IN OTHER WORDS #1 – Michelle Bailat-Jones
What does an editor do? We know they proofread and wade through slush piles. And we know that most people think they spend all their time reading and jotting corrections in the margins.
But besides that–what does an editor do?
A close friend once told me that editors work in invisible ink. Which is true. But good editors do so much more than that.
Because the question of an editor’s role is so complicated, we’re starting a new column. From now through December, we’ll be spotlighting the editors whose work has caught our attention. Our interviewees include editors of literary journals, of small presses, of online journals, and a few who do a bit of everything.
Since all of these editors also happen to be writers, we’re calling the column IN OTHER WORDS. That is, after all, what we traffic in.
Our first interview is with Michelle Bailat-Jones, from the staff of Necessary Fiction.
1/Since you’re the Reviews Editor for Necessary Fiction (NF), I was hoping you’d talk a little about the hard part of publishing book reviews. I ask this because I know there are a lot of writers who want to review books, but who don’t know what it takes to be a book review editor.
For the first two years we published reviews at Necessary Fiction, the hardest part was finding enough reviewers to keep up our once-a-week reviewing schedule. I love the model that NF uses for fiction in the sense that it becomes an ongoing presentation of contemporary fiction, an evolving portrait so-to-speak, and I wanted to do the same thing with reviews, I wanted to help create an ongoing conversation about how contemporary fiction works and a discussion of what’s being published out there. It is now easier for us to fill each weekly spot, but I am always looking for good reviewers to add to our list.
That early issue was a logistics problem, but the other part of publishing book reviews that I personally find difficult is remaining actively open to a diversity of books and reviewing styles. My hope is that in our reviews section at Necessary Fiction we discuss a great variety of publishers and books from varied traditions. I want us to be involved in a large-scale book discussion—not just a discussion of certain types of writing or a handful of literary presses. We are a small journal with a tiny staff, so in that sense it could be easy to fall into a pattern, (which could then be defended as a presiding aesthetic), but I hope that we move beyond that and actively engage with books from different traditions and trends and even from small presses all over the world, not just in America.
2/What is your curatorial process like? Are there any reviews that you receive and think, “This doesn’t quite fit NF’s aesthetic”? Are there any problems you face that are particular to editing book reviews?
Yes, I have a strong bias against reviews that read like extended blurbs. I believe there are ways to be excited about a book, to really celebrate a writer’s project, that don’t involve inflated (and to my ears hollow) statements about a book being the best thing that’s ever been written or the writer having invented some incredible new prose style. I try very hard to avoid this in my own reviewing and I do prefer our reviewers do the same. In many ways, this kind of ecstatic reviewing strikes me as a little lazy. It’s easy to say that a book is the “most amazing thing!” but it is harder to say why, and to go into the specifics of a book’s unique approach to its story. I do often edit back statements that I feel are over the top.
Another thing I find a challenge as editor is negotiating the first person in book reviewing. My preference is to keep this as minimal as possible—although I do not go so far as to require all reviewers to keep it out. I will even use it from time to time myself, but sparingly. And again, I think when the first person is used too quickly or too often in a book review, it becomes a kind of shortcut. I think that a review, by its very nature, implies the first person (subjectivity, etc) but when it’s blatantly forefronted in a review it tends to waste words bringing attention to the reviewer instead of using them for a more thorough discussion of the book.
3/Because of the seemingly endless discussion about negative vs. positive reviews, I was wondering how you feel about the discussion, whether you come down on one side or the other, and how the debate affects what you do at NF.
I think I have to answer this in two ways. First, I believe in honest book reviews—so this necessarily involves discussions of where a particular book may have failed. I find this kind of discussion fascinating, and always have. At the same time I often dislike the kind of performative negative reviewing that gets a lot of attention when published. I don’t think cruelty is useful in reviewing discussions, and often (but not always) it feels like the reviewer is actually criticizing a perceived genre, instead of a particular book—so it can seem unfair to the book in question.
But as for negative reviews at Necessary Fiction, I tend to discourage them. The reason for this is that one of our primary motivations is to highlight books from the smaller, independent presses that do not usually get the kind of mainstream critical press they deserve, and since we usually only publish 52 reviews a year, it seems a waste to me to fill up one of our spots with a purely negative review. But I do want our reviews to be as nuanced as possible, so often our reviewers will mention some of a book’s challenges, etc.
4/Randolph and I frequently talk about the bygone art of depth in book reviews—that is, the review that’s more than just a review. We lament its loss to a different readership, a group of readers who just want to know whether a book is worth their time or not. Not to ask a leading question, but do you think there’s still an audience for reviews that dig deeper, reviews that function both as literary criticism and well-crafted essays?
I agree with you that it is a shame when a book review serves only to answer a single question for a reader—should I buy this or not? There is so much more to talk about with any given book, and so many different perspectives to use to think about a piece of writing. I do think there is still an audience for the kind of essay/review you mention, although I have the sense that this kind of depth in literary discussion has moved into book form—at least I only know of a handful of magazines still publishing really long-form criticism.
I read Stephen Sparks’s essay-review of Karen Green’s memoir Bough Down yesterday at The Paris Review. This piece moves toward the kind of hybrid personal essay and book review that I really enjoy—I wish he’d done more with the personal part. He does it really well and it never tries to take over from his comments on the book (which is where I get frustrated with the first person in book reviewing), but I think he could have gone even further.
5/Name one or two exemplary pieces you’ve published that epitomize the sort of reviews you love to see atNF. Conversely, is there a mistake you frequently see from first-time reviewers?
It is hard for me to pick just one or two—I am a big fan of the work our reviewers do, and I’m lucky to have such thoughtful contributors. Two from this year that I was especially excited to publish were: Philip Coleman’s discussion of Dave Lordan’s First Book of Frags and Kristen Orser’s look at Bernie Hafeli’s Bear Season. Both really exemplify the kind of thorough, exploratory reviewing that I hope Necessary Fiction has become known for.
As for a frequent mistake from first-time reviewers, the first that comes to mind is the problem of ending with a kind of vague blurby-sounding phrase. Wrapping up a review can be really hard. I’ve struggled with this for years—how to hit the right note and how to tie it all together. And I’ve definitely committed this vague blurb as well. It tends to happen when the reviewer has kept too narrowly to a plot overview and an even-handed listing of the book’s successes instead of going into detail of one or two specificities of a given book. Detail tends to give you room to maneuver as well as a way to circle back to an earlier point. If all I’ve done is written a list of what’s great about the book, I tend to have nowhere to go but to some bland summarizing statement that could be used for any book, instead of the book I’m writing about.
6/Is there an editor or publication that you know to regularly publish solid work (reviews or otherwise), i.e., who do you return to again and again, as a reader?
For reviews, I really enjoy The Quarterly Conversation and Bookslut—this is showing my bias for translated works and modernists, but I tend to get a lot of my reading suggestions from these two publications. For fiction, there is a short list of journals I read from cover to cover as soon as they arrive or immediately if online: The Kenyon Review, The Stinging Fly, Two Serious Ladies, Granta. But I should admit here that I tend to read more books than journals. I love journals but I don’t often have the time to read as many as I would like, or I find myself skipping around in online content.
7/As a writer, your focus is realist flash fiction and translations. How does that aesthetic affect your curatorial interests? Is there ever overlap?
My writing projects are actually usually much longer than flash fiction—but that’s all I’ve had the good fortune of publishing. This focus shows in my own reading, however, because I pretty much devour novellas and novels. I do like story collections, but if given the choice I will almost always choose a novel or novella first. And I have to work hard at Necessary Fiction to make sure we cover enough short story collections. This was especially true when I was doing so much of the reviewing myself in those first two years; I made a point to read beyond my immediate comfort zone. I discovered some wonderful collections, so I’d recommend this kind of forced reading to anyone. But for translation, there is most definitely an easy overlap. I actively seek out translations that we can have on our list of books available. It’s a neat fit, as so many independent publishers do publish translations, but it’s also exciting, knowing that sometimes we are the only journal to cover a title in-depth. That goes for other books as well, not just translation.
8/Describe in three words what it’s like to work with you in an editorial capacity.
Collaborative, friendly, time-lag (because I live in Switzerland).
Michelle Bailat-Jones is an American writer and translator living in Switzerland. Her translations, fiction, and criticism have appeared in various print and online journals including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Necessary Fiction, Ascent, Fogged Clarity, Cerise Press, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Kenyon Review. She writes a literary blog called Pieces and is the Reviews Editor at Necessary Fiction.