On Editing the Ontario Review
by Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond J. Smith
Originally published in the The Art of Literary Publishing: Editors on Their Craft. Bill Henderson, ed. Pushcart Press, 1980.
Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond J. Smith are married to each other and to The Ontario Review. He is editor of The Ontario Review and she is an associate editor. They are currently organizing The Ontario Review Press, which will soon publish its first list of books. Part One of this essay is written by Ms. Oates and Part Two by Mr. Smith.
The artist, as John Stuart Mill once observed, is not heard but overheard: he addresses the world but he must address it indirectly, and his work, when completed, when sent out from him, must make its way as if no one, no explicit being, had created it. Has anyone ever considered how strange this situation is, has anyone (including even the artist himself) reflected upon its perverse maddening cruelty, its injustice ... ? To be an artist, then, is to freely surrender not only a part of one's self but to surrender (unless one is exceedingly brash) the very temptation, perhaps even the very instinct, to protect and define and argue for and exhibit any signs of affection for that self.
But to be a critic, or an editor—!
An editor, then. An editor speaks directly: he may actually address his readers in the pages of his magazine, if he wishes; he certainly addresses them by way of the material he chooses to publish. He is a kind of god. He arranges everything. A four-line poem in the lovely white space at the end of a long story-a poem that beautifully expresses the hidden spirit of that story—what a joy it is to discover the connection, and to set the poem in place! Art-work. The arrangement of. Does a photograph on page forty bear a secret connection with an image in a poem on page eighty-five? Does the very color of the cover relate to the tone of the issue ... ? Does it mean something that three stories are arranged in a certain order, with certain poems between them to set them apart, and certain drawings as well ... : Certainly it does, and the editor knows it; no one else will 'know' it but he might sense it if he studies an issue with care. All issues of Ontario Review are arranged in an order the editors consider—after many hours of brooding, talking, and contemplation, and perhaps good luck—the absolutely perfect arrangement of that particular body of material. I am inclined to think that this mysterious process of arranging disparate works of prose, poetry, and art is the most gratifying aspect of editing a magazine: but one cannot comprehend by being told of it, one must do it. Start making plans to edit you own magazine.
Baskerville, Caslon Old Style. Centaur. Centaur (almost unbearably lovely in italics). And then there is Chisel: costly, elegant, almost too elegant. Cochin bold. Copperplate bold. COPPERPLATE GOTHIC BOLD. Copperplate Gothic light. Freehand. Futura. GARAMOND BOLD. And Goudy, handtooled costly lovely Goudy. Huxley, Libra, Paramount, Park Avenue, Twentieth Century bold ...
The artist very rarely chooses his type face; he is not even supposed to know about that sort of thing. Innumerable intermediaries deal with his work, once they decide to publish it: theirs is the exquisite pleasure of determining the type face, and theirs is the pleasure of determining the kind of paper that will be used, and the kind of cover, and the design ...
The editor quite freely does all these things. He really is a kind of god. He knows that a poem set in delicate Centaur will be a quite different poem from the same assemblage of words set in heavy-footed Bank Gothic. He knows that a group of words, however fastidiously chosen, set in Engraver's Old English, will be irresistibly funny; just like a contributor's note set in Tango Swash Initials. A masterpiece set in 5-point Baskerville is not quite the same as a masterpiece set in 14-point.
Then there are those staggeringly lovely colors for one's cover. Some four hundred eighty-seven of them. Yes: four hundred eighty-seven distinctive colors. And even some special colors, if you can believe it. (Black Plus. Super Warm Red. Black on Black.) ... The more one considers the editor's work, the more astonishing it is that anyone wants to be an artist, a writer, at all.
Literary creation is a solitary activity: by the time the work is actually gone from one's desk it has eased out of one's soul, and a new project, a new ecstatic torment, has replaced it. As Conrad once observed, perhaps crankily, the writer only wants to hear sympathetic remarks—'criticism,' however well-intentioned, comes too late, and is anyway beside the point since (as few non-artists know) the work is almost always as close to perfection as the artist could make it, and that's that. Don't take me aside and say, "May I speak frankly .... "
The editor, however: he is not at all a solitary person. He is gregarious. He is warm-hearted. He is always ready for a luncheon, a telephone call, a batch of free reviewer's books. If the artist is an albino violet, the editor is a huge glaring grinning healthy sunflower. He craves remarks—of course he prefers good ones, but others are halfway welcome too, for he wants to know that his magazine is being read. (The artist, the writer, may sometimes hope in secret that his work isn't being read—by too many people, anyway.) The editor, far from being displeased by well-intentioned criticism, or confused by irrelevant praise, is eager to talk; he loves the company of other editors because they can compliment one another on their most recent issues, trade anecdotes about bizarre submissions or printers' idiocies or that one indefatigable poet in Bad Ax, Michigan, or Black Fly, Ontario, who sends hundreds of poems out everywhere with a covering letter badly photostated .... The only thing the editor does not care to hear is that a library, somewhere, claims never to have received the most recent copy of his magazine. And perhaps he does not care to hear that the poem he has just published on page 105 has also just been published on page 87 of a rival journal.
But before I was initiated into all these secrets, before I could have guessed what lay ahead, I was simply intrigued by the idea of a little magazine. Not a glossy magazine—never—but a little magazine. (Not too little: the original Kenyon Review, say. Remember those gorgeous covers?) I was fascinated from about the age of eighteen onward by the notion, the abstract, almost Platonic notion, of a physical thing that was at the same time a communal phenomenon. That is, one picks up a magazine, weighs it in the hand, it appears to be a thing, but in fact it isn't a thing at all. It's a symposium. A gathering. A party. Open the cover and look inside and there (if I leaf through an issue of Ontario Review) are Elizabeth Spencer and John Updike and Fred Morgan and Robert Phillips and Reynolds Price. . . And in another issue, Margaret Atwood and William Everson and Lynne Sharon Schwartz and many others whose names might someday become well-known. The artist creates a single, a singular thing, out of his solitary labor; but the editor creates a small unanticipated community that has never existed before and will never exist again.
Writers, poets, and artists meet one another in the pages of magazines, in the warm confines of this unique community which, apart from its covers, its editors, its print, would never have come into being. We all remember the contributor whose poem was discovered on the back of our first off-print, and the quizzical concentration with which we read and reread his poem, no matter that it was truncated abruptly. Difficult to believe that there was not some arcane meaning behind the fact that we shared a single sheet of paper and that our destinies were not, in some tantalizingly obscure way, irrevocably linked ....
Why else edit a magazine? Because we are insatiable readers. Because we hope to 'discover talented young writers,' conventional as that might sound. Because people have been very generous to us, in the past. Because we know people, gifted people, who cannot always get their work published. And so on, and so forth.
Most of all, because a magazine is a we, and one can get somewhat tired of I.
A distinguishing feature of The Ontario Review is its character as a North American journal of the arts—"North American," I say, though for purely practical reasons it focuses mainly on the English-speaking cultures of the continent. As Americans teaching in Canada, in the border city of Windsor, knowledgeable about the literary traditions and in contact with writers of both countries, Joyce and I felt that we were in a fine position to start such a journal. While it has never been unusual for Canadian authors, like Earle Birney, to appear in American periodicals, and while some Canadian journals, like The Malahat Review, have long had an international scope, to my knowledge The Ontario Review is the first literary magazine to concentrate specifically on North American writers and artists and to try, with intercultural articles and reviews, to create a kind of dialogue between the two cultures.
We did this partly as a corrective to a tendency toward cultural chauvinism in Canada, despite our fundamental sympathy with the grievances of the Canadian nationalists, and partly to present more systematically to an American audience some of the products of a Canadian literature that has achieved its maturity during the past two decades. We did this, deliberately risking the ire of the ultra-nationalists and rejection by those Americans (and there are many) who might have no interest in the culture of a country whose existence for them was at best hazy. But so far the venture has worked; The Ontario Review has been generally well-received in both countries, and Joyce and I generously supported by writers and artists on both sides of the border.
One of the initial problems was finding a printer. A competent printer, whose galleys never contain more than two or three mistakes each, whose type fonts include accent marks and italics, and who has the equipment to do something more than wedding invitations, is imperative. When I asked one of our local printers what the biggest job he had done was, he proudly showed me an 18" x 30" menu for a Chinese restaurant; another wouldn't work without cash in advance, since a neighboring church group had recently neglected to pay him for printing a cookbook. Nonetheless, our first printer was a local one, with plenty of good will but without the necessary resources—typesetting was done in London, Ontario, the book was put together in Windsor, the binding was done in Hamilton. And he wasn't really equipped to collate the magazine; pages were often missing, or sometimes duplicated or even triplicated, and often showed signs of handling-wrinkles, smudges, and once a bloody fingerprint! (I realize now, too late, that the latter would have made a wonderful collector's item some day.) The climax came with the third issue, which the printer assured me would have no bad copies since he would hire a college student to go through each book page by page before it was sent to the binder. The student dutifully paged through them and inserted a folded piece of yellow paper to indicate missing pages. I could hardly believe it when, checking one of the contributor's copies about to be mailed to a distinguished poet, I opened it to find in the place of his poems a folded piece of yellow paper bound into the magazine. After that The Ontario Review was printed in Victoria, B.C., two thousand miles across the continent.
Printing, as most editors know, does not constitute publication; adequate distribution of the printed material is what really matters and is one of the editor's primary obligations to his contributors; it is also crucial to the economic solvency of the magazine. Step one for journals is to send a flier to the bigger libraries in North America—a sample of your product which may include, as ours did, the front cover and several pages from the first issue may be a better idea. Many of those libraries will subscribe through subscription agencies like Ebsco/Canebsco. This is the best way to handle subscriptions, since the renewals are automatic, invoices are unnecessary, and payments come in lump sums. Distribution is not really adequate unless the publisher supplies the bookstores, and this is where the major problem lies. Canadians seem to be starting to solve it with the help of the Canadian Periodical Publishers' Association, an organization which differs from its American counterpart COSMEP (Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers) in several significant ways: membership is restricted to periodicals, mass-circulation items like Saturday Night are not excluded, and literary magazines constitute a minority of the membership. This kind of cooperation has been highly beneficial to little magazines like The Ontario Review.
With the widest distribution, a little magazine isn't going to break even financially, and that's because it is usually priced unrealistically—as if competing with the mass-circulation periodicals that get most of their revenue from advertising (an inconsequential source of income to the average little magazine). To help compensate for this, most literary journals are subsidized by government funds, foundations, and/or sponsoring universities. The role of the CCLM (Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines) in America is played by the Canada Council in Canada. The generosity of governments and foundations should not be an excuse, however, for deliberate underpricing. Not only have most little magazines been unrealistically priced from the beginning, but editors have been slow to raise their prices to help absorb growing printing, paper, and mailing costs—for obvious reasons.
As for content, we have always relied upon both submissions and solicitation. The little magazine exists partly as a vehicle for struggling new talent, and it's one of the editor's chief responsibilities and pleasures to be on the lookout for new voices, to encourage them, and to help them in their development. Solicitation, too, is an important part of the editor's job—asking writers and artists whose work he values to send something his way. We have been pleasantly surprised at the generous response to our requests, and we owe special debts to people like Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Philip Roth, Irving Layton, Colin Wilson, George Woodcock, and Saul Bellow. Soliciting material, however, can create its own problems if someone submits something that is obviously inferior. Some years ago, a long-established American writer upon solicitation sent us a critical essay that I wouldn't have accepted from one of my undergraduates. Joyce and I were faced with the dilemma of either publishing it, which was unthinkable, or rejecting it, which in this situation would have been particularly ungracious. Fortunately, the problem worked itself out without embarrassment to either party.
While special issues featuring a particular writer or based on a particular theme are often valuable, this approach (especially in the case of themes) can become mechanical—a theme for its own sake to suggest unity and especially relevance, as well as a controlling editorial consciousness. We prefer the miscellany, though we are not intractably committed to it. We work with what we have—the best that has come in since the previous issue—with an eye for balance: balance of material (fiction, poetry, criticism, graphics, reviews) and balance of tone (maybe a touch of "comic relief" for an otherwise too somber issue). Our editorial aim is to be interesting and to avoid the kind of pedantry that sometimes enervates the scholarly magazines. So far we haven't published many critical articles, though we would like to do more of the intercultural kind, like Ann Mandel's in Number Three, and more of the interdisciplinary kind, like the essay by Arnold J. Mandell, M.D. in Number Two. Reviews are generally assigned, with an attempt to balance prominent titles with those from small presses. A special feature on small press publications appeared in our Spring-Summer 1978 issue.
I have mentioned some of the problems facing a little magazine editor; now let me name some of the rewards. I see editing a magazine not as compiling but creating, and the finished product as a work of art in its own right—the book itself (its cover, stock, type, layout, etc.), as well as that unique whole that is formed by the magazine's many parts (stories, essays, poems, etc.). The rewards of the job are many—discovering a well-shaped and compelling story or poem by a previously unpublished writer, watching hitherto disconnected material gradually assume a focus, designing the next cover, paging through an advance copy of a new issue, getting some positive reactions from people you admire. Finally, the editor, for better or worse, contributes (no matter how little) to the shaping of a culture. He need not, and perhaps should not, be doctrinaire; nevertheless, he will have values—aesthetic, cultural, even moral, that will be reflected in what he chooses to publish. I have never thought of it this way before, but I suppose that The Ontario Review, whether quixotically or not, is tilting with the dragon of anti-art—resisting the deadening commercialism of modern Western civilization.