Magazines like ours are proud to do our part in the discovery and support of new and emerging writers. It’s our reward for reading thousands of unsolicited, unagented submissions each year—a time-intensive feat of volunteerism—and it’s the writer’s reward for persisting in the face of what can be daunting and discouraging odds. Open submissions are the best way we know to give new writing a chance to speak for itself rather than relying on the shortcuts of name recognition and prior acclaim. Which isn’t to say that we never reach out to writers we’d like to see in the New England Review who have not sent work on their own, but rather that the majority of what we publish comes from writers who give our submissions process a chance.
What would it be like, we wondered, if we were to push that desire to discover and support emerging writers a bit further and commit an entire issue to them? Over the past several months, as we went about the business of reading and accepting submissions, we kept this in mind as a goal for the final issue of 2020. An emerging writers issue would allow us to end the year on a hopeful, forward-looking note—an appealing thought even before we knew how much we would need that. The idea was simply to populate one issue with pieces we wanted to publish anyway but that happened also to fit our definition of an “emerging writer,” that is, one who hasn’t yet published a book or full-length collection. In the end, it turns out that one or two of the poets here do in fact already have books, and other writers probably will by the time the issue comes out, but by and large 41.4 is full of writers who cannot yet be found in any bookstore. You’ll read them here first.
This emerging writers issue, now that we finally have it here before us, is tonally, stylistically, and materially diverse. The writing roves from the heat of Austin, Texas, to a farm in upstate New York, from Koreatown in LA to suburban Indiana, from a stretch of unpaved road in Bangalore to the derelict streets of St. Louis. Among the unforgettable images are the flayed corpse of a deer, rituals around cedar smoke and crystals, family court, and Pavlov’s dogs. Like any issue of NER, it’s by turns bracing, inspiring, surprising, and devastating. What’s different may simply be that there’s more fiction than usual, which reflects the fact that fiction makes up our largest pool of unsolicited submissions. And overall the characters and voices may skew a little younger. But, as always, the issue asks its readers to push past assumptions about life and literature they might not have known they had, to read beyond individual taste and expectation from one piece to the next, and to be open to something new, whether it’s a different point of view or a new way of encountering a familiar one. We hope it gives readers a chance to expand their sense of the known world. In other words, while the names may be less familiar here, the work itself was selected through the same guiding principles as apply to every issue of this magazine.
The NER Award for Emerging Writers, established in 2014, gives us another concrete way to support the new writers we publish. Every year this prize offers a full scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference to an emerging writer published in our pages. The benefactors of this award, who established it in honor of former editor Stephen Donadio, wanted to help emerging writers get and keep a foothold in their creative practice, in the belief that publication and community—NER and Bread Loaf—are two vital components in the affirmation of that practice.
There’s a lot more to keeping a writing life alive than winning a prize or publishing in a journal, but these can help. A look back at the first four winners of this award shows that these once-emerging writers have so far been able to keep moving their work forward into the world. The inaugural 2015 winner, Ricardo Nuila, went on to win two MacDowell Fellowships in 2018 and 2019, and his first book, The People’s Hospital: Stories from a Healthcare System in Crisis, is due out from Little, Brown in May 2021. Our 2016 scholar, Hai-Dang Phan, published his first full-length poetry collection, Reenactments, with Sarabande in 2019, and his translation of Phan Nhiên Hạo’s volume of selected and new poems, Paper Bells, came out in 2020 from Song Cave. Alan Rossi, who went to Bread Loaf on the NER scholarship in 2017, published his first novel, Mountain Road, Late at Night (Picador), in February of 2020, and our 2018 scholar, Devon Walker-Figueroa, just won the National Poetry Series Award for her debut collection, Philomath, which will be published in 2021 by Milkweed Editions.
There’s no real endpoint to “emerging” for a writer, and there’s no guaranteed path to continued recognition even after that first book comes out. Writing requires constant sustenance in many forms: time, motivation, and affirmation being some of the most important. Our support and discovery of emerging writers would mean less if we didn’t continue to be interested in them after they became a little better known. Finding and sustaining an audience doesn’t become a lot easier after a first publication, and in some ways it’s more difficult for the sophomore effort, as publishers, like everyone else, enjoy discovering something entirely new. So it’s also important to NER to publish writers more than once (though not more than once in a year) and to continue the productive relationships built between our writers and editors over time.
With this issue we’re delighted to introduce you to a profusion of new writers, all of whom we expect you’ll be seeing around again soon, both in the New England Review and beyond.