New Literary History
New Literary History - Bruce Holsinger, Editor
Debra Rae Cohen: Let me start by asking you something really general: can you tell us a little bit about the history of the journal before you took it over? And then explain when you took it over how long you've been doing it?
Bruce Holsinger: NLH is now in its 53rd or 54th volume. It was started here at UVA, back in the late 60s, by Ralph Cohen, who was a great scholar of literary genre. And he ran the journal for 40 years; he was one of only three editors that the journal has ever had. Shortly after the 40th anniversary, the editorship went to Rita Felski, my colleague here in English, and then I came on just about four and a half years ago. So the first 40 years of the journal really were guided by one editor's vision. When I came on as editor, I read back through those first 40 years under Cohen's editorship and learned a lot about what the journal was trying to do, what the history of it looked like, and then the kinds of contributors that it had through Rita Felski’s years. And that helped me get my head around what the journal had represented.
DRC: One of the questions I had in mind coming to this interview today, in part because Ralph Cohen had such a definite reputation, is whether you think you see the “new “in New Literary History in a way different from previous editors. What does the “new” in New Literary History mean to you?
BH: It means almost nothing to me. I think of the journal as a place where the literary field in general asks, usually, methodologically inflected questions, whatever the current ones might be. We're reviving some old questions, too: looking back, you can see that we've previously addressed a lot of the questions that we ask in special issues—for example, there was a recent one a few years ago that I co-edited with a colleague on Romanticism, Now & Then. And the question of Romanticism is hardly new. Nor is assessing the field of Romanticism. [CELJ Note: All links in this interview lead to a paywall.]
big question for me, coming in, was thinking about theory and history in
relationship to each other. I wouldn't say that the journal had long
been skewed towards theoretical questions at the expense of historical
questions, but my interests in coming in were as much historical as
theoretical. And I was thinking about the problem of literary history as
a larger kind of shape-shifting enterprise that floats between genre,
theory, form, criticism, critique, all these sorts of buzzwords.
One of the things that really surprised me going back through were the number of different forms that contributions to NLH took. In the early years, we had these amazing pieces by John Cage, the composer John Cage, who was also a philosopher and writer (one of them, “Diary: How to Improve the World,” appeared in two installments in the early 1970s). These were memoiristic theoretical reflections on identity and politics and the meaning of art. There were also pieces that had titles like “Literary History at Indiana,” or “Literary History at Berkeley.” My old colleague, medievalist Paul Strohm, co-wrote the one out of Indiana when he was still there, years and years ago. Ralph had just asked him and a colleague for an assessment of what the history of literary study had looked like in his department and beyond; and those are fascinating little meta pieces. So I've tried to edit in that spirit, and shake up the form and style of the pieces that we have.
Could you give us some examples of the different formats that you're
experimenting with now? Or things that you have planned that haven't yet
BH: There was one issue we did recently called “In Brief.” We had nearly 30 contributions, short essays on short forms. I co-edited it with Irena Dumitrescu, who's a medievalist and a very creative public writer as well. Our idea was to exploit short form essays to explore the idiosyncrasies and quirks of various short forms of writing. So there was a piece on the aphorism, for example, by Andrew Hui, which used aphorisms to talk about the nature of the aphorism; another one by Diana Fuss on flash fiction; and my colleague Jim Seitz wrote a syllabus about “syllabus.” We used brevity as a kind of stylistic intervention, to frame the problem of short forms. So that's an example.
It's an inherently “small-c” conservative style, you know, the academic essay. At NLH
the vast majority of what we get, of course, is pretty conventional,
formally. And that's great, that's our bread and butter, but I'm always
interested in pushing those kinds of boundaries.
DRC: Have you done any work to give the journal an online or open access element? I mean, that seems like it would be particularly suited to those short forms.
BH: When I came in, I considered going all in and creating a whole new forum online, something like Critical Inquiry
has done. But I was worried that that would create a whole separate
work stream. And I didn't want to sacrifice the quality and integrity of
what we were doing to have to manage this whole other element.
But what we do do is every issue, we have a free download, and I've played around with that a lot. Sometimes I'll just choose the essay that we're going to have as a free download; often I'll do that for early career scholars, people who could benefit from that. We had a cluster a few years ago called “Medieval Fictionalities,” with two essays on the topic and several responses from people in a lot of different fields. And we put the whole thing together as one PDF and put it on the website as a free download, so people could download the whole cluster. And I've heard from colleagues that it's been taught in a number of courses as a cluster, even though it wasn't one in the journal itself, where only one of those essays appeared with responses. The other had been two issues earlier. So we just collated them and then released it as a PDF. There’s one coming out on literary cybernetics, we're going do the same thing with that. I really like that form.
I'm curious if there are any specific articles or issues in recent
years that you would use, if you were trying to encourage someone who'd
never read NLH
before to check out the journal. Is there one issue or feature or
article that would give that person an idea of what they can find in
BH: It's hard to choose, but maybe I could choose two, and suggest that they put them together. One is called “Race and Periodization,” which was brilliantly co-edited by Urvashi Chakrabarti and Ayanna Thompson. And that is a really wide-ranging special issue from medievalists and early modernists who are thinking together in powerfully critical ways about race and literary periods and historical periodization. It's just a spectacular special issue.
And then another one, I would say, is the special issue called “Writ Large.” In some ways “In Brief” was a response to that, because “Writ Large” is about long forms and big enterprises. That came out in 2017, before I was on board. There's a piece by Martin Jay in there about scale and intellectual history, and one by Aisha Ramachandran on theorizing the world. So again, another special issue where people were thinking about form and scale and genre.
DRC: The last question that we always like to ask is about your hopes for the future of the journal. What haven't you yet explored that you'd like to explore?
BH: Something I'm really interested in since I'm both a novelist and a literary scholar is the relationship between creation and critique. We have a new series that we've just started—we've only published one so far—called “Creative Writing and Critical Thought.” We’re co-sponsoring it with the Center for Fiction in New York. And the first one featured the novelist Garth Greenwell in conversation with Carolyn Dinshaw, a medievalist from my field who also was one of the founding editors of GLQ. The event showed a novelist and a critic grappling with some large questions; they spoke for over an hour and we put the transcript together, I think it's about 10,000 words. We have another one that we're editing right now between the novelist Katie Kitamura and Emily Apter, the theorist of translation. It’s on translators in theory and imagination, so that's also going to be really wonderful.
Those kinds of encounters between novelists and poets, and the critics who study the history of the novel and the history of poetry, those are really interesting to me. And I think we can learn a lot from them. The field of literary history, literary criticism, has suffered from not having the critical perspectives of creative people, people who are actually writing novels and poetry. It often seems like a kind of bizarre absence of those voices from our idiom. So that's something that I hope to foster and support in the future for NLH.
NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW
Debra Rae Cohen: To start, can you tell us about the history of the journal, and how you ended up getting involved with it?
Margaret Bauer: It was created by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association as a companion to the North Carolina Historical Review, which had been around since 1924. As a Literary and Historical Association, it needed a literary review as well, but it didn't come around until 1992. When I interviewed for this job, they were hiring in southern literature, so they just thought [the editorship] was a natural pairing. And I was young and naive. I had no idea what I was getting into. I'm still learning.
NCLR is very hybrid: we have literary scholarship as well as creative writing. Our major mission is promoting North Carolina writers, not only the literary stars, but also new writers and forgotten writers. And so a lot of the scholarship has been to reintroduce writers that I was just finding out about. I also focus on getting new writers really substantive interviews. Our interviews are almost as scholarly as our papers, and our papers are not hardcore theory because our readership is both academic and non-academic. So we want the papers to be accessible to any reader.
Eugenia Zuroski: How long have you been editing the journal now? And how has it changed?
MB: I just finished my 25th year. The first 20 years was one print issue a year, 200 to 250 pages. They were getting huge. So in 2012, we added NCLR Online that comes out in the winter. We moved all the book reviews into that, and we started publishing the finalists of our creative writing contests. Also, if we got a multimedia piece and we wanted to link right to clips from it, that went into the online issue. And now we’ve added a Fall issue (online). So we're up to three per year—one print and two online.
The more substantive interviews and scholarly articles go in the print issue, unless, like I said, if it was multimedia, and we really wanted that convenience of direct access to the links. Every now and then we have a longer interview that we put in the online issue. This year, we have a really interesting essay about some new Lumbee children's book writers. Jane Halladay, who wrote the article, does a project with her class where they go into the school systems to teach Lumbee children's books to Lumbee children. Since we're doing a special feature section on Native American literature, it was for the print issue, but I said, this fits our new pedagogical initiative, too, so we're publishing it in both the print issue and the fall online because we want teachers to have access to it whether they have a subscription or not.
EZ: Can you tell us more about the pedagogical initiative, because that sounds really interesting.
MB: Since our mission is to promote North Carolina writers, one way is to get them into the classroom. North Carolina Humanities gave us a grant to pay teachers to write about how they use North Carolina authors in the classroom. It has been a challenge; I'm getting new voices who aren't used to writing for publication. Our first pieces will come out in the fall, all on African American writing of different kinds. Sometimes I feel like our scholarship is just for us [academics], that we’re the only ones that read it. But we have such great ideas in the classroom, and getting those ideas out so that other teachers can read and use them just seemed useful to me. We’re trying to make a kind of repository for these materials.
DRC: It sounds like you were doing a lot of things in terms of public access and digital materials that a lot of journals are just now catching up to. It's been hard in many cases for scholarly journals to convince their publishers that this is the way to go, or that the journals have a kind of obligation to make their material more widely shareable.
So, in terms of support, do you get any money from the organization to which you're tied?
MB: East Carolina University gives us most of our money, our main operating budget. The “Lit & Hist” Association gives us a budget each year, and I use that largely to pay writers and artists. And then of course, some of that budget goes to pay the press for the members copies. But I've been on a mission to make sure everybody is paid. I mean, not a lot, but something.
DRC: Do you differentiate there between the creative contributors and the scholarly contributors [in terms of payment]?
MB: Well, we were just paying the creative until this year, when I got more successful with grant writing. So I told my guest editors, guess what, I have some money left over here. So now we're paying everybody.
EZ: Are there any particular issues or articles that you've put out that you feel particularly proud of, or that represent what your journal does best?
MB: Well, the highlight of my life might be when I interviewed Charles Frazier [CELJ Note: The links in these two paragraphs lead to a paywall.] several times in 2012. We just hit it off. I ended up with two interviews because there was so much material. I love those kinds of moments where I've had these really fun interviews. Another one that I did was with Kat Meads, who's an eastern North Carolina writer. She wrote a novel called The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan. I love that novel, and it's gone out of print. So being able to get her on the page, and to get people to find out about her, has been great. We've had other people who do the interviews as well. One year, Kathryn Stripling Byer, who was North Carolina's Poet Laureate at the time, interviewed Elaine Neil Orr about her work. That was really great, having these voices come together—they ended up talking about each other's work. And that's typical of North Carolina; one of the things I really like is how the established writers embrace the new writers and want to promote their work.
For the 20th anniversary we did an environmental writing issue that was really interesting; I enjoyed that one very much. One of my graduate students interviewed David Gessner at UNC Wilmington for that one—we open the issue with it. And that's one of the things I love, is working with young people and getting them to write things. One year, Ron Rash and Terry Roberts both published novels about a German internment camp in western North Carolina during World War Two. There was a UNC graduate I knew, he was newly tenure track, or maybe not even tenure track yet, and I said, Zackary, I think you need to go out there and interview both these guys about these novels; let's get this in the issue on war literature (which we did in 2014). I’ve tried to match up subjects with the young people I know to get them involved. One of them is going to take my place one day, please. Eventually, I get to retire.
EZ: Do you have any hopes or visions for the future of the journal?
MB: Well, we've gone from one issue to three, and our website has now expanded. We added an editor's blog and an archive section. So every Friday, we're publishing from the archives; every Saturday, we're publishing a book review. One of the things I really want is for it to become a hub for people checking in weekly. So I did hire a digital editor last year with a grant and I'm hoping to keep her. During COVID, I had some trouble spending out a grant because somebody quit, so I hired a strategic planner, and he and I worked together, and realized I really was doing the job of four people, literally. And that's not counting being Professor Margaret Bauer. That was just as editor. So that’s the vision, to create a staff. The next editor should be able to come in and be an editor. I'm trying to hire a managing editor, this digital editor, and maybe an associate editor.
In the interim, I’ve asked a colleague to serve as guest editor of our Features section, my colleague Kirstin Squint, who's a Native Americanist. It's so important to introduce these Native poets—we have Cherokee, Catawba, and Lumbee represented. So that's exciting, and I would not have been able to do it without her. Coming up, we have guest editors to do features on disability literature, LGBTQ literature, and a veterans issue. And after the special feature, we have a flashback section in each issue. So when somebody says, Oh, I wish I'd known you were doing X, I would love to have interviewed so and so, or I have this article, I say, Never too late! We have the flashback section, send it in.