Literature is not efficient. Reading it, writing it, and publishing it all require a seemingly unreasonable investment in time. Journals like ours take part in this economy of inefficiency by keeping our doors open to writing from everyone, everywhere. There are easier, less time-consuming ways to find and publish new writing, which is why most publishers rely on agents, social media platforms, and sales records to help them decide which manuscripts to invest their time in. But we’re convinced that being open to thousands of unsolicited submissions from writers known and unknown best serves the overall literary ecosystem. It’s the only way for the writing itself to stand in front of a writer’s vitae or profile or connections.
Because of this openness to new writing, we have to say “no” far more often than we say “yes,” which can give writers a kind of “who do they think they are” feeling of resentment. It also sets literary editors up as gatekeepers, as if reading and evaluating manuscripts were in some way equivalent to being a bouncer at an exclusive nightclub or a troll under the bridge. To me, the problem with the image of a gatekeeper is that it implies that the lit mag is some steadfast entity that simply exists, and that editors are only blocking the way to it. But without the efforts of those same people who are reading the manuscripts, there would be no there there. No literary magazine, no matter how well-established and glossy it might appear, can continue to thrive without constant attention to building an audience, while also maintaining funding and staff. Maybe the image of lit mag editors as boatbuilders is more apt, because essentially we’re working on something that requires consistent maintenance and whose purpose is to move something valuable from one place to another, from writer to reader. Plus there are always new navigational devices to consider—ebooks, social media, print, all of the above?—and we have to make sure we don’t overload the cargo hold and sink the whole thing.
But it also helps to see lit mags and their staff of editors and readers in terms of service. On the one hand, these people are necessarily making decisions, and so they have to assume some kind of authority. But on the other hand, they’re doing all this for what? Many of them are volunteers, and even when they’re not, new manuscripts require readers to constantly put aside their own agendas and literary preferences, and often their own writing, in service of another’s. All this puts me in mind of our town’s selectboard, whose job is to care about everything from the cost of a new fire truck to the effect of canines in the police force. They too make decisions that take hours of deliberation and don’t please everyone. Who do they think they are? Sometimes they might be able to lord that power over the rest of us, but at a town meeting a couple years ago, when we were asked to consider raising their pay from $1,500 to $1,800 a year, it dawned on me that their work, like the work of manuscript readers, is really more an act of service for something they care about deeply than it is a power play.
Speaking of service to something they care deeply about, as this issue pulls into port, our two fiction editors—Jennifer Bates and Janice Obuchowski—will themselves be changing course. While they’ve decided to move on from this role independently, they have both worked diligently toward the same ideals. They have read and evaluated thousands of submissions, worked with volunteer readers, and met with Middlebury College students, introducing them to the process of evaluating manuscripts and publishing a literary journal. It takes a whole lot of patience, open-mindedness, and curiosity to do this work as well as, and for as long as, each of these editors has.
Jennifer Bates came to NER in spring 2005, a writer and bookseller looking to get involved in the literary world independent of any degree program or sales atmosphere. She brought to her work here a particular gift for finding new talent and a willingness to give the most unconventional new voices a chance—something she’ll continue to do for us as she transitions back to the editorial panel. Some of the many writers whose work she has discovered for NER include Mario Gonzales, Katya Reno, Genevieve Plunkett, Kristien Hemmerechts, Celeste Mohammed, Chandra Graham Garcia, and Ricardo Nuila. Jennifer’s passion for writing and writers has led her to a new profession as a learning resources specialist at Middlebury’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research, where she’ll continue working with students, listening to their voices, and helping to guide their studies.
Fresh from her MFA program at UC Irvine, Janice Obuchowski returned to her native Vermont and began reading fiction for NER in early 2011. Right from the start she brought a remarkable level of clarity and energy to bear on her work as a reader, along with a rare ability to articulate what is and is not working in a fiction manuscript. Some of the many writers whose work she has championed for NER include Lenore Myka, Eric McMillan, Bryan Hurt, Hannah Rahimi, Mateal Lovaas Ishihara, Caitlyn Hayes, and Sacha Idell. After finishing up at NER, she’ll continue working as a freelance editor, coaching writers to get their work ready for publication, and you can find her own stories in recent or forthcoming issues of Alaska Quarterly Review, Four Way Review, Grist, Gettysburg Review, and others.
Both of these fiction editors have paid it forward to the inefficient art of literature for a combined twenty years at NER, and their devotion, discernment, and passion for all things literary have made this a better place for writers. Thank you, Jennifer and Janice! We wish you fair winds and following seas.