Cresting the hill into Middlebury on Route 30, it’s easy to overlook the nondescript wooden building perched beside the college’s pristine golf-course putting green. Unbeknownst to most local residents, that unassuming structure houses one of the country’s most respected literary magazines.
Founded in 1978, New England Review — a.k.a. NER — publishes poems, short stories and nonfiction by both established and greenhorn writers from around the globe. Some of the contributors — Tolstoy, say, or Stanley Elkin — are dead, but still lively in their way. Though it used to be associated with the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and is still bankrolled by adjacent Middlebury College, NER is independently run. Next year will mark the highbrow quarterly’s 30th in ink.
Editor extraordinaire Stephen Donadio has been at NER’s helm for about half the magazine’s lifespan. Just like Senator Bernie Sanders, Donadio is a Brooklyn transplant who made Vermont home without dropping his endearing “New Yawk” accent — though he wears a spiffy necktie and sweater vest as a matter of course. He reports that NER’s circulation is a “coupla thousand.”
On a recent Friday morning, Donadio kicked back with Seven Days in his cluttered attic office. Seated amid boxes of manuscripts from hopeful contributors, the editor riffed on such topics as chain bookstores, “wayward” literary impulses and the importance of “calculated obliqueness” in a pixilated, postmodern milieu.
SEVEN DAYS: How would you define the mission of NER?
STEPHEN DONADIO: It’s a literary magazine, broadly conceived. It’s intended to provide a challenge to literary readers, to ask them what it is that people interested in literature need to read beyond poems, short stories and novels. So there’s a broad range of writing — lots of pieces that defy categorization in a particular genre, especially in the area of nonfiction . . . To put it simply, we want a magazine which has stuff that you’re not going to find anywhere else, and a context that is not limited either regionally or temporally . . . For example, we’ll have a translation of a short story by Tolstoy; I think the implication is, that’s the company in which contemporary work needs to be seen, rather than just the other stuff coming out this month.
SD: It seems you’ve cultivated a sort of arcane aesthetic. How does NER balance its historical impulse with a need to be accessible . . . and readable?
SD: Well, I’ll say two things. I think if you only have new work, then nobody knows why they should be reading. If you only have authors who have published a great deal, it’s sort of like, what else is new? So it changes the situation when you have writers appearing for the first time with [established] writers. That’s good for both groups, because writers who’ve been writing for a long time are still part of the current scene, and people who are just starting out are connected in some way with this larger enterprise that’s been going on for a long time . . .
What we want to do is present work that people didn’t know they might be interested in, and to open the door to all kinds of exploration. People who think of themselves as “literary people” don’t necessarily know that they’ll be interested in works of history, or an essay on Charter 77 in Prague, which was this alliance of intellectuals and trade-union people and all sorts of other . . .
SD: Where do you find these writers?
SD: Well, I’ll divide this up: There’s poetry, fiction and nonfiction. We get hundreds of submissions every week in these categories . . . Nonfiction is much harder, because there isn’t much nonfiction of quality that presents itself, and it also requires the most editing, generally speaking. I’m not sure exactly why that is — maybe because there are so many places where it can be published? But I don’t have the sense that there’s a lot of terrific nonfiction anyway, frankly . . .
[Finding nonfiction] requires a lot of hunting around. But by now, we have a number of writers who will present things to us that they wouldn’t necessarily offer to other magazines, [since] magazines that think of themselves in a more narrow way as “literary” wouldn’t see the point. When these writers look at the variety of work that appears in NER, they recognize that we might be a place to get in touch with. And that happens a good deal.
SD: In a 2003 interview with The Paris Review, you said, “Readers deeply committed to literature are likely to be rather wayward readers.” What did you mean by that?
SD: Writers are certainly wayward readers. The way reading works — once nobody gives you a reading list — is, you’re drawn to things that you need to find, somehow. Sometimes these are accidental collisions, but they’re an enormously valuable part of your education. For example, a lot of my education has come from browsing in bookstores, you know, just finding out about stuff I’d never seen before or didn’t really know about, picking things up and looking into them.
People can buy anything online now, and there’s a certain value in that. But in most of the big chain stores, it’s like the Cineplex: There’s not all that much depth of [historical] works that have gone out of consciousness. In the “Rediscoveries” part of [NER], we always have something that nobody has looked at for a long time, or maybe ever . . .
SD: Does that explain why the Fall 2007 issue of NER includes an essay by a 19th-century Greek expatriate on the “Call to Vengeance and the Code of Self-Sacrifice in Japan”?
SD: Yes: Lafcadio Hearn. That’s not a work many people are going to know about right now, but there’s something startling about the questions it raises — obliquely — about the contemporary situation. Pieces like that are intended to be an invitation to the reader to look at something that you might not pay any attention to on a bookshelf. That’s one of the ways you encourage these “wayward” encounters with works of all periods . . .
SD: You allude to the “contemporary situation.” How does NER fit into contemporary culture?
SD: NER is not a magazine that addresses the “contemporary moment” in a direct way — it doesn’t take polemical positions. But it’s certainly not oblivious to the contemporary moment. Far from it: The effort, really, is to stimulate thought at a higher level and not in the manner of editorial writing. There are blogs all over the place; there’s editorial writing on the front page of many newspapers — no reason to replicate that, to make the magazine continuous with everything else. But there is a recognition that there are large questions in the air to be addressed, and maybe the best way of addressing them is obliquely, or in a context that broadens the perspective of expression?
SD: On that note, why are literary magazines still important?
SD: This is a crossroads. One thing about literary magazines: They really are literature in the making, the first indications of where literature is going. I think books come later. If you really want to have a sense of the inner life of the culture, literary magazines are very good places to look. But they have to survive, and that means people have to commit themselves to supporting them — by buying them!
SD: Do you ever consider creating more of an online presence?
SD: There’s no publication that isn’t contending with this in one way or another. We do have a website, and we’ll probably do more in that direction. At the same time, we’re not a publication with pop-up windows, you know? We’re not trying to provide a cabinet of entertainments . . .
SD: Do you have any guilty Internet pleasures?
SD: Um, no, I don’t. Like everybody, I spend a lot of time on the Web, but mainly I’m just collecting information . . . the Internet saves time in the library, and that’s valuable. But beyond that, I don’t do any . . . There are no games I’m interested in playing.
SD: Speaking of games, do you ever cut out of work to play the back nine?
SD: No. Because of where we’re located, it’s often assumed that I’m arriving to play golf. That’s what some of my colleagues think. It never happens.
SD: What do you read for fun — like, when your brain is turned off?
SD: [Chuckles] It’s never turned off. If you’re a real reader, you read all kinds of things, all the time. Some of them may seem less demanding, but you’re still engaged by them. I’m pretty much a continuous reader, and that’s why I do this, how I got into the business to begin with. I don’t have this sense — this may be very unhealthy, actually — that reading is “work,” and that some other kind of reading isn’t work . . .
SD: How do you balance “wayward” inclinations with editorial responsibilities?
SD: Because the magazine is conceived in a way that’s intended to challenge the taste of a reader, as an editor I’m often inclined to work against my own taste. So there are instances in which I think it’s important to publish something even though it’s not my kind of thing.
SD: Can you give an example?
SD: [Smiles] I cannot give any examples. But if you edited a magazine by only publishing things that reflect your exact sensibility, it would be an exceedingly boring magazine, in the end. I think that editors owe it to their readers to get beyond that, to recognize that there are compelling pieces of work that need to be engaged.
SD: NER is not called Vermont Review. On the other hand, I imagine you’re influenced by this landscape. How does Vermont inform the magazine, if at all?
SD: That’s always been a question for any magazine that has a name like this — Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review [also] have titles that seem to signal regional publication. So it can often be seen as a hindrance, nationally, because NER [may appear to have] New England recipes. The content has to work against that.
As Emily Dickinson made very clear, you can live in New England and have cosmic thoughts. You read a poem by Dickinson, and it tears your head off — you can’t talk about her adequately as a “poet from Amherst, Massachusetts.” I mean, yeah, there are certain aspects of her life and career that have to do with the experience of New England. But the poetry that she produced stands with the greatest poetry ever written anywhere. So in that sense, we’re located in New England, but it’s a gateway to the cosmos, as New England writers like Thoreau have always known. Emerson, too.