Introducing the New Editor of The Yale Review: Meghan O’Rourke
"I feel a kind of obsessive concern for both reader and writer."
After a year-long, national search, Peter Salovey, President of Yale University, has announced the appointment of Meghan O’Rourke—poet, memoirist, and editor—as the next editor of The Yale Review. O’Rourke will take over on July 1st, 2019, the 200th anniversary of the Review’s founding. The Review, a well-respected journal that publishes fiction, poetry, essays and reviews, has published the work of authors including Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Eugene O’Neill, John Hersey, Elizabeth Hardwick, W.H. Auden, and Adrienne Rich, among many others.
O’Rourke began her professional career as an editor at The New Yorker and has also served as culture editor and literary critic for Slate, as well as poetry editor for The Paris Review. She is the author of the memoir The Long Goodbye (2011) and the poetry collections Halflife (2007), Once (2011) and Sun In Days (2017), which The New York Times named one of the 10 Best Poetry Books of that year. Her essays and poems have appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Book Review, Poetry, and Best American Poetry. She’s been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, a Whiting Award, a Lannan fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the May Sarton Poetry Prize, the Union League Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and a Front Page Award for her cultural criticism. She’s currently at work on her next book, about chronic illness.
Lit Hub assistant editor Aaron Robertson caught up with O’Rourke to talk about her incredible career, the “post-print” era, teaching, and the art of good editing.
Aaron Robertson: We’ll start simply. What drew you to The Yale Review? What is it about the publication’s mission that you found appealing?
Meghan O’Rourke: Obviously, it’s an excellent journal, one I’ve read for years. But I was particularly drawn to its potential to be a literary journal that also intersects with a broader world of ideas—about politics, culture, the social in its broadest form. The Yale Review has a really strong back-of-the-book—the section with its critical essays—and I’ve always loved the fact that it publishes serious nonfiction alongside poetry and fiction. It seemed to me there was a real freedom here for the right editor.
As an editor, I’m interested in not only finding lasting poems and stories but in making something that engages deeply with questions of our moment and is able to—in a truly humanistic manner—range across disciplines, genres, and unite political and cultural inquiries. The Yale Review, of course, happens to be incubated at a liberal arts university, which it is both independent of and connected to—making it a natural site for bridging the world of research and the world of imaginative literature. To me, there is something thrilling about thinking through the ideas of our time alongside poems and fiction. Literature, with its idiosyncrasies, its heresies, its visions, can provide a kind of subversive push-pull against what the critic Alexandra Schwartz aptly called “the rubbery chew” of op-ed culture. And, while the Review is esteemed, it needs to figure out its transition into the post-print era, which is a fun problem to have as an editor—it’s an opportunity to put one’s own stamp on things.
AR: You’ve previously worked as an editor for three very different publications—The New Yorker, Slate, and The Paris Review—and I’m wondering what lessons you’ve taken from each that might shape your approach to this journal.
MO: You’re right—each experience taught me something really different. At The New Yorker, where I worked as a fiction and nonfiction editor, I learned a lot about hands-on editing and the importance of precision and obsessiveness. Everyone at the magazine cared an incredible amount about getting things right.
For example, I recall fielding 1 am phone calls from a copy editor concerning her hesitations about using the past participle “gotten” instead of “got” in a Richard Ford piece; as I recall it, the style book called for “got” but “gotten” sounded more like a Southern American speaker, of course. This was a cause of true distress for her. Such editorial discussions may sound minor, but they stand in for the obsessiveness that it takes to produce excellent work. I also learned the importance of what Tina Brown once called “glitzy bits”—the parts that make a magazine feel dimensional, not monotone.
At Slate, where I was culture editor, my task was to build the culture section up (the magazine had been largely focused on politics). I learned a lot about immediacy, building an argument in a short space, and the importance of formal innovation. Slate taught me how much voice really matters when you’re working online, and also how to think about the Internet as a medium distinct from print. The Paris Review, where I was co-poetry editor with Charles Simic, was almost the opposite: we thought a great deal about what it was like to receive the Review in the mail and sit down in your chair to read it. We grappled with how we might present the individual poems we chose to publish as part of a physical object, and in suites of arrangements, that would help each voice ring out.
AR: “Digital state of mind” is a phrase that keeps popping up in this industry, whether you’re a general reporter or a poetry editor. The Paris Review is one of the better examples of a publication that’s done a great job of celebrating print culture while also maintaining a strong online presence. What do you hope The Yale Review’s digital future will be?
MO: An important question. With the literary landscape changing dramatically, The Yale Review, like many print journals, has meaningful questions to answer about how to exist on other platforms. As the Review moves online—a process its interim editor, Harold Augenbraum, and its associate editor Susan Bianconi, have begun—I want to make sure we are meaningfully adding to the conversation at large. My intention, at the moment, is to expand slowly in ways that build community and lead to more immediate engagement with our contributors and readers. We’ll be doing interviews, Twitter chats, a podcast—and more events. I’m really interested in thinking about the Internet as a medium with its own formal attributes, and I like to think I’m somewhat good at innovating on that platform; I created the Slate Audio Book Club in 2005—I think it was the first literary podcast from a major magazine.
What I think I can say is that the online Review will be a slightly different space—more immediate, topical, and casual—from the print Review. I hope the result will be to make The Yale Review more engaged with its community of readers and contributors.Literature, with its idiosyncrasies, its heresies, its visions, can provide a kind of subversive push-pull against what the critic Alexandra Schwartz aptly called “the rubbery chew” of op-ed culture.
AR: Are there other college-based or institutionally incubated journals you’ve looked to for encouragement? I’m thinking along the lines of The Massachusetts Review, Michigan Quarterly Journal…
MO: Sure, and I have been thinking a lot about the excellent work that Lingua Franca did in the 1990s. For those who don’t know it, Lingua Franca was a magazine founded by a Yale University professor, Jeffrey Kittay, in the early 1990s, and it focused on covering ideas, intellectual controversies, and literary life in really lively ways. It was helmed by a host of excellent editors and journalists, including Judith Shulevitz and Alex Star, over its short life. I don’t think that the Review will be trying to do anything quite like it, but I am thinking about it as a site of dynamic exchange between the academy and a world beyond it.
AR: I imagine you walking into your interview for this job with a binder full of project ideas, contributors you’d like to invite, etc. What’s something you want to do with the Review that hasn’t been done yet?
MO: It’s an iPhone notes document, but yeah—there are many ideas! I don’t want to spoil my first issue, which will be the Fall 2019 issue, by telling you too much. But I can say we’re hoping to be more international and interdisciplinary. I’m really thrilled to say that Katie Kitamura is joining me as an editor-at-large. We are working on a project about documentation and its discontents on the broadest and smallest scale. We are going to be thinking about the many factors that go into making art—friendship, institutional structures of support—as well as about the actual art itself. I’m also going to change the critics’ section a bit, opening it up to more critic-at-large pieces on a wide range of subjects, including ideas of the moment. There will be some theme issues.
AR: How would you describe your approach as an editor and what do you think makes a good one?
MO: A good editor needs to possess curiosity and obsessiveness in equal measures. She has to be what Teju Cole recently called a “sympathetic intermediary” between writers and their larger audience. She should know what questions to ask of a writer, and how to ask them; she has some sense of the pulse of the culture, some sense of how to identify timely issues and also to discover the writers who will be timeless. She is able to both champion her writers and help push them deeper, at times, by applying gentle pressure. As an editor, I think I feel a kind of obsessive concern for both the reader and the writer.
There are macro and micro aspects to editing. On the macro end, I think of myself not as a gatekeeper but as a kind of elucidator—someone who will, I hope, help bring to light the interesting things happening in literature and the culture at large. I’m a semi-dilettante, or maybe just a hungry reader: I like to learn about a wide range of different things.
On the micro level, I like to get involved with texts, especially with critical pieces. Even as a poetry editor I have sometimes asked poets to consider revisiting a line. I’ve always been grateful when someone like Paul Muldoon suggested an illuminating edit of my poem. An editor is a writer’s advocate in that sense.
AR: On that note, can we get a sneak peek into the editing class you’ll be teaching at Yale?
MO: It’s going to be a kind of practicum course with weekly visitors. The hope is to introduce students to the actual work of editing in all its dimensions—from dealing with big news stories to editing and assigning criticism, from fact-checking to art assigning, from editing multimedia to conceptualizing podcasts. Yale has a rich student publication culture and my hope is that by the end of the class the students will have a lot of practical information and real-world contacts (and context) for thinking about what it means to choose literary journalism as a career.
AR: In your experience, is it true that editing other people’s writing strengthens or at least influences your own?
MO: If only! It’s so frustrating that one can’t look at one’s own work with the same clear eyes that one can look at a stranger’s. That said, I do think my work as an editor helped me become less sentimental about the “darlings” that Faulkner said you must kill. I’ve also become better at building an argument—but only a little.
Also, the contact with new writers is invigorating for your own work as a writer. I know a poem is really good when it makes me want to go write one of my own.
AR: What’s your plan for day one?
MO: In a funny way, this interview is day one. Technically I start July 1st—next summer is when you can expect to start seeing more changes online and in the journal. But I’m just starting to put together my first issue, the Fall 2019 one, which will coincide with a major anniversary for The Yale Review. We’re hoping to have a launch party in New York next fall featuring contributors and a celebration of the Review’s history. Come join us.