Author Interview: Laurence Goldstein

The Editor Emeritus of the Michigan Quarterly Review on responding to submissions, how to best assemble an issue, and the pleasures of being both a poet and an editor

Portrait by Frank Born. Image courtesy of the University of Michigan’s Department of English Language and Literature.

In preparation for Literati’s inaugural Exit Interview event, I had the distinct pleasure of corresponding with the critic, scholar, poet, and editor, Laurence Goldstein. Though the Exit Interview will focus on all of Laurence’s many interests and accomplishments, the primary focus of our writing one another dealt with his thirty-two years as the editor of the Michigan Quarterly Review. From 1977 until 2009 Laurence worked alongside notable guest editors, published uncountable authors, and achieved a great deal more than is manageable for most interview introductions. Read a few of his responses below and you will quickly see what I am hinting at — this isn’t a teaser, the man has done so many things that any succinct attempt at summary would inevitably prove incomplete.

Laurence will be reading from his previous collections of poetry and talking with Cody Walker at Literati Bookstore on June 21st at 7 PM. Literati is thrilled to begin its Exit Interview series with two excellent members of the local literary community.

I’ve heard from a few sources that during your tenure as the editor of the Michigan Quarterly Review (MQR), you would sometimes — if feeling compelled to do so — respond to submissions with long, handwritten letters filled with thanks and suggestions for improvement. What was it about these submissions which made you want to speak to their authors in a more personal manner?

Editors of university journals are almost always writers themselves and naturally identify with the authors who send them manuscripts to consider. Before becoming editor of MQR in 1977 I had published poetry, fiction, essays, and book reviews in a variety of publications beginning with a book review in the Los Angeles Times in 1960 (More on this kind of writing here).

My letters to authors were ways of honoring editors and teachers who had helped me write better in all literary forms. I encouraged authors to write more effectively, which usually meant write more clearly and coherently. In one sense I was imposing my taste on theirs, but if an editor doubts his or her taste, how can they possibly distinguish best from lesser manuscripts? Their occupation is gone, to quote Othello. Some writers might consider such advice arrogant, but most seemed to appreciate my efforts, even when they preferred to keep the text in its original form. (Sometimes I did accept the submission for publication in its original form, more often not.) My exemplary model was a long letter I received from Andrew Lytle when I submitted a story to The Sewanee Review in 1970. He said he would accept the story if I wrote some dialogue between the major characters in the last paragraph, who, he insisted at length, could not remain silent after some previous revelations about them. He taught me something about the rules of narrative action, about suspense, scenic design, and closure, and ever afterward I copied his advice to re-imagine a scene from the reader’s point of view in order to make the text as complex and satisfying as possible. I hoped to have a similar effect on authors whose poem or story lacked only a small amount of revision.

Always I remembered, with suitable humility, William Faulkner’s response when an editor in New York revised some of his prose in a galley proof. “Who the hell are you?” he inscribed on a postcard. Oddly, I found that famous writers were surprisingly agreeable to alterations.

One thing which has always fascinated me about the world of publishing is the manner by which trends rise and fall according to the responsiveness or unresponsiveness of a wide-spread audience — a collectivity of taste(s). In many ways, these two ideas — trend and taste — seem to inform one another. Trends can sometimes shift the readerships’ taste, a solidified taste might thwart possible alterations in trends, occasionally something comes along which drastically shifts both in a new direction, etc. How does an editor best navigate the strange and ever-changing relationship of trends and taste?

The chief change in taste during my 32-year tenure as editor was the turn to Minimalism in fiction (not in poetry, quite the opposite). Raymond Carver was the preeminent engine of change in this mode and thousands of short stories were submitted to MQR under his influence. I loved his writing, and published all the poetry he sent me (alas, he never sent me one of his compelling works of fiction), but Carver’s imitators fell woefully short of his invention. Carver made spare description and plain speaking fashionable, but too many authors seized upon his example as a quick and “dirty” form of realism. I wrote many letters to young writers pointing out how useful it would be for them to indicate what part of America their story was set in, what the neighborhood of his characters looked like, what jobs the characters had, etc. Dialogue was often banal. I resisted what I considered the ineffective use of the neo-Hemingway style. For poetry I was wary of the Confessional style and subject matter that imitated Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Berryman, et al. Those poets had raised the bar very high and almost all pastiches fell short of success, in my view. Of course the lyric mode in general is susceptible to excess in language and narrative. It was an education for me to read so many ambitious works in suddenly popular genres of fin-de-siecle taste.

Beginning in the 1990s “postmodern” experiments became popular with serious writers and here again I had to distinguish better from worse. Studying critical theory aided me in making fine distinctions in the manuscripts, distinguishing, say, John Ashbery (whom I published) from Ashberyites who fell short of his verbal genius while mimicking his forms of abstraction. A corps of assistant editors, and my longtime associate editor Ned Creeth, nourished my aesthetics with their own takes on disputed manuscripts, leading all of us to reform and expand our taste year by year. A few editors out in the country were notable for never changing their tastes; I did not want to join their ranks.

TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press

Though I have never been an editor of a literary journal, I assume that the amount of time and thought which goes into crafting each issue of MQR is unmeasurable. What steps, or checklists, did you often utilize in order to ensure that each issue was released on time? Were there any issues of MQR which might have forced you to abandon your previously helpful set of protocols?

Editing a quarterly demands rigid scheduling for each phase of the three-month period during which each issue is assembled. Our standard issue was 160 pages, and it was usually the case that some works were postponed to the next issue when we ran out of room. It was a relief when we announced a “special” or “theme” issue that could be extended by adding “signatures” or folded sections of 32 pages — sometimes extending to double-issue size. For those longer issues we added a portfolio of graphics, beginning with our landmark issue of Spring 1979, “The Moon Landing and Its Aftermath” (still, to my prejudiced mind, the best study of that phenomenon to date). Protocols were often ignored, and the rewards were usually increased sales and republication as books from the University of Michigan Press. Often I sought out guest editors for the special issues, such as David L. Lewis for “The Automobile and American Culture,” and Jane Burbank and William G. Rosenberg for “Perestroika and Soviet Culture.” All the literary work in the special issue had to adhere to the theme and therefore we had to send out a lot of query letters and invitations and get the word out as best we could. (Of course, the coming of the computer solved some of these problems.)

Putting out those special issues had the advantage of attracting world-class writers, such as Margaret Atwood, Elfriede Jelinek, Arthur Koestler, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Wole Soyinka, John Updike, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and many others.

Student interns were invaluable at all times in keeping the timetable viable. And some of them have become distinguished writers in recent decades. I miss those roundtable meetings to discuss disputed manuscripts and the interns’ often hilarious reports on manuscripts they disdained. Sometimes an intern would argue convincingly for a text that ultimately got printed in MQR, reprinted and highly praised when it appeared as part of a book. Their high spirits and intuitive good taste enhanced the quality of the journal.

I recently found myself watching a documentary on the history of Saturday Night Live. At one point in this documentary, Lorne Michaels, the creator of the show, suggested that the main duty of the program was to ensure a complete encapsulation of the previous weeks cultural happenings — the show ought to inform people of both present and future as to what happened during that week. Art as time capsule, if you will. This gets me thinking: what is the main duty, or service, of a literary journal like the MQR?

As some of the special-issue titles mentioned above indicate, I found it imperative that the flagship journal of scholarly and creative writing at the University of Michigan contribute insights into the historical events and controversies of the culture at large. I oversaw special issues on the Soviet Union, on China, on Viet-Nam, and on Cuba, all of them with guest editors. The environment was a major interest of the journal in the 21st century. The omnipresent debates about matters of ethnic and gender identity were well-served in our special issues on “The Female Body” and “The Male Body” — the best-selling issues in MQR history. And the media came in for regular commentary in the journal, especially in a two-volume issue devoted to “The Movies,” in which we were able to rescue from archives some fascinating material from the likes of Vachel Lindsay, H.D., Aldous Huxley, and other pioneers of the early twentieth century. It was a real pleasure to publish in many issues lost and newly discovered texts by, for example, Honore de Balzac (an essay on the pleasures of coffee, reprinted from MQR in Harper’s), Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles, Rabindranath Tagore, as well as timely reports on Michigan topics in our special issues Detroit: An American City and The Automobile and American Culture. All of history, all of the world, near and far, was fair game as witnessed by living writers with something new to say about significant topics.

This interview primarily focuses on your experiences as an editor, but it wouldn’t be fair to you, or your work, if I neglected to mention that you are also a poet, scholar, critic, and educator. I would love for you to talk about how these various hats overlap. Specifically, how did being the editor of MQR inform your role as both a scholar and a poet?

I was immensely fortunate to have been given freedom in my teaching and scholarly concerns to speak and write continuously about different genres all the time I worked with undergraduate and graduate students to better understand literary texts and social ideas. What I learned from manuscripts I published, and sometimes from those I didn’t, enabled me to write more effectively in all types of prose and verse. Language itself has been my subject matter, ready for adaptation to invented forms (not excluding letters to the editor, wedding toasts, spirited conversation, and unceasing acts of reverie). Reading manuscripts for 32 years in my office at Rackham, writing daily to authors about their work, could not help but inspire me to take up wordplay on my own. My scholarly books and my creative work all draw upon insights and modes of composition inspired in some part, however small, by all those hours of reading and responding to manuscripts. Writing as habit is essential to any kind of effective presentation. My freshman composition teacher at UCLA, the novelist Carolyn See, taught me that lesson. Her book Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers emphasizes the value of any writing, even what seems idle impressions in a diary on what you see out the window from your writing-room, as practice for the best prose or poetry one achieves in a lifetime.

The University of Michigan Press

When thinking about all of the different writers you published throughout your career as editor, were there any younger, or newer voices, which you were especially proud to have published in MQR?

I have written on this topic in a brief essay (MQR, Fall 2015) about publishing a great short story by Charles Baxter, “Harmony of the World,” at the inception of his career, and many writings thereafter. I’m especially pleased to have published, early and frequently, Diane Ackerman, Wanda Coleman, Mark Halliday, Lawrence Joseph, Khaled Mattawa, Cathy Song, Charles Harper Webb. I am just as pleased to have plentifully published, from the 1970s on, work in many genres by the Contributing Editors to MQR: Philip Levine, Arthur Miller, and Joyce Carol Oates. Mary Gaitskill published her first work of fiction in the journal, and an unknown journalist named Sebastian Junger published an essay on the blues singer Robert Johnson, which he said in one later interview was his favorite piece of writing, including his best-seller The Perfect Storm.

With your retirement in full swing, what’s next for you? Can we be expecting any new collections of poems, or a scholarly work investigating one of your many interests?

I have a folder of poems written since A Room in California and published in a variety of journals. My next book will be a collection of most of these poems and some new ones I have in fragments. I write slowly and revise extensively, so I can’t say when this collection will be ready, soon I hope. And on the scholarly front, I’ve written two chapters of a book studying the way poets have adapted Orson Welles’s life and films — for example, how Adrienne Rich has used Citizen Kane explicitly in her memory-poem “Amnesia” and more artfully in poems like “Diving into the Wreck.” As in my earlier book The American Poet at the Movies (which studied how Rich adapted Jean-Luc Godard’s films for a critique of American policy in Viet-Nam), I want to explore interartistic texts nourished by masterpieces of cinema.

And I am not through with the topic of Los Angeles, where I grew up. My most recent book, Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City, has suggested to me some creative avenues to explore in the future. The work of Max Ritvo*, who died at age 25 last year after writing many compelling poems set in L.A., opens up some new territory in my consciousness. It recalls for me the double issue of MQR titled Disability, Art, and Culture, Spring and Summer 1998, which taught me so much about a subject now of major importance in the academy and society in general.

*An excellent study of Ritvo’s work is Helen Vendler’s review of his posthumously published volume, Four Reincarnations, in the May 2017 issue of Poetry.