Q&A: O’Rourke to Edit the Yale Review

Dana Isokawa
From the May/June 2019 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In July poet and critic Meghan O’Rourke will take over as the editor of the Yale Review, Yale University’s quarterly of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. O’Rourke, who has been an editor at the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Slate, succeeds acting editor Harold Augenbraum, who stepped in when the publication’s editor since 1991, the late poet J. D. McClatchy, retired in June 2017. A few months before her official start date, O’Rourke discussed her plans for the review and her approach to editing. In addition to numerous pieces of criticism, O’Rourke has published three poetry collections, most recently Sun in Days (Norton, 2017), and one memoir, The Long Goodbye (Riverhead Books, 2011).

Meghan O’Rourke (Credit: Tony Gale)

When will your first issue come out?
October. It coincides with the two-hundredth anniversary of the review, which is a wonderful occasion for me to start as editor. It’s fun to begin with a beginning and celebrate a very long period of time at the same time.

Does a two-hundred-year legacy feel overwhelming?
It’s so overwhelming that it’s freeing. Seventy-five years might be more overwhelming, but two hundred years is so capacious and broad, it reminds you that a magazine is a made thing that reflects the passions and currents and ideas of its time and is shaped by the people who work there. There’s a kind of permission in that two hundred years. So the expectation I bring is not so much to maintain a particular identity but to make the journal be to its time what it has been to its time at some of its highest moments. Also, although the magazine is not oriented toward Yale, it is incubated at Yale; I want the magazine to be to its world what Yale is to its world, which is a place of rigorous, creative inquiry that holds itself to the highest standards.

What do you think is a journal’s ideal relationship to its time?
The answer is different for different journals. But the Yale Review is uniquely situated to be a space for the best creative and literary writing to be side by side with passionate, personal, and political criticism—the review has always had a robust back-of-the-book, where the critics’ section is housed. The relationship between the creative enterprise and the critical enterprise is exciting because they are two almost antithetical modes of inquiry. Poems and stories can offset the tendency of the polemicizing, op-ed culture we have around us—not that we’re going to be running op-eds. But there’s something wonderful about modes that coexist in the same journal as oil and water to each other; there’s something exciting about that tension between those modalities because it can add up to a larger world of exploration.

When you’re putting together an issue, will you take that literally? Will you, for example, publish a poem that addresses a topic and a review of a book about that same topic? Or how might the creative and the critical speak to one another in the review?
Less literal than that. We will have theme issues where we use a word—almost the way a poet might—to riff editorially in our thinking. For example, I’m thinking about an issue focused on documents and documentation. Right now, because of the news, we’re all thinking about what it means to be undocumented in America in a specific way. It’s led me to think about literature as document: What does literature document? What goes undocumented? What does it mean to try to document not only what we know about ourselves and our time, but what we can’t know about ourselves and our time? And how does a journal situate itself in that space? It’s also this moment where both fiction and poetry have this fascination with the claims of nonfiction—I’m thinking of Knausgård, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and the current of autofiction. Novelists are saying, “I’ve gotten tired of making things up.” We also have poets who are using found documents and exploring docupoetics, so it seems like a moment to think through the relationship between imaginative literature and literal documents.  

The great challenge of editing a literary journal—or a political and literary journal, which I hope the Yale Review will be—is to figure out how to publish an assortment of really good pieces that add up to something more than a slightly incidental aesthetic. That point to aspects of our cultural experience that we know but maybe haven’t named or aspects of the discourse that are hypocritical or unrigorously explored.

Having many different modes of considering that same question will hopefully lead to a richer understanding, yes?
Yes, and complicate an understanding we might have. As the culture editor at Slate in the early 2000s, where I essentially ran half a magazine and helped build that section and what it meant to be writing cultural criticism on the web, that was still a new question—what are the cultural phenomena we think we understand but don’t look at very closely or have only looked at a little? That’s also what interests me as a writer and led me to write about grief in The Long Goodbye. Grieving had radically changed in American culture, and while we had this idea of grieving, no one had fully unpacked it. Scholars had, but it hadn’t been fully looked at in cultural criticism. And suddenly there was a wave of us all saying, “Hey, this is really strange. Let’s look at how we grieve.” So I’m interested in the journal being a space where that looking a second time can happen. 

What other topics besides documentation do you want to cover in the journal?
I’m starting to figure that out. Another thing on my mind is the word antisocial—what does that even mean? We live in a moment where we are bombarded by the social. And there’s been a lot of discussion about Facebook’s role in the last election. So is antisocial an interesting word from which to begin thinking about modes of literature? And in my own work I’ve been writing about chronic illness, so I’m interested in intersections between the medical world and the world of literature, as well as medicine as a culture in itself. I expect that interest will find its way into the review somehow and not just because I’m interested in it—all these people are writing books about the experience of having a poorly understood illness, as well as the social context of medicine and what it means to be a woman and/or person of color searching for answers in a system that comes with a lot of unconscious bias. That narrative is emerging in the culture. 

One of the great pleasures of editing a journal like the Yale Review, which comes out four times a year, is that there’s not a pressure to be timely like at Slate where I was publishing daily. I have this wonderful opportunity to take the long view as an editor. But it’s important, as I was saying before, that we’re not merely collecting good pieces that come together in an incidental way, but finding a way to curate them so that there’s some sense of the urgency of the moment, but not in a way that feels merely timely. Hopefully it could also feel timeless. How do we collect the artifacts of our moment and also assign and encourage and facilitate the writing of pieces that will speak to us deeply about what’s happening right now in the world we live in? Sometimes pieces of poetry or fiction do that by not seeming to speak at all to the world we live in—so we’re not going to publish poems that have an expiration date of 2019 or 2020. I hope we’ll publish lasting poems and lasting fiction that somehow reflect something about us in our moment.

Are you planning other changes to the format or coverage of the print review?
I’m planning to revamp the back of the book. Right now it’s a wonderful group of reviews of poetry, music, books, and film, but I want to shake it up a little and publish an idea in review, where we’ll talk about something like the antisocial or culpability—there was a lot of discussion about culpability last fall around Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing: How do we think about culpability? Who is culpable and when? So maybe we’ll have a few different people write about this theme, and let those pieces not respond, but resonate with one another. And I want these pieces to touch down in actual lived cultural and political experiences. So there will be real texts under review, but it might be a text like the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings alongside a novel, alongside Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, alongside Jericho Brown’s The Tradition. It is important that we put together the pieces of our experience that are often left separate.

What tone do you want the journal to strike?
I think of the journal as a house I’m building into which I’m inviting a very dynamic, creative, playful, whimsical, argumentative group of people who are all going to be having a conversation. And the journal has the tone of that party. A tone of voluble and passionate conversation.

What are you planning to do on the digital side of the review?
We are planning to launch a new website by early 2020, which will publish original content alongside work from the journal. More broadly we are rethinking how the Yale Review can use different platforms for the delivery of ideas, criticism, and dialogue. To that end we will be developing new columns and podcasts for the website, albeit in a highly curated way, since we’re a small staff. To me the digital review will be as important as the print journal, and it offers a fresh and exciting set of possibilities, precisely because it is a medium different from print. But it serves the same mission: A twentieth-century journal, if you think about it, was just a technology for the delivery and dissemination of passionate, excellent criticism and literature. The question is, What does the web allow us to do better and differently?

What writers or trends in writing are you excited about?
Now is a true moment of fertility in American literature, partly because the nature of gatekeeping has changed. That change allows for a much greater diversity of voices that desperately needs to be there and also brings a great diversity of style and stance and position from which to make formal aesthetic exploration. Sometimes the media can talk a little too reductively about diversity; one of the things that gets overlooked is that diversity of people brings diversity of aesthetics and diversity of approaches. What more could one want? Right now is a wonderful moment to be an editor.      

Do you think the editors of a journal should be backstage, or should they be out in front? How open and transparent do you want to be as an editor to your readers?
Because the Yale Review and its readers form a kind of imagined community, especially as we move ever more online, I’d like our readers to know the people behind this enterprise—to get to know our staff, who, I hope, will be doing interviews and editing and writing too. I will sometimes write an editor’s letter to frame issues and share our goals and the questions raised for us, say, in assembling a special issue. In terms of transparency, which I take to refer to questions of how we select what we select, or why we publish what we publish, I’d just say that, of course, there are certain issues where transparency is especially called for. In general, finding ways of representing different points of view is really important to me—far too many literary journals and general interest magazines still have lopsided representation, to put it mildly—and that includes being clear about our mission of engaged dialogue and our hope of discovering valuable new voices.

When you’re editing a piece—this is probably very different for a piece of criticism versus a poem or story—are there a certain set of questions you ask?
In criticism it’s important to have a certain muscularity and flexibility of thought. As a reader and writer of criticism, I want to know that even if one is writing in a passionate, argumentative way, everything has been considered. That I’m not writing or reading a piece that has been written only reflexively. I say that carefully because we live in a moment where we all feel a fair amount of outrage. We all see a certain amount of passionate engagement from all directions about the political moment, and the Internet is a place where we can indulge in that. I’m not saying that’s not important, but if we want to bring that level of passionate outrage to written criticism, there has to be a sense of consideration too. It’s the job of the editor to be an interlocutor for the critic and make sure the critic is saying what they mean as precisely as possible. When you edit criticism, you’re trying to make the argument as clear and sound as possible. There’s always a moment of arguing with yourself as a critic, which doesn’t necessarily need to be on the page but probably needs to happen to write the piece. 

When editing fiction and poetry, it’s more about trying to help the writer make a persuasive aesthetic object from nothing. As an editor, my role is not to be an interlocutor, but a mirror. To say, “This is a moment in the poem where I feel the poet making it instead of the object that has been made. The mystery disappears and the effort shows through.” Or, “The tone slips mysteriously,” or, “This section is actually unclear.”

When I started working as an editor at the New Yorker, I would always pretend like I understood everything. It took me a long time to realize as an editor it’s okay to be—in fact, you have to be—an honest reader. You have to say, “I really don’t understand this,” or, “I’m really bored on page four, and I kind of fell asleep there for a little bit.” You have to do it with the humility of your own personhood—it could just be you—but you’re trying to reflect back to the writer as honestly as possible something about your experience. You’re also trying to think as you read it, “Is this an experience others might have while reading this text? Am I identifying something that is getting in the way of it as a persuasive aesthetic object, or is this my own predilection?” Because those are two different things. We can never fully disentangle them, but we can try.

I’m curious about your use of the word “persuasive” in “persuasive aesthetic object”—persuasive of what?
Of its own madeness. I have this sort of spiritual relationship with poems and fiction—I think about Emily Dickinson saying, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I don’t mean that a piece makes an argument that I agree with and I’ve been bullied into submission as a reader, but that it gives me that feeling. It’s that chill; it’s that sense of encountering a vision of the world that uncovers things you knew were there but never named before. I’m thinking of Taeko Kono’s Toddler Hunting and Other Stories, a fascinating book of short stories published in translation by New Directions. Many of the stories feature narrators that have deeply disturbing relationships with young children, and there’s something about the book and the way these women experience loneliness in the world that feels like it’s opening an aspect of experience that I knew was there, but I never had a name for. I don’t have the same sort of relationships that these characters do, but when I read it, I’m totally persuaded of its reality. That’s the kind of persuasion I mean. And that the poem or story has to be the way it is. Original literature is strange, and it often makes choices that another piece couldn’t make.

I love that as a description for how you feel when you read a great poem or story, but how do you feel when you read a really great piece of criticism?
There are different ways I feel. There’s the kind of criticism where you think, “Ah, I agree with every single thing here—thank you. You have named something and provided a structural framework for an intuition, a feeling, or argument I’ve been making but not as well.” Then there’s the piece that slightly changes your mind as you read it. Criticism is important because it gives us language for change, and it gives us language for reevaluation of long-held positions, which is crucial in the moment we’re living in. Especially as you get older, you have some reflexive positions, and good criticism can make you rethink something you’ve long believed, maybe without a lot of critical interrogation. Good criticism can be very uncomfortable to read. But you know it’s good if there’s a soundness to its own structure, its own architecture. And then there’s a kind of criticism that proceeds more associatively and is exciting in how it finds formal freedom in a genre that can be very conservative. There are some critics who can turn a piece of criticism almost into a work of literature. I love reading all these kinds of criticism—criticism that’s formally radical as well as criticism that’s not.

What do you find satisfying or exciting about editing?
As a writer and an editor, I’ve toggled between periods of more solitary writing and periods of more outward-oriented editing. There can be something very lonely and solipsistic and deranged about being a writer alone at your desk all day—the minute can become major, and the major can become minute. It’s like being a candle that burns itself up. So it’s satisfying to use my passion and knowledge and experience of having spent so much time with words on behalf of other people. 

A big thread in my nonfiction work is a resistance to a culture of individuality—I believe in a culture of care and community. It’s something we struggle with as Americans: how to figure out the relationship between individual ambition and the humanist mode of actually caring about one another. So I like the humanistic aspect of editing: being there for somebody and helping them because I have a knowledge base of thinking about this stuff for so long.

What kinds of editors inspire you?
Those who make a space for writers to be the best versions of themselves. I also learned a huge amount from Bill Buford, who was my boss at the New Yorker when I started. We’re very different temperamentally, but he cared so deeply about the pieces he worked on. Sometimes as an editor you’re tired, and it can be easy to read a piece and think, “This is great.” And sometimes that’s not the fidelity that the piece needs—sometimes it needs you to enter it and read it more deeply. And that can be exhausting. As a writer, my best editors have made me better but not changed me, which is a kind of magic. I aspire to that—not to impose my aesthetic, but to illuminate what’s there. Make you a better writer and thinker on the page. 

Is there anything from J. D. McClatchy’s approach or practice you hope to adopt yourself?
He was a wonderful champion to writers. I think Sandy published my first published piece, so I feel a wonderful sense of gratitude toward him. He believed in young writers and gave them a chance to write serious criticism and publish their poems and fiction. He believed passionately that the review needed to exist and continue existing, and he came on at a moment when there were some doubts about the review’s future. So every day I think about him in that sense—I don’t think it would be here without him. And I feel a similar passionate conviction already that the review should exist and continue existing for many years.

Do you think literary journals are in trouble? I’m thinking, for example, of Tin House announcing it will no longer publish a print quarterly. Is it getting harder for literary journals to sustain themselves?
I don’t know about “harder” or “in trouble,” but any literary journal in 2019 has to think deeply about what it is and what it is in relationship to the culture. The advent of the Internet as a technological change is probably similar to the printing press. We’re looking at a really massive, really fast, wide-scale change in communication. It has to affect literary journals. It would be foolish to say it didn’t. But it affects them in all kinds of ways. Publishing online is not the same thing as publishing in print; [both modes] have brought with them different kinds of conversation and communication. 

To give an example: When I starting working as an assistant at the New Yorker in 1997, if someone wanted to write a response to a piece, we chose whose words got published. We reflected back to the world what the world thought of a piece we ran. We reflected what the world thought of the New Yorker. That is not true anymore. Right now I could write a response to anything. Anyone could write anything in response to anything published. And though there’s not totally equal access because of things like search engine optimization, it is much easier for many voices to be heard. That’s a great thing, but the question then becomes: Now that so many voices can come into the conversation, how do we have that conversation in a way where we’re not all yelling at one another? We have to think about this as editors—what does it mean if we’re in a much more democratic space? What are the opportunities there? For the Yale Review, I’m thinking about how to build in a space for conversation and response. So are magazines in trouble? It’s hard in ways that it wasn’t before, and it’s important to think about what kind of editorial reckoning has to happen around this shift. It’s challenging but also exciting.


Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.