Q & A with Minna Proctor, author and editor of The Literary Review

How did The Literary Review get started? How did you become involved?

Minna Proctor:  The Literary Review, which is a literary quarterly, was founded in 1957 by Charles Angoff and Clarence Decker. It is published by Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. Over the decades, we've published  amazing writers from all over the world, such as Langston Hughes, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Russell Banks, John Updike, Umberto Eco, Primo Levi, Robert Coover, Seamus Heaney, Peter Handke, Pablo Neruda, and William Carlos Williams...just to name a few.

  I'm the fifth editor since TLR started and I came on board in 2008.

I had worked in magazines for a number of years before TLR. I started at BOMB Magazine and worked on the international design and culture magazine Colors, among others. I came to magazines after I finished graduate school. I wanted to work in publishing, but I didn't want to be an editor of books because I wanted to write them! Magazines seemed like a reasonable compromise and gave me a way be involved in a number of different disciplines—photography, graphic design, and art in particular. During the mid-1990s, when I was getting started, I was also doing a lot of literary translation from Italian. So I had a specialty in international literature. It was through my translation, in fact, that I first got involved with TLR. In 2000, then-editor Rene Steinke was putting together a translation issue and she asked me to contribute.

Literature in translation has been a huge part of TLR's aesthetic vision since it started. I contributed several more translated stories to the magazine after that, was invited to join the editorial board, and in 2005, I was guest editor on an issue dedicated to Italian fiction in translation. 

When Rene Steinke stepped down, and the Editor-in-Chief position opened up, I thought the job was an absolutely perfect combination of my interests and skills.

I know a lot about international literature, I love magazines, and I've always been very interested in short form—short stories, essays, and poems. Literary magazines are the central artery of short form. What I love most about my job now is how editorially independent TLR is. I especially appreciate that I am working directly with emerging and established writers who have a fierce sense of their artistic path.

When and how did you start writing?

That's a harder question to answer. I loved books when I was little. I declared my intention to be a writer in second grade—but I couldn't even spell "author" yet. I couldn't spell anything because I had a learning disability. Most of school was dreadfully impossible for me, I was terrible at everything, but I was always a terrific reader, so that's what I did. In Junior High I got obsessed with the playwright Tennessee Williams—I read everything he wrote. I loved the theater. That's when I thought I'd be a great actress when I grew up. But I was a terrible actress. By college I accepted that I wasn't destined to be a great actress and I'd have to settle for being a great director, like Michelangelo Antonioni. But I'm a terrible collaborator on group projects—I'm always swinging uselessly between being too bossy or too timid.

Director of Photography would have been cool—much more of a lone wolf job—but my photography teacher was always telling me that I was the sloppiest photographer she'd ever met—there were scratches on my film, big blotches on the prints from carelessly mixing chemicals. All the best photographers were meticulous. The only thing I kept being good at through all of this was reading. Then they invented spell check. So finally I could write too. I circled all the way back around to being a writer and never really considered not writing.

The Literary Review is focused on contemporary writing. What do you personally think the importance of putting a spotlight on contemporary writing is? 

I think a lot of people think contemporary literature is frivolous or redundant or ahistorical, and another lot of people think classic (or old) literature is dense, boring, hard to read and very "important." I think of literature as language art.

Like all art, its vitality and its  reason for being is that it is in dialogue with its moment—its social, political, cultural moment. Literature reflects its time, ideally reframes it, questions it, celebrates it, throws curve balls that make the game more interesting, and so on. Good art should find a way of shaking the branches of its moment—or, perhaps, more importantly, give the reader the private space to reflect on how he or she occupies the world. (We're all always trying to figure ourselves out better. That's the human condition.) Sometimes that has to do with escaping from daily life with a fantasy or good espionage novel, and sometimes that means meditating on the world around you and sometimes it means trying to find yourself in a story. The question of time, as in historical time periods, has more to do with whether you're more intrigued by the world of the current moment or you're interested in the shape of the world when Middlemarch was written or Light in August or Paradise Lost.

More specifically, The Literary Review focuses on age and its differing perspectives. Can you talk about that a little bit, or why it’s an inspiring topic to you? 

TLR is a theme-based magazine. Every issue takes on a new or different topic. I like the themes to reflect unusual approaches to basic subjects. So, for example, our food issue was called "The Glutton's Kitchen" and explored the idea of controlling and not controlling urges. This winter we put out a "Women's Studies" issue which was contemporary ideas of feminism—expressed in poetry and storytelling. The most recent issue, which is titled "Do You Love Me?" originally had a different title, but the basic idea of it was age, and specifically I was interested in precocious children and childish older people. It makes sense, children are always reaching into the future—to grow up. Adults past middle age are always looking backward. It's the classic contradiction of the life cycle gorgeously expressed in William Blakes' poetry cycles Songs of Innocence and of Experience . What I found so very fascinating about this issue once we put all the pieces together was that all the work was about being young or old and that lens seemed to really underscore for me the fact that most of what we read in contemporary literature falls in the middle. We all live the bulk of our cultural life as if we are all between 20 and 50. I supposed there's nothing wrong with that, but it's really wild to eliminate that faction temporarily—at least for one issue of a magazine. 

Being both a writer and an editor, how do you think the two different perspectives of writing influence your work?

I'm a better writer for being an editor—not because I'm so good at moving words around on the page, but because I have to read so very very much of what my peers are doing. It forces me to be in touch with what powers writing, makes it crackle, makes me pay attention. And it reminds me that there are lots of ways to be dull. But the fact is that everything you do influences your writing: reading is the most important, but so is writing, so is living, giving birth, falling in and out of love, surviving a family vacation, going to the Uffizi Museum in Florence, figuring out the best way to pack a dishwasher. As long as you're paying attention, there are stories and structures everywhere. 

Editing is different. I feel like I learned how to edit through my translation work. Translating forced me to be ultra sensitive to the question of how to communicate exactly what the original author communicated. You have to think a lot about what makes language effective, expressive and descriptive because you're constantly discerning how one language works in order to convert it into another. 

That said, I am an editor who writes, who struggles with how to tell a story or structure an opening. I am horrendously shy about showing people my work. I whither up and hide in the bathroom for days after getting a rejection letter. I know what it's like so I'm hardly cavalier about passing judgments on another writer's work. It's like I'm playing for both teams... but it's not really an apt sports analogy because in my process when a writer "wins"—when the work is well published and well received, the editor "wins" too. 

Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring writers/editors? Or people that want to get their works published?

Literary magazines are where you start. You don't need an agent or a record of publications to get into a literary magazine. The connection between writer and publishing is really basic and hands on at this level—one of the reasons my job is so exciting. So for poets and short story writers, I recommend reading and subscribing to literary magazines and submitting to the ones that you love. For all writers, I recommend trying to find a reading internship at a literary magazine, or agency, or publishing house. There's nothing that teaches you more about the process of submitting than reading through lots of other peoples' unpublished work. And also for all writers, read widely and pay attention when you really like something. A lot of publishing has to do with the taste of editors and the speculations of marketing departments—neither of which are predictable or reliable. But editors, for books and magazines, do have sensibilities that you can sort of figure out. Chances are that if you always love the fiction in a certain magazine, you have something aesthetic in common with the editor of that magazine and you should be submitting your own work there. I hope that helps.

Minna Proctor is the Editor of The Literary Review and an essayist. Her book on the idea of religious calling in America, Do You Hear What I Hear?: Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father was published in 2004. Her essays and reviews have appeared in such publications as ApertureBookforumThe LA Times Book Review, Guilt and Pleasure, The Nation, American Scholar, and The New York Times Book Review. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire and Bogliasco in Italy. Proctor’s translation of Love in Vain, Selected Stories of Federigo Tozzi won the PEN Poggioli Prize in 1998. Her other translations include Bruno Arpaia’s novel, The Angel of History. She is working on a collection of personal essays, and collaborating on an autobiographical project with the singer Bethany Beardslee. She teaches at Fairleigh Dickinson University.