IN OTHER WORDS #5 – Daniel Evans Pritchard
This is the fifth installment of IN OTHER WORDS, a feature we’re running in 2014 in which we interview various editors on the art of editing.
This time, we’re talking to Daniel Evans Pritchard, Founding Editor of The Critical Flame.
1/Since 2008, you’ve been publishing book reviews at The Critical Flame (CF) in the name of advancing “the national discourse on literature and, more broadly, on the state and values of the culture.” Will you talk a bit about the genesis of that mission statement, and the ways it stands for CF’s role in the literary community?
In 2008, newspaper review sections all over the country were being cut. This might be overstating the reality, but it felt like a watershed moment for American literary culture. The range of public discussion was shrinking. Intellectual communities were forming around literary blogs and web sites, but debates often began as responses to essays that were published in those traditional outlets. Arbitrary economic forces were strangling literary culture, it seemed, and there was no saying when this would (or will) stop. I’m not much of a spectator, so I founded The Critical Flame to keep the fire alive. It was imagined as a tool to fill that vacuum. And I’m thrilled by how much the literary world has rebounded, particularly online.
2/A few months ago, we were lucky enough to talk to Michelle Bailat-Jones, the Review Editor at Necessary Fiction, and the subject of reviews as more-than-just-reviews came up. As the founding editor of a journal devoted entirely to criticism, what’s your take on the review-as-essay genre? Do you think reviews can function as part of a larger conversation, as literature themselves, rather than missives only in service of other writers’ words?
The English term essay derives from the Old French assai, for evaluation—the same root as the word assess. Since its import into English around 1483, it has been used to mean trying by taste, measuring value, testing chemical composition, practicing by way of a trial, and setting out to prove. This is all by way of saying that I think the essay is—literally—an experimental form, which privileges process over object. Like all art forms, the essay seems to actively defy definition. That’s the inherent petulance of art: it wants to be whatever it isn’t more than what it is. (Of course, now I’ve made a definition of sorts, and the essay thumbs its nose at me.) Critical essays can certainly stand aside from their relationship to the work under review, and can be given the honorarium of “literature.” Think of “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Think of Susan Sontag. Or of David Foster Wallace reviewing a dictionary. [Editor’s note: Pritchard is referring to Wallace’s essay, “Authority and American Usage,” which is, among other things, a review of Brian Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.] So: yes. But it’s also difficult, and not every review essay needs to do that in order to achieve a high level of quality. Literariness, in this case, is not entirely synonymous with quality.
3/Starting with the most recent issue, you’ll spend the next year focusing solely on works from women writers and writers of color. I know you serve on the board at VIDA, but how did that plan come about? Also, once the year is over, how will you seek to maintain that balance of representation? And, playing devil’s advocate for a moment, do you feel this is the sort of stand that any publication could make?
Along the same lines as the founding mission of CF, there’s a failure in the larger public discussion whereby the work of women writers and writers of color are excluded / ignored. And I hope that our mission over next year helps, at the very least, to fill the gap. There’s no expectation that the project will “fix” anything in the larger culture, or even within literary culture. Maybe it inspires other editors to remedy their own imbalances. I would also hope that after a year of soliciting work on these authors, and becoming known as an outlet that covers them seriously, and building relationships with critics who cover them, CF will be able to maintain a kind of parity that had proven to be a challenge.
Dedicating a year to covering only women authors and authors of color is probably unrealistic for most journals, but I would love to see the outlets that have an over-emphasis on white male authors attack the problem more directly. Since no one depends on CF for their living, we’re free to follow our conscience. That’s a privilege of existing outside the cannibalistic literary economy. But until the critical literary landscape is representative of the diversity of writers, I will continue to say we must do more; or, we must find methods that work. It’s not going to fix itself without direct effort.
4/In your letter introducing the project, you wrote, “the often-cited dichotomy between quality and equality is, to my mind, bullshit. There are more good books than could ever be covered by any single publication; every issue’s selection of titles is just as much a result of luck, networking, and taste as it is of quality.” For readers who may be unaware, will you explain the original dichotomy—as well as extrapolating your take on it—and how it affects readers’ collective livelihood, as well as writers’?
One response to calls for greater equity of representation, by some prominent editors, has been, “My one and only concern is quality. Journal X publishes only the best work. This will cause us to do otherwise, so we refuse.” The underlying idea: that these writers are only omitted because their work isn’t as good, or the criticism on their work isn’t as good, as those of/on the white male writers. The false dichotomy it creates is between equity/diversity and quality.
First, there are plenty of great women writers and writers of color. Second, this dichotomy is actually between equity/diversity and editorial taste, not quality. I think these editors know that.
This dichotomy really is insidious. It hurts the writers, for obvious reasons. Readers are not being exposed to really good writing that they might love. It narrows the range of economically viable titles that presses are able to publish. It limits discussion in the larger literary culture. The editors paint themselves into an increasingly untenable corner with that argument. And it echoes societal structures that systematically marginalize and terrorize these groups. It has to go.
5/Name one or two exemplary reviews you’ve published that epitomize CF’s aesthetic.
I plead the fifth. First of all I’d hate to limit the range of styles we publish by holding up some as exemplary. Also, every essay has its own natural inclinations, focus, etc. Depth is the keyword though.
6/Is there an editor or publication that you know to regularly publish solid work, i.e., who do you return to again and again, as a reader?
Besides apt? I would be remiss not to mention Boston Review (yes, I work there; but I was a fan before I joined them and still am). Little Star has been publishing great stuff. Battersea Review also. Indiana Review. AGNI, of course. There is not lack of good journals today.
7/As a poet whose work embraces both solemnity and irreverence, you seem to be a writer fond of wide ranges, if not influences. Since you regularly engage with criticism, is there any effect or overlap between your critical and creative work?
There must be. Close and careful reading, which criticism absolutely demands, is poetry’s quantum entanglement, the invisible reaction of seemingly unrelated particles. But then, I’m also reading plenty of poets with similar close attention aside from my critical output. It would be difficult to map the connections. Somebody else will come along later and point out obvious things that are invisible to me.
8/Which upcoming CF projects/reviews are you most excited about?
We have an essay on women writers of the 18th and 19th century that I think should be enlightening. Actually, the whole July issue is shaping up nicely. We are also accepting submissions for both July and September…
9/Describe what it’s like to work with you in an editorial capacity, in three words.
Supportive egoless taskmaster.
Daniel Evans Pritchard is a poet, essayist, and editor living in Boston, MA. He is the Marketing Director at Boston Review, a magazine of politics and culture, as well as the founding editor of The Critical Flame, an online journal of long-form reviews and criticism. His writing has appeared in Fulcrum, Little Star, Battersea Review, Zoland Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Follow his work on Twitter at @criticalflame.