A fortieth birthday is cause for a good, critical look around—what have I done? what’s next?—while at the same time providing a legitimate excuse for a party. Forty is still young, at least from the point of view of the more venerable among us, but it’s old enough to have some stories to tell and to have assembled a motley collection of friends. As New England Review turns forty this year, we’re caught up, as always, in all that we still want to do, and in all the work to be done. And yet it’s good to take stock, with or without the party and the black and gold balloons.
If there were an NER party for this occasion, it would begin with invitations to everyone who’s ever appeared in the table of contents and on the masthead—of course! But to make the conversations really interesting, for staff and writers alike, we’d include NER’s subscribers on the guest list as well. Some of them began subscribing before the advent of e-mail, some subscribe to digital editions only, and most of them we’ve never spoken to beyond a renewal letter or two (or three, or four). But without them, there would be no point, and no means with which to continue. A party for them—and for all our donors—is in order.
Better known to us are the thousands of writers NER has published in four decades. Ideally, every last one of them would come to our fortieth, even if in spirit only. They would all have their own stories to tell (NER published my first poem! NER rejected me a dozen times!), and we would be gratified to hear them. Some published with us only once and disappeared, finding other kinds of work or other places for their work, and occasionally one who we think has disappeared forever returns. Merrie Snell, for example, published a story in 1997 and reappears in this issue twenty-one years later—surely there’s a story there too. Others have published in NER more consistently over the decades, and this issue includes a handful whose appearances have spanned multiple editorships: Marilyn Hacker (first NER publication: 1980), Robert Wrigley (1984), Marianne Boruch (1986), Carl Phillips (1997), and William Logan (1997). Among them are also two former NER editors: C. Dale Young (poetry, nineteen years) and Jay Parini (founder, 1978), both of whom are back in civilian clothes and are “just writers” now. That’s a lot of old friends. But we wouldn’t be a lit mag without a vibrant supply of new friends, and you’ll find those here, and in every issue, in even greater number.
I’ve often speculated about what it was like to edit NER in previous decades, and what most inspired past curators of this magazine. Our fortieth anniversary provided a good reason to simply ask them. Throughout the year on our website we’ll be posting pieces from the archive that were particularly memorable to these predecessors, alongside their own stories behind the poems and stories. Founder Sydney Lea will contribute, as will the first managing editor, M. Robin Barone, and many others including Maura High, T. R. Hummer, David Huddle, Stephen Donadio, and more. And let’s not forget Toni Best; Toni’s twenty-three years as office manager make hers the longest NER career to date, and we look forward to seeing what she pulls from the archive. One little-known fact to come out of these conversations already is that the first managing editor and the first editor met here and later married—the making of a new journal was, quite literally in their case, a “labor of love.” In the years since, Syd and Robin have brought several children and books into the world.
Sharing a masthead can be an intimate arrangement, and yet there are many of us who have never met, many whose offices are on Submittable. They are the readers, our corps of volunteers, who make the quixotic policy of reading everything that comes through our portal possible. It’s not a profitable way to publish, but it’s what allows a magazine like NER to publish debut authors, emerging writers, and work that speaks entirely for itself. Ernest McLeod, for one, began reading manuscripts for NER in 1998 and has been reading off and on for us ever since. Ernie consistently reads hundreds of stories a year and he still has the openness and vision to get excited about a new voice, to pass along notes like “maybe not this one, but this is a writer to watch.” An enormous sheet cake would be ordered just for Ernie, the readers, and the writers they have encouraged.
Which brings me to those writers we have not published. Their number is highest of all, and their efforts most unsung. We’d like to send each of these writers a nice note for once. An invitation to a party might not be what they’re hoping for, but they certainly deserve that and more.
At this hypothetical party, which is now larger than any venue in Middlebury could hold, a number of other toasts would be offered, having nothing and yet everything to do with this fortieth anniversary. A toast for Celeste Mohammed, whose debut story “Six Months” was chosen from NER for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Another for the National Endowment for the Arts, which will give NER $10,000 in 2018 to continue publishing and promoting great new writing. Another for Scholastique Mukasonga and her translator Melanie Mauthner, whose story “Beautiful Helena’s Misfortune” appears here in its first English translation and was recently featured in the New York Review of Books. Also, to all thirty-four of the emerging writers we published this year, and to poet Devon Walker-Figueroa whom we get to send to the 2018 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as the winner of our annual Emerging Writers Award.
That’s a lot of toasts and a lot of cake. So far middle age is not so bad for NER. But now, of course, we have to ask—what’s next?