Notebook: Editing in a Perilous Year
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Book Post HQ, with our Book Bag gift cards front and center! And some holiday children’s books I’ve clung to. Rarely left work space to the left, beneath “ha, no”
Last weekend I had a difficult conversation with a writer, as one sometimes has to do. I tend to shy away from the telephone, which is bad. Often one needs to speak to a writer with one’s own voice and not the declarative apparent certainty of an email or a marked-up manuscript, so they can hear the human reader and the organic internal processes beneath the judgment, and also the affection and respect that a note of dissonance can drown out. I don’t avoid conversation because I fear exposing human processes, but more because of the word-person’s gravitation toward the correctable, the revisable, over the human self, which often stumbles ahead in ways it cannot retract and loses the thread of its best intentions. Perhaps perfectability and chill are interrelated features of the email.
For me, being an editor is an almost visceral human challenge. I became an editor because I love literature and I wanted to honor and serve it. This is manifested, de facto, in honoring and serving writers, but occasionally one is defending other participants in the scene—the sometimes remote-seeming or hypothetical reader, even the words themselves on the page. One almost feels at times that it is necessary to challenge the parent in order to protect the child, though such a phrasing would surely seem presumptuous to the writer. As an editor I am both completely confident—this is what the words say they need to be, like a voice from the stars—and wiltingly insecure: I venture out from my cluttered desk with only my mind, my soul-infused relation to words; here at Book Post I’m without even much of an institutional voice to give me cover. A newsletter by its nature seems to speak as a person. My sense of the words’ destiny is bound up in my sense of what Book Post is—it is not absolute, words can live otherwise elsewhere—but this demurral can seem cosmetic I think to writers. They know, though, that any editorial “we” out of here is me and the cats.
I created Book Post because I saw a gap in the world of letters into which I feared we were falling: a gap of credibility, of mutual comprehension, of shared value. I wondered if I could find another way to span it, to carry the precious cargo of ideas across it. Trying to describe the role of the editor, I once told the documentarian Kabir Chibbir, who had the quixotic idea of making a little film about me and Book Post (working preview here), that the act of writing rests inside a paradox: writing is both unavoidably solitary and inherently outward-directed. It is the work of the editor to help resolve this fundamental contradiction: how to make the inner—where the next idea waits, drawing on genius, study, empathy, contemplation—securely outer. Not to make it sound like more than it is. Editing is a humble art. Maybe a craft. Behind the curtain (usually). Where it belongs.
The year now receding could not have done more to challenge the impulse behind this particular editorial adventure. In 2020 our mutual incomprehension became, impossible though it may have seemed, yet more stark. We were driven into our lairs by a mortal threat, deprived of companionship, of livelihood, of exploration, consumed by an existential burden of care and mourning. We were riven by a stark reminder that we have failed to live up to the most basic promises of our democracy, after generations of courageous effort. Even as a child practicing hiding from fallout under my school desk I did not feel cataclysm to be proximate in this way. Or so dependent on what one might do about it. That I had somehow yoked my daily labor of mending sentences and coaxing work out of writers to threats of this magnitude seemed at the very least not exactly psychologically healthy. Perhaps everyone who tried to see in their work some balm for our situation has been dogged by such feelings at and away from their desk.
A moment of mortal threat makes great demands on the world of letters, even as it batters the material conditions that make the world of letters possible. Often, very often, I have felt overwhelmed. I felt I don’t have the character to “run a small business” or “be a social media personality,” which indeed I may not. And yet, again and again, the writers responded to the door opened before them in ways that elated and surprised me. They’ve brought posts on books in or close to Italian, Hungarian, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese (coming soon!); examinations of spies, sheep camps, Keats, women astronomers, the Book of Job, Edward Gorey, war criminals, asparagus, Notorious B.I.G., Walt Whitman, early modern bookmaking, monopoly, Sondheim, the opioid crisis, night-fishermen, and canoe libraries. Even though a newsletter, as the tradition is evolving, is supposed to be one voice, I feel that I (at least) hear these voices singing together in a wonderful, complex chorus, that does not bring one message but a message of multiplicity. Not a voice that says, this is the answer, but that says thinking is the answer.
I prefer to regard Book Post as a “subscription service” rather than a newsletter. You receive a (one hopes delightful, surprising) person’s thought about a book the way we used to receive milk at the end of the driveway, each its own offering. But perhaps in the aggregate they do have a common voice, or a harmony, and this is the pilgrim soul of the editorial mind; invisible, shepherding.
For those not subscribing to our reviews, we’ve opened some of them to give a taste. One does not have favorite children so consider this a nearly random sampling. Our Diaries and Notebooks are open to all readers and received as emails by those who sign up for our occasional free updates. (Our “Diaries” are posts by writers about their own reading; our “Notebooks” are posts written with great reluctance by me, attempting to offer some insight behind the scenes of books and writing.)
I am so grateful to these writers for bringing these treasures and to you for subscribing to and reading Book Post. As the new year dawns, with its strands of promise, I feel we are called more than ever to stitch together a culture in which we can all learn and grow, that stirs in us ever more refined feeling and informed engagement. I do that by doing this thing, and I send blessings to all the others doing it in their own way. Meanwhile thank you, readers, for giving us your e-ear, and courage for what lies ahead.
Some of our posts from 2020:
Ian Frazier on lists
Hugh Eakin on Apollinaire and Picasso’s plague-year friendship
Sarah Chayes on Colombia’s Magdalena River
April Bernard on poetry and catastrophe
Allen Callahan on the gospel of peace in a time of violence
Stephen Kinzer on the Pentagon and climate change
Marina Warner’s Quarantine Diary
Joy Williams on the novelist J. M. Coetzee
Jamaica Kincaid, her garden is a conversation
Robert Block on the journalist and the mass murderer
Rebecca Chace on the speculative fiction of N. K. Jemisin
Christopher Benfey on elections in American lit
John Guare on Stephen Sondheim
Robert Karron on Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport
and LitHub published a mash-up of my April and May Notebooks from about our somewhat prophetic spring partnership with the Ypsilanti’s Black-owned Blackstone Bookstore and other bookstores on the front lines in Minneapolis.
Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box, as well as free posts from time to time like this one. Subscribe to our book reviews and support our writers and our effort to grow a common reading culture across a fractured media landscape.
Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, in Asheville, North Carolina, is Book Post’s Autumn 2020 partner bookstore! We support independent bookselling by linking to independent bookstores and bringing you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles. We’ll send a free three-month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 there during our partnership. Send your receipt to email@example.com. For the holidays: Give a friend a six-month subscription to Book Post and a bag of books from Malarops!
Give a Book Post Book Bag for the holidays!
If you liked this piece, please share and help us to grow, and tell the author with a “like”