Seeking a Wide Variety of Excellent Writing
Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review and the author of the memoir, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All. Her essays and articles have appeared in numerous journals, including Vogue, American Scholar, the Journal of Pacific History, Australian Literary Studies, and in the 1999, 2000, and 2006 editions of Best Australian Essays. She lives near Boston with her husband and three sons.
Interview by Becky Tuch
I just saw on the Harvard Review blog that one of your contributors, Jess Row, had a story selected for the next edition of Best American Short Stories. In fact, works from Harvard Review have been included in such Best American anthologies for the past nine years out of ten. First of all, congratulations. Second of all, to what do you attribute this incredible track record?
Well, since then we’ve had two more Best American selections announced, both essays. So, we’re pretty pleased, especially given how few eligible pieces we publish (8-10 stories a year and about the same number of essays).
To me, this is an affirmation of our basic editorial principle, which is to publish the widest possible range of material — in terms of, style, subject matter, length, what have you — while still remaining true to the idea of literary merit.
I think a good editor is one with informed but also catholic taste, someone who understands how many different kinds of readers there are out there, but who also really gets what makes texts work. Not everyone will like everything we publish; but I like to think of myself as someone who can appreciate a fairly wide variety of kinds of writing.
So, the fact that pieces in Harvard Review get picked, year after year, for the Best American series, every volume of which is edited by a different guest editor, suggests to me that we are succeeding in finding lots of different voices.
Are there any writers Harvard Review is particularly proud of discovering? Can you tell us their publication story?
I have so many writers I’m proud of. I’m particularly pleased when we publish someone for the first time. I’ve done that quite a few times with young writers and several times with older writers, some of whom you might even describe as advanced in years. That may be the most gratifying publication of all. We recently published a piece called “Night School Confidential” by a writer named Jim Kelly who was just ecstatic to be published after years of working away in obscurity. I’m going to post some extracts from a letter he wrote me — the kind of letter that editors treasure — on the Harvard Review Blog.
In the Fall/Winter issue, you write quite eloquently about the difficulty of categorizing literary works based on the traditional genre labels—poetry, fiction, essay. For this issue, you created a new category, “Stories From Life,” which blends the narrative aspect of fiction with the realistic component of the essay. If you could create three new categories for your next issue, what would they be, and why?
I’m not sure “Stories from Life” was an unqualified success (again more about this in an upcoming blog post), but I do want to experiment some more with the idea of categories. My fiction editor suggested “Dispatches” and I quite like that, though it has a bit of the “Letter from Afar” feel to it. I think the word “Proem” is silly, but I like the idea; I’ve always been a bit of a fan of the prose poem. And I’ve always loved The New Yorker’s “Annals of….” But, honestly, I think it’s hard to come up with good categories. We talk a lot about the absurdities inherent in “Creative Nonfiction” — as if nonfiction were inherently uncreative — and the other day my managing editor, Laura Healy, suggested “Fictional Nonfiction,” which I quite like. Maybe we’ll try that next.
Many people reading this interview will live in the greater Boston area. Does Harvard Review have a special warm spot for stories that take place in Cambridge?
We do, actually. I remember particularly an essay by Andre Aciman called “Lavender” that was set in Harvard Square and featured, among other places, the drugstore on Brattle Street that sells a million kinds of perfume. I also liked an essay by David Gessner about tracking coyotes in the Boston area; I seem to remember there was one living in Revere.
What about stories that actually take place at Harvard University?
I don’t think we have any of these. We occasionally publish Harvard writers: faculty, fellows, staff, even students from time to time, but I can’t remember anything that was actually set at the university.
Speaking of Harvard, what is Harvard Review’s affiliation with the university?
Harvard Reviewis funded by Houghton Library of the Harvard College Library, so technically my managing editor and I (we are the only paid staff at Harvard Review and we both work half-time) are staff members in the rare books library, a fact which has given me immense pleasure over the years. Harvard Review is also supported by the Division of Continuing Education and an outside donor.
I walk through Harvard Yard every time I go to work. If I am submitting a story to Harvard Review, should I mention that in my cover letter?
You certainly could. We wouldn’t object to knowing it, but it won’t change where you are in the queue.
In addition to publishing outstanding works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, art, and reviews, Harvard Review has also developed an online edition, as well as a blog. How have these electronic developments added to or lessened your work as an editor?
Oh, dear, they have definitely added work, and not only for me but very significantly for my managing editor, who has primary responsibility for the website (the blog is my job). All these things have added to the workload; I would say we now effectively publish three instead of two issues a year. But there’s really no alternative. We want to keep the print journal going and it would be simply absurd not to take advantage of all the things you can do on the web.
I’ve recently written a longish piece about this for the Australian journal Meanjin which will be online in June (we’ll post a link to it on our website) — about some of the common problems faced by editors of established print journals and how we are addressing them at Harvard Review. So, yes, it’s a lot more work and it requires new thinking, but I have to say I really enjoying trying to figure it out. I mean, I’ve been doing the print thing for nearly 20 years; it’s fun to have some new challenges.
What exactly is your work as an editor? Is it fun? Tiresome? Stressful? Exciting? All of the above?
Let’s see, editing text is, for me, easy and fun; it’s the part that I find most natural and is clearly what has kept me in this business for so many years. Dealing with authors can be both gratifying and irritating (depending on the author); deadlines are tiresome; raising money is hard; putting an issue together is a stressful but also rewarding. Selecting material is probably one of the most difficult parts of the job. I have learned to trust my instincts over time, but there are always more good pieces than one has room for and so we have to reject a fair amount of perfectly publishable work. Still, we try to do it in a way that is encouraging, and I always tell writers not to take it personally. Everyone gets rejected from time to time, and it can be for any one of a million reasons, some of which have nothing to do with you or your piece.
What many people who are serious about their writing find is that first you get a lot of ordinary rejections, and then little by little you start to get rejections with personal notes, and gradually the balance shifts and you’re getting more of these and fewer of the ordinary ones and then, your work starts getting accepted. It’s a process with a learning curve, like just about everything else in life. So the main thing is to have a Zen attitude about it and to keep on plugging away.
Interviewer Becky Tuch is the Founding Editor of The Review Review.