Editor Interview: The Threepenny Review
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Q: Describe what you publish in 25 characters or less.
A: New and famous writers
Q: What other current publications (or publishers) do you admire most?
A: London Review of Books, New York Review of Books (plus their paperback series!), n+1, A Public Space, Poetry
Q: If you publish writing, who are your favorite writers? If you publish art, who are your favorite artists?
A: Fiction: Tobias Wolff, Yiyun Li, Wendell Berry, Javier Marias, David Malouf, Hilary Mantel, Richard Price, Gary Shteyngart, Alice Munro (to choose just among the living)
Poetry: Louise Gluck, Robert Pinsky, Kay Ryan, David Ferry, Dean Young, Frank Bidart, W. S. Di Piero, Michael Chitwood, D. Nurkse (again, just choosing among the living)
Q: What sets your publication apart from others that publish similar material?
A: We cross many categories, so that we publish poetry and memoir, short stories and critical articles, essays about books and essays about the performing arts. We publish long pieces (up to 4000 and sometimes 5000 words), but we also have specific places in the magazine (Table Talk, the Symposia on various subjects) where we publish very short essays. We judge everything in terms of its quality of writing, so that nothing gets in just by subject matter. And we accompany our writing with beautiful artworks (mainly black-and-white photographs) so that the magazine LOOKS great. Our format -- tabloid size on good-quality paper -- also sets us apart from most "little" magazines that publish fiction and poetry.
Q: What is the best advice you can give people who are considering submitting work to your publication?
A: We are very backlogged with fiction and poetry, but we are always in need of good nonfiction -- particularly critical nonfiction or nonfiction about a topic out in the world, rather than memoir (though we need good first-person pieces, too). The best place to start is with a Table Talk submission -- a prose piece of less than 1000 words -- because we publish at least three of those in every issue, and we are always looking for new writers in that category. Take a look at an existing issue to get an idea of what goes into Table Talk: it can be personal, critical, whimsical, serious, but it needs to be coherent, intelligent, and well-written.
Q: Describe the ideal submission.
A: I can't. If I knew what something should be beforehand, I would be writing the whole magazine myself. The ideal submission is one that surprises me.
Q: What do submitters most often get wrong about your submissions process?
A: They send us work that could not possibly be published in Threepenny, either because of content (science fiction stories, crime stories, humor sketches) or because of style (self-indulgent, immersed in their own lives, no perspective or distance). That covers what's wrong with most of the fiction submissions; the poetry is all over the map, and I expect it to be, and the main mistake is that it is not good enough, but the writers can't help that.
Q: How much do you want to know about the person submitting to you?
A: Whatever they want to reveal, in a paragraph or less. Other publishing credits might be of interest but are not necessary. Plot summaries or topics covered in poems are absolutely NOT needed, and generally hurt. A good cover letter can focus our attention on the submission, but a bad one can prejudice us against the work, so it is really a 50-50 situation. It's fine to submit without cover letter.
Q: If you publish writing, how much of a piece do you read before making the decision to reject it?
A: I personally sometimes reject a story after reading the first paragraph (though I encourage my deputy editor, who is new at this game, to read the whole work). Poems, on the other hand, need to be read to the end, and each needs to be read separately, because a good one can come in a mediocre batch. Nonfiction, like fiction, can be rejected on the basis of a single paragraph. If the opening is better than average, I sometimes flip to the ending and look at that. If the prose piece passes both these tests, I set it aside to read the whole thing carefully, later.
Q: What additional evaluations, if any, does a piece go through before it is accepted?
A: If my deputy editor finds something she likes, I read it too and make the final decision. If I find something on my own, I usually accept it on my own, though sometimes I show it to her to check my judgment. It is just the two of us, and we make our decisions quickly.
Q: What is a day in the life of an editor like for you?
A: Most of our time is spent on other aspects of the magazine (clerical, fundraising, design, production, etc.) About a sixth of my time and a third of my deputy editor's is spent reading manuscripts, both online and on paper (since we accept submissions in both ways). This is true for half the year, the six months from January to June, which is our reading period. During the other six months we focus on the other aspects of the magazine and do not read submissions, since we collect enough in that first six months to propel us through the rest of the year and beyond. We also ask writers we know to send us work, so some of what we publish comes to us that way. All our Symposia are done that way, and many of our critical reviews -- though we welcome new critics, if any are out there!
Q: How important do you feel it is for publishers to embrace modern technologies?
A: I don't know about important, but it's necessary for us -- we began getting a higher quality of submissions when we opened our online system, and it also made it easier for us to read more stuff more quickly. We use Adobe InDesign to do our pre-press work (my deputy editor and I do it ourselves, up to the final PDF, which is done at our printers), so our production process is pretty high tech -- and we also have a digital edition of the magazine available through Zinio, which supplements but does not in any way replace our print edition. All of this is necessary in the current climate, and does not in any way subtract from our traditional values: good-quality paper, strong literary style, a beautiful magazine that is a pleasure to hold in your hands and an even greater pleasure to read. Tradition and progress are not, in this sense, incompatible.