Interview with a Journal: The Yale Review
Everything You Need to Know About the Oldest Literary Journal in the United States
In this installment of Interview with a Journal, we sit down with Meghan O’Rourke, editor at The Yale Review.
The Yale Review was founded in 1819 as The Christian Spectator. In 1843, it became The New Englander; it assumed its current name in 1892. Its modern incarnation was established in 1911.
The well-respected Review publishes fiction, poetry, essays and reviews, and has published the work of authors including Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Eugene O’Neill, John Hersey, Elizabeth Hardwick, W.H. Auden, and Adrienne Rich.
The founding editor of the modern Review was the literary critic Wilbur Cross. Subsequent editors have included Helen MacAfee, David Morris Potter, Paul Pickrel, John J.E. Palmer, Kai Erikson, Penelope Laurans, Harold Augenbraum, and the poet and librettist J. D. McClatchy.
Poet, memoirist, and editor Meghan O’Rourke took the helm on July 1, 2019, the 200th anniversary of the Review’s founding. O’Rourke discussed her literary background and plans for the journal in an interview with Lit Hub, prior to the start of her editorial appointment.
Recently, the Review launched a new website: TYR. The website, designed by Pentagram, integrates the print publication with exclusive online-only content, including essays, columns, poetry, fiction, multimedia content, and more. The launch of the site allows all of the magazine’s print pieces to be accessible to the public, along with highlights from the archive.
What appeals to you about working at a literary journal?
Meghan O’Rourke: I love magazines and literature, and the poet and writer in me have been glad to find a more communal way to contribute to the arts, so that I am not always sitting alone at my desk wrestling with my own writing. The work of a literary writer—or a poet, at least—is so solitary. I enjoy the collaborative nature of editing, of working with writers to realize a vision, or to bring out the most subtle and incisive parts of a piece. I enjoy getting to put my love of literature and language in service of others’ work, and not just my own, if that makes sense.
Questions of presentation and how to connect with audience also fascinate me. I have worked at a number of very different magazines, but thinking about the reader and how to engage them is a throughline of all those jobs: I worked at The New Yorker as an assistant and then as a nonfiction and fiction editor from 1997 to 2002; then as culture editor at Slate, in an era when it was just beginning to publish cultural criticism, from 2002 until 2008; then at the magazine Double X, which I co-founded with Emily Bazelon and Hanna Rosin; and I also served as poetry editor at The Paris Review. It was exciting to think at all these institutions about how writing translates in different mediums; in the broadest senses, editing requires the editor to be engaged in a kind of careful process of elucidation for the reader.
What drew me to The Yale Review was the unique and exciting challenge of translating it from the print era to the digital age. The Yale Review has a rich, storied, and very long history—200 years (depending on how you count)—of publishing some of the greatest literary minds in the world, among them Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Rita Dove, Adrienne Rich, and Bayard Rustin. But many of my friends and students had never cracked its pages because it hadn’t made the transition to digital publishing.
I wanted to translate the richness of the journal into the urgency of the internet, but in a curated way that shows that the internet can be a space of reflection, too. “Little magazines” have historically been sites for passionate engagement with literature, criticism, and politics, and that’s what we hope the new online TYR, which launched on May 19, 2021, will be.
Why do you love literary magazines?
MOR: The work of little magazines is driven by a commitment to principles like fully vetted ideas, accuracy, and innovation, rather than by the whims and trends of a market; it’s part of what makes little magazines “little” but lasting. They are sites of resistance and innovation—places where the avant-garde is discovered, or a new wave of work can be united, a discovery revealed.
I’m really interested in editing as an act of curation that in itself creates newness: By placing a Solmaz Sharif poem next to an Ocean Vuong poem (as we did on our site last week), or a piece on twinship and envy next to an essay on online personae and stalking, you draw a connection for the reader that might not have been there otherwise; an insight, a fresh remembrance of the complexity of making ourselves understood to one another, a new reckoning with what it is to put on the masks we wear to face the world, and ourselves.
What makes your journal different from other literary journals/magazines?
MOR: Part of what makes TYR unique is its illustrious history; it is also committed to publishing incisive criticism and essays and remarkable literature side by side, in the belief that each informs the other. As TYR moves into its third century of publication, we remain committed to publishing—and launching the careers of—both critics and literary writers. In other ways, TYR continues to evolve: We’ve relaunched the magazine as a print and digital publication, with a new website that features original content, alongside treasures from our 200-year-old archive.
In addition to publishing established voices, we make it a priority to showcase a new generation of diverse and exciting talent, such as Elisa Gonzalez, Raven Leilani, Becca Rothfeld, Namwali Serpell, Solmaz Sharif, and more. We also have an educational mission, offering a range of fellowships through Yale University to train and mentor young writers, thinkers, and editors. I think it’s rare to find a publication that’s as committed to preserving tradition while also being so innovative.
What is one of your favorite pieces that you’ve published?
MOR: I can’t choose a favorite! They’re all pieces I’m inordinately proud of. I will say that readers have connected powerfully with Sheila Heti’s beautiful essay about Pierre Bonnard and the death of her father, Raven Leilani’s brilliant story “Breathing Exercise,” Robyn Schiff’s long poem “Information Desk,” and Namwali Serpell’s “Unbothered: The grace of black nonchalance,” which makes a powerful argument reframing stereotypes of black emotions as sites of embodied resistance to structural racism.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced working at or running a magazine?
MOR: It is a challenge to continually keep a publication fresh and relevant in an ever-more crowded field. When I started Double X at Slate, there were no thoughtful women’s publications; we wanted a publication that didn’t approach women’s issues with a very dated perspective of offering relationship tips, or how to pack better school lunches. We knew our smart and engaged readers wanted insightful, incisive pieces that tackled complex issues of gender equity, politics, work-life balance, education, and more. Of course, soon after we launched, other publications started to follow suit, and we needed to figure out how to continue to tackle these issues in a way that set us apart. Within a couple of years, we realized that these issues were not as much women’s issues anymore, but human issues. Double X had run its course.
We face similar questions of relevancy at TYR—how do we maintain and honor tradition, while also creating fresh, original content that connects with a new generation of readers, scholars, and learners? That’s part of the motivation to bring TYR online. While we are committed to our print journal, it’s been exciting to think about how to bring forth content in an alternate medium, to help attract the readers who will sustain us going forward.
How did being on the staff of a literary journal change the way you read?
MOR: Hmm, it’s hard not to “edit” as I read. But I work hard not to be an editor when I first read a piece; I try to be a reader first so that I can hold on to my sense of excitement and discovery—the same qualities we want our readers to experience as they spend time with TYR.
What is the most important thing that a writer should include in their cover letter/pitch?
MOR: It’s critical to have a very thorough understanding of the publication you’re pitching or submitting to. Many pieces would work well in any variety of publications—appealing to the sensibilities of many editors and readers—but most of what we choose to publish are pieces that fit specifically with TYR’s ethos and style. That’s something every literary magazine has, and it’s something I’m always thinking about. What’s right for The Paris Review isn’t necessarily right for The New Yorker. A piece might not suit The Sewanee Review, but could be a great fit for The Point. What I look for in a cover letter or pitch is that someone knows what The Yale Review is about and is thinking about how their work fits into our commitment to publishing powerful arguments. Does this piece add to the conversations we’re having as a culture? Could you imagine it in our pages, or on our site?
It’s imperative that for nonfiction, a pitch has a fully-formed argument that’s well thought-through, a bit surprising, and clearly framed. We look for poetry and fiction that is daring and troubles us into reflection.
What are some subjects or topics you want to see writers address in their work?
MOR: A tough question. Anything that feels underexplored or complacently explored and ripe for a reframing; race and American values; various kinds of reckoning as we emerge from the pandemic; history’s lessons for modern times; climate; loss; illness and the body. But everything from sports to artificial intelligence is of interest to us, if the writing is propulsive.
What do you look for in new authors you publish? What should stand out in terms of their work and style?
MOR: We’re interested in indelible literary voices—poets who sound like no one else; fiction writers who make us see anew—and critics who care about style and the power of making a surprising and fresh argument on the page. We are definitely interested in writers who can effectively bridge the academic and non-academic worlds. So many academics do truly innovative work but have not figured out how to adapt their ideas for mainstream audiences. We love work that breaks genre, cares deeply about style as feeling, and wants to snap us out of complacency.
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?
MOR: This is an issue I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about and working on, primarily in the voices that we publish, and now in our staff and fellowship programs as well. To achieve equal representation means building a culture in which many different voices have space not only to exist but to thrive. We’ve made it a priority to seek out and publish a diverse array of voices and cultures in our pages since I took the helm. What I hope these writers bring to our readers is a variety of perspectives that further important conversations about race, gender, and sexuality, as in Namwali Serpell’s recent essay on the grace of black nonchalance, mentioned above, or Raven Leilani’s powerful story about an artist who is grappling with what it means to commodify her pain for a white audience. I’m also especially proud of some of the conversations and interviews we’ve published on these issues, such as Korean American writers Susan Choi, Cathy Park Hong, Julia Cho, and Alexander Chee discussing the elusiveness of home, and Aleshea Harris and Douglas Kearney in dialogue on presencing Blackness.
We are not where we want to be yet, I’ll say first, but diversity and inclusion are a priority as we train and mentor this new generation of writers and editors. We have an extremely tiny staff—just two full-time people!—but we have part-time employees, and a rotating cadre of student fellows and post-doc fellows. Our magazine—in staff, in pages, and online—should be a place where people of all backgrounds feel welcome.
Tell us about your submission process.
MOR: Each September, we accept submissions through Submittable. We announce details and exact dates through our newsletter and on our site. We accept submissions of poetry, fiction, essays, reviews and criticism, and translations, which must be previously unpublished works in English.
Each submission should be accompanied by a cover letter including a brief biography and an explanation of why a writer’s work would be a good fit for The Yale Review. We ask for a $3 reading fee from those who are able to pay so that we can cover the costs of reading work, but the fee is voluntary, as we do not believe that financial constraints should be a barrier to publication.
Our rates for poems are between $50 and $75. Our rate for online prose pieces is $150; rates for prose for our print journal vary, depending on length.
We attempt to publish accepted pieces for our website within four months of their acceptance—though this can be longer for poems—and for print within 18 months of acceptance.
We hope to publish a special issue on artificial intelligence in Spring 2022.
–Meghan O’Rourke, Editor