Interview with a Journal: The Sewanee Review
Everything You Need to Know About America’s Oldest Continuously Published Literary Quarterly
In this installment of Interview with a Journal, we sit down with the editorial staff at The Sewanee Review: Julia Harrison (editorial assistant), Jennie Vite (assistant editor), Hellen Wainaina (assistant editor), Eric Smith (managing editor), and Adam Ross (editor-in-chief).
The Sewanee Review was founded in 1892 by the teacher and critic William Peterfield Trent. Many prominent writers of the 20th century have appeared in the magazine, including but not limited to T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Wallace Stevens, Saul Bellow, Katherine Anne Porter, Marianne Moore, and Ezra Pound.
The Review has published excerpts of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor’s first novels, and the early poetry of Robert Penn Warren, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Christian Wiman.
In 2017, novelist Adam Ross took the helm as editor, succeeding George Core. Under Ross’s tenure, the magazine was redesigned for the first time in 73 years, by the book designers Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday, and SR began to publish online as well as in print. SR also celebrated its 125th anniversary that same year. Fall 2017 marked the magazine’s 500th issue.
What appeals to you about working at a literary journal?
Julia Harrison: Literary magazines allow for a lot of mobility between types of writing, as well as between authors and artists—in 200 pages you can meet 12 writers doing completely different things. I love that variety, how much it achieves and how it widens your exposure to forms, themes, approaches, intentions. A huge component of the work of a literary magazine is to platform the voices of new and important writers. That’s the best part of the job: publishing work that feels essential or informative to the cultural moment, allowing writers the space to reveal themselves and their thinking.
Why do you love literary magazines?
Jennie Vite: Literary magazines really are a labor of love. From the process of selecting pieces to the initial edits, to sending each issue out into the world—it’s an act of communion between reader, writer, and editor. There is an incredible amount of responsibility we feel when the author entrusts us with their work. And it’s really special to see that trust and belief evolve over months-long periods.
Working at the Review is like a secondary education. I leave every day feeling like I learn something new, whether that is how to be a better editor, a better writer, or a better citizen. Every issue of the Review has its own beating heart, but it’s the community—the readers—that nourish and keep the magazine evergreen, and I think that’s the most special and rewarding aspect of my job.
What makes your journal different from other literary journals/magazines?
Adam Ross: Our design, first of all. Perhaps the smartest thing I did when I took over as editor in 2016 was have publishing industry greats Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday redesign the magazine. And every quarter, when we receive their cover ideas, there’s a ton of excitement in the office because there’s always one that we’re like, Yes, that’s it.
Second: the range of our content. In the magazine, you’ll find everything: nonfiction about the origins of the Persephone myth or contemporary dispatches about Mediterranean migration; longform book reviews on a single author’s work and on the Booker Prize shortlist; we also feature fine art, collage, photography, interviews, and an incredible selection of contemporary fiction and poetry. And every issue is anchored by a craft essay.
What is one of your favorite pieces that you’ve published? Why?
Hellen Wainaina: “Yale Will Not Save You” by Esmé Weijun Wang captured the staff’s attention because of the ways in which it made visible the knot of mental health issues and higher education. The piece interweaves Wang’s personal narrative, the national conversation about severe mental illness, and the charge higher-education institutions have to care for the people that make up their institutions. What is most striking about the piece, for me, is the artistry with which it revisits the age-old conundrum of human coexistence: are we responsible for our fellow neighbor, and to what degree?
In this question and the many attendant queries that shadow art—mysteries of life, love, grief, solitude, death—a great host of witnesses accompany Wang in our pages. Among them are poets Evie Shockley, Donika Kelly, Kaveh Akbar, Michael Robbins; essayists Lorrie Moore, Garth Greenwell, Ross Gay; authors Lea Carpenter, Alexia Arthurs, Steven Millhauser, Brandon Taylor; and journalists John Psaropoulos, Ben Austen, and John Jeremiah Sullivan.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced working at or running a magazine?
JV: There are many challenging aspects working at a literary magazine. For the Sewanee Review, one of our biggest challenges is our small staff. (Our editor affectionately refers to us as a “skeleton crew.”) Over the last few years, the magazine has seen incredible growth, and with this growth comes more projects, goals, and day-to-day operations that, frankly, we don’t have the time to get done as quickly as we would like.
For me, cultivating our bi-quarterly newsletter was a big goal and project that I undertook back in the beginning of 2020. And even then, it took a year of multiple drafts, countless emails, and constructive criticism before we officially launched in March of this year. It’s an intensive process, but having the support and encouragement of the staff has made those moments less frustrating. It’s a running joke at this point whenever we mention our ever-growing to-do list.
How did being on the staff of a literary journal change the way you read?
JH: What we’re doing every day is really practicing reading, or how to read, and that focus allows for an enhanced literary experience. There are good and bad parts to that. The good part is that you begin to read really intentionally, almost like when you try very hard to focus on the flavor notes of an expensive wine to impress the person across the table—that’s sort of what we’re doing at our desks every day, contemplating the success or the shortcomings of a story, focusing in on expressions of skill, subtleties. Reading becomes even more enriching that way, you begin to get more out of a text. The bad part is that you can often smell a plotline from a mile away—themes that seemed original before begin to seem cliché. It can be hard to turn your editing brain off to enjoy an essay or story.
What is the most important thing that a writer should include in their cover letter/pitch?
Eric Smith: The pieces most often pitched to the Review are essays, book reviews, and the occasional craft essay. We’d ask writers interested in pitching us to keep in mind what Adam describes elsewhere as “bringing the news,” and to generously interpret what that means. A quarterly journal like ours provides advantages that such pieces may not be offered elsewhere. We can go long, for instance. And we welcome pieces that are initially granular in their approach but open up into much larger concerns—the way that Chris Bachelder’s essay on patient writing does, or Tara K. Menon’s essay on Sigrid Nunez. We like making room for pieces that are idiosyncratic in their trajectories.
Online submission platforms have eliminated most of a cover letter’s utility. We don’t spend much time with them. I don’t know many editors who do.
What are some subjects or topics you want to see writers address in their work?
HW: In general, we don’t approach work from writers with preconceptions about what that work should tell or teach the reader about any particular subject or topic. That sounds like equivocation, but the truth is we are open to an author’s attention (whether granular or macroscopic) on any subject or topic. The criteria by which we evaluate an author’s work is answered in the next question, but in every piece we receive, we’re hoping to see an exploration, examination, or critique of a subject that is cohesive and that offers a unique point of view.
By cohesion, we mean on a sentence-to-sentence and section-to-section level is the exploration, examination, or critique of a subject keen. Pieces that we reject due to a lack of cohesion are often overly sentimental or biased—that is, underdeveloped—in one direction. They lead the reader to clichéd conclusions, to surface-level insights. By point of view, we mean that the piece newly mints an experience, idea, or understanding. A recurrent subject in our pages is the craft of writing: we publish one craft essay per issue. The topic is the same, yet each craft essay develops a cohesive narrative about an aspect of writing and each illuminates one writer’s thinking about the process of writing.
What do you look for in new authors you publish? What should stand out in terms of their work and style?
AR: We have three criteria by which we discuss submissions to the magazine, and they are as follows: Stickiness. Does the story or poem stay with you days after reading it? But also: does it have internal consistency? Does it hold together? Next, does the writer have authority? That is to say, if she’s writing a story about unicorns, are her sentences shot through with the conviction that she knows everything about these creatures, horn to hooves. Finally: Does it bring news? Yes, every story under the sun has been written, but great authors newly mint experience. That particular sense of freshness and invention is high up on our list, and all these qualities were very much in evidence when we published writers such as Sidik Fofana, Malerie Willens, Lisa Taddeo, Cally Fiedorek, Jennifer Habel, Jowhor IIe, Austen Leah Rose, and Celia Bell. Some of these writers you’ve already heard of; some you will very soon.
The publishing and media industries have recently undergone a long-overdue reckoning in how they handle equity and diversity. How can literary journals promote inclusivity without indulging in tokenism? What actions have your publication taken to support equal representation?
ES: As America’s oldest, continuously published literary quarterly, housed at an institution that is inextricably linked with the South, the Sewanee Review holds a unique vantage point in American literary history. As a contributor to our home institution’s mission to acknowledge and correct for its own institutional history, it’s incumbent upon us to ensure that the Sewanee Review more accurately and more generously reflects our institutional values, the diversity of our student body, and American letters writ large.
The magazine—and we, as its editors—have a responsibility to be more inclusive, for our magazine to offer its readers a more accurate understanding of what contemporary literature is. Such corrective action has to extend to and beyond the magazine’s table of contents. Which is why we’ve also made fundamental changes to our editorial staff, to the judges of our annual prizes, and to the recipients of awards given by the magazine. Doing so more accurately reflects who we are: as readers and writers, as editors of a magazine of contemporary letters, and as part of an institution committed to this work.
Tell us about your submission process.
The Sewanee Review is open for submissions from September 1st through May 31st of the following year. We use Submittable, and there is a $3 fee to submit. Our authors receive a minimum of $100 for poetry and $300 for prose, with line and word count determining the final payment, for which there is no maximum limit.
We also hold an annual fiction, nonfiction, and poetry contest in July. This year’s judges are Brandon Taylor (fiction), Stephanie Danler (nonfiction), and Paisley Rekdal (poetry). The entry fee for the contest is $30, and all entrants receive a one-year subscription to the Review (print + online). Information about the contest can be found here. Any questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
–Julia Harrison (editorial assistant), Jennie Vite (assistant editor), Hellen Wainaina (assistant editor), Eric Smith (managing editor), and Adam Ross (editor-in-chief)