Editor Interview: Contrary

Q: Describe what you publish in 25 characters or less.

A: Defiantly good writing

Q: What other current publications (or publishers) do you admire most?

A: International PEN! Fringe! The Normal School! PANK, StorySouth, Smokelong Quarterly, Juked, Guernica, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Los Angeles Review, Blackbird, Memorius... this is an unfair question because there are so many great journals, and we're bound to leave many deserving publications unmentioned.

Q: If you publish writing, who are your favorite writers? If you publish art, who are your favorite artists?

A: Fiction: Michel Houllebecq, Rachel Cusk, J.M. Coetzee, Lorrie Moore, Italo Calvino
Poetry: Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Sexton, Anne Carson, Eavan Boland, Nazim Hikmet, Richard Jackson, Fernando Pessoa (and his heteronyms), Tess Gallagher, Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda.
Commentary: Annie Dillard, David Shields, Heywood Broun, Susan Sontag, Richard Rodriguez

Q: What sets your publication apart from others that publish similar material?

A: No cliques here. We don't exist to publish our friends. There are people we publish over and over again because we love their work, but we've never met them. Which means, your submission will get a fair reading at Contrary. We want to find the innovative unknown writer and help her become better known.

Q: What is the best advice you can give people who are considering submitting work to your publication?

A: Conquer ego. Of course, that's very hard to do. Very few people have succeeded at it, ultimately. Ego remains a major issue in the arts because artists need ego to persist, but they must overcome ego to make art. We see a lot of submissions that testify to an author's cleverness but convey little or no value to an audience. Good writing serves purposes outside of the author. That tough philosopher, Nietzsche, has some good advice for writers: "The prime demand that we make of every kind and level of art is the conquest of subjectivity, release and redemption from the 'I', and the falling silent of all individual willing and desiring; indeed without objectivity, without pure disinterested contemplation, we are unable to believe that any creation, however slight, is genuinely artistic."

Q: Describe the ideal submission.

A: It hypnotizes us first with the beauty of its language, then with the gradual dawning of multiple layers of meaning, and in the end it reveals something profound about life on earth. (You said "ideal")

Q: What do submitters most often get wrong about your submissions process?

A: We see a lot of typos, misspellings and grammatical errors, and I don't know many editors who can tolerate those errors without concluding that the writer doesn't care enough about their work to proof it, and usually that lack of care shows elsewhere in the work too, in its content or structure or thinking. Many writers forget that fundamental instruction they should have learned in elementary school-- put your name on your paper. A great many manuscripts arrive with no information to identify the writer, either in the file name or in the file itself, and if they were to become disconnected from the submission form, we'd have a hard time figuring out who sent them. So put your name on your manuscript and some contact information. If you're a professional, but your word count on your manuscript too. That's important information for an editor to have before she starts reading. If you want to get really into pet peeves, I wish writers would learn that there should only be one space between sentences… unless they're publishing on a typewriter. Even with search and replace at our disposal, I wonder how many hours of editorial labor, across the world, across the years, go into removing that extra space.

Q: How much do you want to know about the person submitting to you?

A: We love succinct bios that convey a writer's experience--whether or not it includes publishing experience. Lists of publication credits do matter, but not as much as the quality of the writing. We have published several writers who had never been published before. That's rare, but we're open to it.

Q: If you publish writing, how much of a piece do you read before making the decision to reject it?

A: The primary demand we make of writers is that they master writing, rather than letting writing master them. If it's clear in the beginning that the writer isn't mastering her own writing, there's not much point in continuing. If we read to the end and still want more, we'll publish that writer.

Q: What additional evaluations, if any, does a piece go through before it is accepted?

A: It has to be approved by at least two of the three main editors--myself, Shaindel Beers or Frances Badgett--and then we have a suite of associate editors whose opinions we also solicit.

Q: What is a day in the life of an editor like for you?

A: It's hard to say where this day begins. It might be Paris or Prague or Perugia. We're at a cafe, at an outside table because it's a gorgeous day again. I'm fairly able to concentrate but Shaindel and Frances are distracted by the entourage of young Italian models, male and female, who go everywhere with them. We're reading one brilliant submission after another. The brilliance becomes blinding. The piece that shines through it, that's the piece we accept. (You might think I'm being flip, but I'm completely serious. Life is what you make it!)

Q: How important do you feel it is for publishers to embrace modern technologies?

A: It's certainly important if they want to reach readers. I teach at a prominent university. There's a prestigious old journal there that spends about $20,000 on each print run of about 5,000 copies, many of which go to libraries where they may or may not be promptly read. We spend perhaps $2,000 a year to reach readers in 92 countries. In 2009 we had 2.9 million hits, and in the first half of 2010 we had 1.86 million, so we're on pace to surpass 3 million. So we may not be old, paper-bound, and prestigious, but we're new, electronic, and well read.