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Whose Woods Are These? (A Manifesto, Part 2)

PUBLISHED: May 14, 2009

Inside Higher Ed is reporting that New England Review is now on the chopping block. The Middlebury College Budget Oversight Committee initially announced “that effective June 30, 2009, the College will end its relationship with the New England Review (NER) and wind down operations. The winding down of operations will allow for the redeployment of staff and the fulfillment of existing contracts.” That recommendation was amended to: “The New England Review will have until December 31, 2011, to eliminate its current operating deficit. If it cannot, the College will end its relationship with the Review.”

This is shocking news. Middlebury College is primarily known as a haven for language and literature. In addition to NER, it is home to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the School of English, the Environmental Journalism fellowships, and the Robert Frost Writer-in-Residence fellowship. (The college also contributes to the maintenance of the nearby cabin where Robert Frost lived during the summers when he was teaching at the Writers’ Conference and School of English.) All of these entities support the outstanding undergraduate program in creative writing and Middlebury’s English faculty—including Julia Alvarez, David Haward Bain, Robert Cohen, Kathryn Kramer, Jay Parini, Don Mitchell, and Christopher Shaw. And yet, the Writers’ Conference and School of English are also being asked to “find ways to maintain balanced budgets” and “increase revenue.”

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is high time that universities and colleges decide how they define their core missions. Is the goal breadth of education or depth? I would argue that institutions stand a better chance of long-term survival by focusing on what makes them unique and investing deeply in those areas. A few years ago the University of Iowa considered dropping its book arts program. After all, who hand-makes book anymore, right? Except that Iowa’s book arts program was ranked #1 in the nation, and the university had other historical strengths in creative writing and international writing and emerging strengths in book history and media studies. In that light, offering students a hands-on education in the making of books to go with their book history courses or inform their understanding of the origins of new media methods and terminology, doesn’t seem like a pet project. It is an enriching element of a core strength of the university, it provides a firm foundation for emerging areas, and it helps the institution distinguish itself from competing programs.

I believe that each university would benefit from revisiting its mission, assessing its strengths, and funding accordingly. Too many institutions, in my opinion, assess their weaknesses and expend untold resources trying to plug gaps in a futile attempt to do everything—and wind up doing nothing well. So I’m not suggesting that literary journals are a critical part of the work of higher education and so each and every college and university should have one. What I’m saying is that New England Review at Middlebury College and Southern Review at LSU build on and enrich the fundamental identities of their universities. Those institutions would be diminished by their loss.

No one denies that we are in a period of crisis and hard choices, but in such times doesn’t it make sense to start by ensuring the future of what you do best?


G. Tod Slone's picture
Is VQR also into censorship of voices it doesn’t like? For my comments on NER of Middlebury College, my alma mater, see or read the following: In cultured circles art for artsaking extended practically to a worship of the meaningless. Literature was to consist solely of the manipulation of words. To judge a book by its subject matter was the unforgiveable sin and even to be aware of its subject matter was looked on as a lapse of taste. —George Orwell The recent announcement that Middlebury College (The Bread Loaf School) would cease sponsoring The New England Review by 2011, if the journal didn’t become self-supporting, was good news. Hopefully, other colleges and universities would follow with similar decisions, for anything that weakened the literary established-order was, in the long run, probably good for literature. Fattened literati did not necessarily make great literati at all. On the contrary, what they tended to make were entrenched academic literati. Two types of literary journals existed: those with tons of cash and those without. The former tended to be journals of a bourgeois pro-status-quo, established-order nature and, for that reason, reaped tons of money from universities, nonprofit foundations, and taxpayers (e.g., the National Endowment for the Arts and state cultural councils). Those journals without tons of cash could be divided into two sub categories: those indifferent to the established order, thus, in essence, forming part of it, and those highly critical of it. A journal like The American Dissident, which I’d been publishing since 1998, formed part of the latter, which were certainly rare. It would likely never receive a cent in public-grant monies because of its highly critical stance vis-à-vis the established order and because of the egregious unequal- opportunity nature of the public-grant machine. Even turning the journal into a 501 c 3 nonprofit (cost $500) did not help an iota. In fact, the same year I made that decision, the Concord Cultural Council passed a regulation that explicitly prohibited it from ever obtaining local public funding because of its inherent “political nature.” As for the NEA, it simply dismissed the journal as “low” and “poor,” refusing to accord any additional information. Vigorous debate, after all, was the cornerstone of democracy, not of cultural and academic autocracies. Regarding Middlebury College, I was an alumnus (1980) and couldn’t even get the college library to subscribe to The American Dissident (only $20/year). In fact, it wouldn’t even respond to my requests. In any case, perhaps leaner, less-funded journals would become better journals—less gloss, more substance, and people writing not for money and recognition, but rather to satisfy a driving passion or even as Orwell put it: “I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” Yes, that would be quite unusual indeed for an academic literary journal. Stephen Donadio, editor of The New England Review, ought to be satisfied with his $100,000-plus salary as a Middlebury College English professor. In fact, with that kind of money he ought to have been able to pay for the production costs himself. Was he paid additional money as editor? Why did he decline to reveal how much cash NER received? Why the secrecy? Whatever happened to the liberal-mantra of transparency? By the way, some of us were unemployed and still running literary journals. Perhaps Donadio would like to do an internship with The American Dissident and learn how small “revenue streams (subscriptions, for example) […] support the magazine sufficiently to operate without college financial support.” “We’re an incubator for literature,” noted Donadio to Jaschik, author of “On the Chopping Block” (, which brought my attention to the impending financial dilemma of NER. A thinking individual, however, ought to wonder what kind of “literature” that implied. Literature apt to promote vigorous debate or literature apt to close the door upon it? Literature open to the questioning and challenging of established-order literature and icons or literature that would never permit such a thing? Did the student interns, offering free labor to NER, learn to question and challenge or were they simply taught (indoctrinated) to acquire and “appreciate” the same bourgeois taste and aesthetics harbored by college professors like Donadio? So, NER had about 2000 subscribers. But that translated into about 25 to $35,000 per year! How, therefore, could Donadio complain that amount didn’t lend itself to a “self-sustaining business model”? What kind of paper was the journal printed on? Gold leaf? The American Dissident had about 40 subscribers and was perfectly “sustaining” (since 1998). It published twice yearly for under $1,000 and was professionally printed, flat-bound, with a beautiful color cover, but without gold leaf paper or silver-threaded binding. It was published not because it looked good on my resume (in fact, it likely looked pretty damn bad) and not because I was making money off it (I was making nothing at all), but rather because it was a bona-fide passion. Did not the editors of journals like The New England Review have sufficient passion to run them on extremely restricted budgets like mine? Had they not the passion to run them without filling their own pocketbooks? If not, perhaps they ought to go bust. Would the country really miss NER? Could anyone actually tell the difference between NER, Agni, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, The Antioch Review, and any number of other unoriginal university-based literary journals? To get a good idea how much some of those journals actually rakee in, consider Virginia Quarterly Review with its 4500 subscribers, 1500 copies distributed at newsstands, and 2000 copies for individual sales. Its subscription rate was $32 per year and single copies cost $14. According to Ted Genoways, editor of VQR, that made for about $200,000 per year! How much did VQR also rake in from taxpayers via the NEA et al? It certainly did give a good idea how the established-order swamped the market with its literature. Again, regarding NER, Jaschik noted that it was “considered to be among the best of its kind.” Yet a hundred other academic literary journals made the same claim. Why wasn’t he taught in college to question and challenge that which was served upon a platter? Contrary to popular educated belief, “best” when concerning literature was not a static, objective term, but rather one that needed always to be questioned and challenged. Today, few literati seemed capable of doing that. To further build his case, Jaschik blindly cited Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses: “They [NER] have achieved grand dame status. They have published so many people who have gone on to have household status. This would be a terrible shame.” Why didn’t Jaschik press Lependorf for precision regarding “household status”? Did it mean popularity? If so, since when did popularity necessarily mean quality? Who would consider NER the “best” and of “grand-dame status,” if not tenured bourgeois college professors? Were the nation’s supposed “best” writers tenured bourgeois college professors? Question and challenge, Herr Jaschik, and you shall find yourself in literary trouble! Or simply open wide and say ah like most did and find yourself with a literary job and literary money in your pocketbook. The choice was yours: integrity vs. the ole Faustian deal. Regarding NER, Jaschik cited the Boston Globe: “this is one of the journals most often mentioned by writers and readers—including editors of other journals, as among the nation’s best.” Was there poll data to support that statement? If so, why wasn’t it mentioned? Indeed, without such data, the statement was vacuous. Evidently, Jaschik and the Globe did not agree with Henrik Ibsen: “The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against which an independent, intelligent man must wage war.” Nor did they likely agree with Bertrand Russell: “There is no nonsense so errant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action.” In this case, let’s replace “governmental” with “academic.” Jaschik also quoted a rather imbecilic statement made by Elizabeth Searle, again regarding NER: “it’s a ‘high-class lit magazine that also happens to be secretly sexy.’ What’s not to love about that?” “High class,” of course, meant bourgeois and absence of truth telling, as in “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson). “Sexy” was a hackneyed business term used to label anything from a screwdriver to a new checking account. Finally, Jaschik cited a handful of NER-published writers, “who are not household names but are well respected in literary circles.” But again what did all that mean? They were certainly not names in my household. And what “literary circles” were we talking about? Did members of those circles dare rock the boat—that machine Thoreau wisely advised us to “let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine”? Of course not! Likely, they were the boat! They were the machine. Find me a job as a creative-writing instructor and maybe I’ll be able to help a few writing students think, instead of merely opening wide and just saying ahh. It was sad that a magazine supported by a college or university was likely a magazine that would never publish any critical writing about the college or university in question. In fact, it would likely discourage students to even think that such criticism could even constitute a viable subject for an essay or poem. In any case, as tenured academics weep crocodile tears over the faltering economy, their designer literature fluorishes and monopolizes.
Luke Sampson's picture
Luke Sampson · 14 years ago
Xavier McDaniel's Conscience's picture
Xavier McDaniel... · 14 years ago
Wow, G. Tod, man, where to begin? First: kudos on your website, my friend. Second, I have to admit that I’m baffled by the opening question of your comment: Is that a dare? What? (Ah, okay, I see: I’ve peaked at your website and noticed that it features prominently a list of organizations and websites that have snubbed or offended you. Hm.) Third, I can see that you are the kind of dude who loves to get in there and just…”have at it”…you know, tit-for-tat. Okay. Cool. I can get behind that. That said, can I just make a few observations? I’m just thinking off the cuff here, but perhaps your arguments will gain some strength if you 1) get a firmer grip on the facts, 2) dispense with tired stereotypes, 3) find a more nuanced way to make your case rather than the apples-to-oranges comparison of your website with a thirty-plus-year-old literary journal. Really and truly: That is not meant to be the least bit elitest. I’m only trying to help. I know that you are angry and frustrated, G. Tod. I hear you, man. But NER did not do to you whatever it is you think the literary establishment has done to you. Here…just…okay…I’ll pick a sentence from your comment: “Did the student interns, offering free labor to NER, learn to question and challenge or were they simply taught (indoctrinated) to acquire and “appreciate” the same bourgeois taste and aesthetics harbored by college professors like Donadio?” See…I just…well…listen to yourself, friend. Know what I mean? Let’s all slow down and see if we can get in a few more deep breaths and perhaps institute a policy of second-drafting our comments. Dissidently yours, Xavier McDaniel’s Conscience

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