially taught me to read when I was three and four (thanks, Jenn). My mom read a lot, and kept a series of red faux-leather tomes impossibly titled The Books of Knowledge, from which she would read us retellings of Arthurian romances. There was the suggestion that everything you might need is somewhere in a book.
Later, in high school, a group of us readers and aspiring poets began meeting at night by campfire on the weathered stone of Coronado Heights [in Kansas] to read poems and talk about what we had been reading. We realized we were taking our education as readers into our own hands, and on that desolate hill, as we rooted around in anthologies, I first heard the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, and many more. We were dodging the real social pressures of high school, as beautiful losers and fools, but it created a social world around language and emotion that saved me. We called ourselves the Hollow Men, after the poem by T.S. Eliot. During that time, I got involved with student publications as much as I could, and was miraculously gifted with teachers (thank you, Mrs. Ferguson; thank you, Mrs. Dreiling) who saw something in me, pushed me, and suggested that people, in fact, do this: they write, edit, promote, publish, teach, review, and care about writing enough to devote their lives to it. I grew up in rural central Kansas, and the notion I could do something like this—and not as a matter of shame, nor just on the side of a “real job”—was a revelation to me. It still is.
I went to Macalester College in Saint Paul, and studied Classics and English (thank you, Al Greenberg, recently gone from us), and discovered a remarkable independent publishing scene exists in the Twin Cities. While working on college publications and the art and literary magazine on campus, I interned for a year at the now-defunct, but lovingly remembered Hungry Mind Review, attached to the flagship independent Hungry Mind Bookstore (now gone, a Patagonia store in its place). It was a life-changing experience (thank you, Bart Schneider), and I got to see early galleys coming in from publishers all over the country. One of the publishers that enthralled me was Graywolf Press, as I realized I had read many Graywolf titles, especially poetry. After graduation, I applied for an internship at Graywolf, and by the beginning of my second month, landed an editorial assistantship—a “real job.”
I began an apprenticeship under Fiona McCrae, then the new director of Graywolf, and she, Anne Czarniecki, longtime editor at the press, and Janna Rademacher, longtime marketing director, generously and patiently taught me the trade of acquiring books, negotiating and drafting contracts, developmental editing, copyediting, proofreading, writing copy, and promoting literary titles. It was exhilarating. It felt like I was doing it—which is the only way to learn to be an editor, the apprenticeship to experience, to each book and author. I did that for four years, working as an assistant and then an editor.
I interrupted that apprenticeship to do another kind of apprenticeship. I went to Washington University in Saint Louis to earn an MFA in poetry, where I studied with marvelous teachers Mary Jo Bang and Carl Phillips, and where I first met writers visiting like Thom Gunn, Brenda Hillman, Fanny Howe, Claudia Rankine, David St. John, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Jay Wright, and many others. I learned how to read and read wider. In workshop, I was the one who could barely stand to have my own poem under discussion, but I loved discussing everyone else’s. That suggested a lot to me, and clarified the way I could best try to serve writing.
KA: Any poems of yours you’d like to share?
JS: [Laughs.] Let’s keep them where they belong, inside their measured silences. I was fortunate I kept a working relationship with Graywolf, and fortunate Fiona invited me back on staff as poetry editor. Since that time, I acquired and edited the poetry list at Graywolf, as well as works of nonfiction, literary criticism, and translation. In one way, this is a long path, and also a straight one.
KA: How so?
JS: I think it feels I was always headed in this direction. As a young person, I used to walk fields with my grandfather, who inspected wheat for several counties in central Kansas. At several points in each field, he would pluck a shock of wheat, shuck the kernels, and put them in his mouth, chewing them. He’d nod, in the shade of his white cowboy hat, and keep walking. I did the same thing, chewing the wheat. By this ritual, he knew something that I didn’t know—whether the field was ready or not, whether it was partially rotted out by spring rains, something. And then he would talk with the farmers and tell them what he had found, sometimes with sturdy praise and sometimes with news the farmers didn’t want to hear. A great mystery to me. I think of it often, and don’t imagine that my grandfather and I are as different as I might have once assumed. I miss him. Like him, I had to learn a trade, and one with a long and ongoing tradition.
KA: I’ve read you think editors should be invisible. How do you impose yourself upon a book, if at all?
JS: Editors should be invisible in their work, ultimately, yet willing to accept the criticism reviewers still sometimes wield against a book: “This work would have benefited from more and better editing.” How would anyone know, other than the writer and the editor? That relationship is, I believe, one of profound friendship, trust, and empathy, but it’s the editor’s role, finally, to disappear, to become unnecessary and invisible in service to the book and to the writer.
I don’t believe editors should impose themselves upon a book. That suggests an adversarial approach, rather than one of advocacy and respect. The writer and the editor are at the mutual endeavor of lifting up a literary work to its readers. It may seem obvious, but the writer writes and the editor edits. The book is the writer’s work, and the editor’s work is to listen very, very carefully to the work and to the writer—carefully enough that the editor makes suggestions, ideally, inside and with the writer’s voice. Looked at that way, editing becomes an act of empathy.
KA: Do you think this kind of editing is a lost art?
JS: I think there are editors in every sector of publishing doing immensely dynamic work as editors, and doing so for long hours and mostly with seldom, tangible recognition, and they do their editing artfully and generously and every day. I strive to learn from those working editors, both inside Graywolf and other publishing houses. Working with Graywolf editors—Fiona McCrae, Katie Dublinski, Ethan Nosowsky, Steve Woodward—is a daily reminder of what the art of editing strives toward.
It has been complained for many years that editors no longer edit, but it’s just not what I see. I do think many editors are curating full lists, and they are being asked more and more to do their work quickly under tremendous commercial pressures, and more and more to serve marketing and promotion. Those forces certainly have an ongoing effect on what editors can do for every book. Editing takes a great amount of attention and patience, and attention and patience are unfortunately assigned less value in many parts of our culture, including publishing.
KA: Tell me about working away from NYC, a city in which the publishing world seems to orbit. Is working in the Twin Cities sustainable fiscally? In other words, how does being a nonprofit and independent publisher differ in the financial bottom line?
JS: The Twin Cities are a major hub for literature, which is a major facet to Graywolf’s identity as a publisher and arts organization. Minneapolis is headquarters for independent publishers Coffee House Press, Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions, a great university press at the University of Minnesota, the Loft Literary Center, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, and thriving literary communities around our colleges and universities. Plus our vibrant library system and major independent bookstores like Common Good Books and Magers & Quinn. The Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, and City Pages have fantastic local and national book coverage, and Minnesota Public Radio has more literary programming than any public radio station in the country. In addition to reviewing books, Rain Taxi Review of Books sponsors the Twin Cities Book Festival each fall. There is a culture around literature here that is essential and exciting—and not to be taken for granted.
KA: How has your love of poetry contributed to your editing?
JS: I think reading and engaging with poetry should be fundamental to any serious writer and any serious editor. There is no other place where language is under the same crafted scrutiny, and where we are invited into that scrutiny as participants in it. Poetry is the writer’s dojo and the editor’s temple.
KA: How does editing poetry compare to editing nonfiction?
JS: I am struck how editing poetry and editing nonfiction are complementary endeavors. Editing them both should be an act of immersing yourself in music—the music of the line and the music of the sentence, and the larger structures of a score. Both are genres of persuasion, where content and style are, at their best, essentially the same thing. Editing poetry hopefully makes me better at editing nonfiction, and vice versa. Both have expanded my conceptions of these genres and what they can be.
KA: Speaking of editing, how do you work with your authors?
JS: In a word: differently.
JS: Differently even with the same writer but with different books. It feels important that the individual book lead the process, and not the other way around. A first reading might be relatively quick, a sort of overview in order to see in all directions. And subsequent readings are about listening and getting as deep as I can into a writer’s signature style. And it’s from that place I feel confident enough to put an editing mark on a page, or to offer meaningful suggestions and responses about the title, organization, development of subject matter, shifts in style, tangents, or anything that calls for attention. And it’s about trusting the writer, sensing or calling out their intentions, and following through so that those intentions are prevalent and also available, ultimately, to the reader. In this process, I am willing to make mistakes or seem foolish if it’s in service to the work. I try to question what seems like it needs questioning, and better to look foolish in the intimacy of working with an author than having the author look foolish in the face of a tough review, for example, or worse, a public event.
KA: You hardly seem like a foolish person. You seem pretty careful.
JS: To a fault. [Laughs.] But also in the editing process, I try to recognize when to shut up. There often comes a crucial point where the editor’s comments or gentle prods become understood, internalized, and then unnecessary, as the writer has taken them in such that the editor then gets to watch in astonishment as the writer finishes the work, taking it to a whole other place. Those are the quietly celebrated moments I live for as an editor. Eula Biss searching for her essay collection’s focus, and then sending “Time and Distance Overcome,” which became the absolute right first essay in her book Notes from No Man’s Land. Vijay Seshadri clicking into place his prose piece, “Pacific Fishes of Canada,” into his poetry collection 3 Sections. Leslie Jamison filling in the little placeholder that simply read “[Big final essay here]” at the end of an early draft of The Empathy Exams and replacing it with “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Claudia Rankine at last, so brilliantly, landing on the title for her book, Citizen, and two days later sending a mockup of the cover with that title just below a hovering, haunting, black hood. “What do you think?” they ask. At that point, your best editorial comment is stunned silence.
KA: I’ve read many of those books. Why them? Why choose what you choose among all the books to choose? Many of your books deal with uncomfortable issues yet you’re an editor who uses a green pen because it seems less aggressive than a red pen…
JS: At Graywolf, we choose what we choose because these books deal with uncomfortable issues. Sometimes we need comfort, but what comforts us as readers, when so much of the rest of the world is hard at work to comfort us? I am made more uncomfortable by passivity, invisibility, and perfection. And readers want books like Citizen, which directly confronts race, or On Immunity, which takes on vaccination and cultural fear, or D. A. Powell’s exquisite, lyrical trilogy collected in Repast, on illness and HIV, or Solmaz Sharif’s upcoming Look, which describes the casualties of war, one of which is our language.
All of these books we choose because of the issues they confront, yes, and also because of how they confront them. The language, style, and form of the books Graywolf publishes are meant to challenge you, provoke you, keep you reading, immerse you in experiences that you can’t shake off after you look up from their pages. Not all these experiences are loud or ugly, and many of them are also subtle, internal, joyous, and beautiful. But we hope all these experiences are artful and enduring. As for the green pen: why make an author see red?
KA: Regarding uncomfortable issues, what kind of gender and race/ethnicity breakdowns do you see in submissions or books or authors and how do you try to address the imbalance if there is one?
JS: This is an important question. We try mightily to balance and diversify our seasonal publishing lists in many, many ways. Some of these ways are more invisible, in terms of aesthetics and style, for example, and many of these ways are more visible, as with balancing out genres for each list, or the balance of American writers and international writers, or ensuring each list has authors at different stages of their careers.
An essential part of this is addressing the balance of gender and ethnicity of writers. This has long been part of Graywolf’s mission for decades, and it’s something that we do intrinsically as part of the culture of the press. That said, we sometimes fall short, and we can and will do better, and we hold ourselves to a high standard when it comes to supporting a diverse publishing list.
What a publisher publishes is the best way to open a door to future submissions. For example, we receive more submissions by African American writers because for many years we published many books by African American writers, and have a long-standing relationship with Cave Canem as one of the publishers of their first book prize in poetry, which has been won by Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, and others, including Donika Kelly’s Bestiary coming this fall. We are noting increased submissions by women, across the board, given the success of many recent and forthcoming books by Eula Biss, Belle Boggs, Sarah Manguso, Maggie Nelson, and others, who are writing directly and forcefully about gender, sexuality, and motherhood. We are receiving many, many submissions, especially in fiction, by international writers, and many of these are works that need to be translated, and these voices bring major new and diverse voices to the list, especially after the successes of publishing Per Petterson, Eugen Ruge, Binyavanga Wainaina, and many others, including this spring’s Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett.
KA: What kind of risks are you willing to take on an author, a book, a genre?
JS: Graywolf is at the work of high risks. It’s a risk in this climate to publish the kinds of books we do—poetry and translations, essays and short stories, works of social justice and artful language. But we continue to recognize that many, many people are excited by these kinds of books: they want to read them, share them, hand-sell them, download them, review them, teach them, study them, engage with them, maybe throw them across the room. As an independent, nonprofit, mission-driven publisher, Graywolf and our titles exist in the same marketplace as countless, more commercial publishers and their titles, and these books have to compete for attention, review coverage, bookstore placement, online positioning, distribution, sales, awards, event listings, and on and on and on. It’s a risk in most every way, but given the extraordinary success many titles have had in these last few years, I think more and more people inside and outside the industry are giving Graywolf books an extra look and an additional boost.
In fact, we’re often seeing that the riskier the book—riskier in terms of author, book, and genre—the more people are looking to Graywolf to do well with such a book. Certainly this has been true for a long time with poetry, but we are also seeing this to be true in fiction and nonfiction. Books like Citizen or If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey risk challenging the form of what poetry is, or can be, and both challenge their readers by presenting visual artwork with text. These and other books are true innovative kinds of works that defy genre. Graywolf’s nonfiction is an area where we have identified and supported for many years a kind of lyric essay writing that has experienced a kind of blazing level of excitement among readers. We launched the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize several years ago in part to support this kind of nonfiction, and it has brought us such writers as Eula Biss, Margaret Dean, Leslie Jamison, Ander Monson, and Kevin Young, among others. This spring, Graywolf is publishing the third essay anthology by John D’Agata, The Making of the American Essay, which completes his monumental trilogy that defines and gathers a new kind of thinking about nonfiction. And in fiction, we are excited by short stories that push the language and form, as a genre that larger houses are often less likely to risk publishing, works like the amazing Spectacle by Susan Steinberg. And with novels, we’re excited to publish this spring, for instance, Max Porter’s heart-rending Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, a novel that could just as well be described at points as poetry or at other points as a narrative essay about loss and family or at other points as a literary homage to Ted Hughes’s Crow.
KA: What about translations?
JS: Works in translation are challenging risks for many reasons, not least of which is the work, time, and expense necessary to find and acquire international works and then to artfully translate complicated literary titles into English.
I think we ask our writers to risk a great deal on the page, and we ask ourselves as a publishing house to risk a great deal alongside them.
KA: Authors do risk a great deal, especially in trying to make a living while writing. How can editors help provide livable earnings for authors? For instance, your nonfiction prize, while generous, would be difficult for someone to earn a living from, no?
JS: This is a very good question. Everyone involved with a book should have a livable wage—starting with the author, but also the agent if there is one, the publisher, the editor, the cover designer, the typesetter, the printer, the publicist, the distributor, the bookseller, the reviewer, and on and on. There is a huge community around each publication. Each book sets a community in motion.
There are very, very few writers who make livable earnings on their books alone. And while it’s true that Graywolf’s advances to writers are not necessarily financially life-changing, the publication of these authors’ books is a potentially life-changing experience. In addition to paying an advance, we submit our writers for awards and prizes, nominate them for fellowships and residencies, and we work to promote writers for events and readings and periodical publications that can sometimes pay well. We try to be a full-support service as much as possible in order to keep our cherished writers writing. The publication of each author’s book puts their work out in the world with vigor and visibility, and that allows our authors to make connections, promote their works, find agents, attend conferences, and generally become more attractive as creative people, speakers, advocates, teachers, scholars, editors, arts leaders, and community figures, and on and on.
KA: What are your thoughts on today’s publishing model—how can it improve?
JS: I think commercial constraints have in many cases, unfortunately, had such a long and deep effect on many publishers that they are sometimes unrecognizable as publishers. Despite the financial downturn of many of these commercial and corporate publishers in recent years, they adhere to a publishing model that is primarily based on imitation, celebrity, promotion, and volume. Massive advances, for example, still go out up front for books that in most cases can’t possibly earn them back. It is a publishing model that doesn’t seem aware of its own history, even its recent one. I think many writers and their agents are noticing this, and they are seeing too many great books get lost under the weight of the one, sure thing, which turns out not to be so sure after all. Given the uncertainty of this publishing model and the volatility of book sales, the independent, nonprofit model seems by comparison remarkably stable.
What this has meant, for some time now, is that the larger houses have essentially ceded vast important territories to independent publishers: poetry, short stories, essays, literary criticism, translation, experimental fiction—in short, literature. This is in large part because literary works require a patience that the commercial houses can no longer afford. The need to report earnings to the still-larger entities that own them is too great. The desperation for the next big thing is too pervasive.
What this means for Graywolf and our many colleague presses is that we have an increasing responsibility to ensure contemporary literature not only endures but thrives, expands, and finds and creates new communities of readers. It’s an amazing time to be working in independent publishing, a time of huge changes and upheaval in the industry and the culture that require a lot of foresight and evolution, but not so much that we forget who we are and why we came to publishing in the first place.
Featured photo by Michelle Allen Photography