Monday, December 14, 2015

Interview with John Palattella—July 18, 2015

John Palattella

John Palattella is the literary editor of The Nation. He has worked as an editor at Lingua Franca and the Columbia Journalism Review and was the poetry editor of The Nation. In addition to editing, he has also written on poetry and ideas for a range of publications, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Book Forum, Dissent, Lingua Franca, American Scholar, and the Boston Review. He is co-editor (with Michael Hoyt) of Reporting Iraq: An Oral History of the War by the Journalists who Covered It, published by Melville House in 2007. 

This interview for The Editorial Review was conducted by Palattella's long-time friend, Scott Sherman, author of Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library (Melville House, 2015), and contributing writer at The Nation.

The Interview
SS: Who are the editors you most admire?
JP: That’s a hard question. They are editors who have tried to do something distinctive. They are editors—and I think this applies to book editors as well as magazine editors—who have tried to create a culture for writers. They aren’t just looking for an article about x and a brain attached to a body to write it. They are working with people who are striving to be better writers. They want to work with particular kinds of writers or to find new kinds of writers. These people are Marianne Moore at the Dial, T.S. Eliot at the Criterion, the editors of the Little Review, and Ben Sonnenberg at Grand Street.

So just one editor after 1940?
There are others! Eric Banks when he was editing Bookforum sought the distinctiveness of having good writers, and less so the distinctiveness of having a particular opinion on x, y, and z. He published writers who would have a great view or opinion regardless of what they wrote about. Certainly the same is true of Alex Star when he edited Lingua Franca, a very distinctive publication, and when he was an editor at the Boston Globe and the Times Magazine. My predecessor here at The Nation, Adam Shatz, is in this company too. There’s Leon Wieseltier, the notorious editor of the New Republic’s back of the book, who is no longer there because of the way that magazine has changed over the last year. Leon succeeded in cultivating a section that was often very combative and also a magnet for good writing. Something doesn’t become a magnet for good writing by accident; you have to cultivate an environment where writers feel comfortable doing what they really want to do. As for books, I would add Sara Bershtel at Metropolitan Books, who is outstanding and sui generis.

Are these editors distinctive because they have a house style?
As far as magazine editors go, no. I don’t think they could be said to have had a house style in the way that the New Yorker has a house style. Every magazine has a house style in a banal sense: you have to spell someone’s name this way rather than that way, and that makes sense because there should be conformity of style over the entire magazine. But beyond that, the New Yorker, for instance, has a very strong style that dictates how a piece can work narratively: it always has to be chronological, there always has to be a certain amount of backstory in certain places, every little thing has to be explained. Lately it seems like what’s often necessary is what I call gratuitous lavender. That’s what happens when a writer characterizes a place or a person, and you are told much more than what you need to know. I’m thinking of a reported piece in which the writer was driving through the French countryside with his subject and he described fields of lavender. That was gratuitous. The detail had nothing to do with characterizing the subject or the issue at hand, which was an experimental fusion reactor; it’s just tourism, meant perhaps to hold the attention of a reader who may not be so interested in the subject of the story. For the editors I’ve mentioned, they all have standards, certainly very high standards, but I don’t think that’s part of having a house style. Those standards are expectations about the quality of the writing and the thinking, and I think writers are welcome in those places because they know they can write and think in their own voice.

How, and why, did you become an editor?
It’s not something I set out to do; it’s something I became. I worked at Lingua Franca in the mid-1990s, then worked as a freelance writer, and then started doing freelance editing for the Columbia Journalism Review about a decade ago, and then in 2007, I became the literary editor of The Nation. The previous year I had been its poetry editor. I’ve done a fair amount of writing, mostly on poetry and literature and cultural matters, and The Nation seemed like an interesting chance, a valuable chance to work with language in a different way. Writing and editing are similar to the extent that both involve composing a world. The writer does it for herself alone when she’s working on a piece, and an editor does it on behalf of writers and readers of a magazine, in terms of what’s selected to appear in a magazine, the contents of a section in a particular week or whatever the frequency is. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had a chance to work with—when I was writing—some really good editors, and learned a lot as a writer from the way they edited, and also learned something about editing, which I don’t think you can go to school to learn, I think it’s something you learn how to do just by doing. To edit you have to have written a fair amount and also to have read a lot and to keep reading a lot so you have a sense what other people’s standards are to help you define your own. Furthermore, being an editor requires being a very sharp reader, and you can only do that by reading things besides what you edit. I became an editor because I was interested in working from the other side, so to speak, but I was also interested in the idea of putting something together every week. It’s a little like being a movie director or a producer—every week you have to assemble a section and present it to the world, to edit pieces in such a way that writers convince readers that they should read them. You’re putting something out in the world and I think that’s a fascinating thing to do.

How do you choose the writers whose work appears in your section?
It’s not an exact science. Sometimes you choose writers you really want to work with; you’ve read their pieces elsewhere, you like the way they work, and there’s the challenge as an editor of working with a certain kind of writer that you’ve never worked with or that you’ve worked with infrequently. You want to find out what they can offer the magazine. I like working with writers who will be challenged by an assignment, but will rise to it or accept it, and people who I can also learn from as well. I like working with younger writers a lot, for all kinds of reasons, one being that I’m worried about where the next generation of writers who like to write the pieces that I like to read and edit are going to come from, because even though there are a lot more places to write now, the world is much more diffuse and it’s harder to find younger writers who are interested in writing pieces about ideas or poetry that aren’t just reviews, but essays, that tell a story about the person and the work: Pieces that are works of intellectual portraiture.

When you receive a piece, shall I assume the first thing you do is read it through to see if it’s publishable? Assuming it is, what type of editing follows? Are you editing mostly at the level of the sentence, or are you trying to bring a new architecture and internal coherence to the piece?
It could be everything. It depends on what kind of state the draft is in. When I assign the piece I don’t have a platonic idea of how it should work. I think my job is to match a writer and a subject and a writer and a book. One thing I like about editing is that you never know what you’re going to get when the first draft comes in. When the first draft arrives I read it at all levels: prose style, pace, structure, strength of arguments, rhythm, meaning the pace of the sentences as well as the paragraphs. What is the music of its thought?

Do you ask writers for a second and third draft?
Yes. Almost always there’s a second draft. Even if the first draft is clean and tight, there might be a need for line edits or fine-tuning. With a lot of the pieces I’ve edited at The Nation there have typically been usually at least three drafts, sometimes four, sometimes five. This is especially true for long pieces, by which I mean pieces of more than 3,000 words that have a lot of moving parts. I recently published a piece by Corey Robin about Hannah Arendt that is a unique piece because Corey succeeds in saying something new about Arendt’s ideas about Eichmann and the “banality of evil,” and why people get so upset by her. It’s an 11,000-word piece and it has a lot of moving parts, an intricate piece that was also a joy to edit. And difficult in a good way, because you want to make sure that everything I was talking about before—the music of the thought, the structure—is sound in every section. I think the piece had eight sections, seven sections, and it was as though we were working on four or five essays that had been blended into one. Corey is very good with edits. When I propose an edit it causes him to think new thoughts, and he’ll introduce new material; he’s not unique in this, other writers do that as well.

Do writers take editing well, or do they lament having to do more work on a piece?
Mostly they don’t complain, at least in my experience. I’m interested in working with writers who want to get it right, who want to get an argument right, or the rhythm of a sentence right. They’re fastidious as well as inventive. So in large part, no, people don’t complain, because I want the editorial experience not to be a pedagogical experience in the worst sense of the word, where I’m the schoolmaster and I’m just correcting someone’s work just to see if it’s right or wrong. With serious editing there’s a conversation between the writer and the editor about what may work best in a certain situation. Those conversations can get really interesting because they end up having side ideas that can tail off into ideas for other pieces. Side ideas sometimes grow out of responses that writers send to memos I have written about their drafts. The most important thing for me is for the editorial process to be a conversation and exchange, even at the level of line editing, where writers take edits not as commands, but as prompts to do something better. We may read and think by ourselves, but we do not read or think alone. We can take simple pleasure in these conversations, and we may also find through them access into a richer life than we would otherwise have.

Why do writers approach you? Do they have a special desire to write long pieces? Or do they want rigorous editing? Or are they drawn by The Nation’s political ideals?
I think there are several attractions. One is it’s a place where you can do intellectual portraiture. Also, I like publishing pieces that aren’t only about the book, but that use the book as an occasion to make a bigger argument about the issues that a book is discussing. I think also because there’s not a strict house style, people know that they can write the way they want to sound, and they’ll sound like the way they write—they won’t be forced into a procrustean bed of style. Perhaps another attraction is that I’m more interested in getting people to ask good questions than to offer particular answers. The section isn’t programmatic. We publish long pieces, anything from 900 words to 11,000 words, so it’s a different kind of section every week depending on what’s in it in terms of subject and length and style. There’s a lot of variety, or at least I hope so.

You’ve published many pieces about poetry and art. How do those essays relate to the magazine’s overall mission?
The Nation has always covered books and the arts, so I’m upholding a tradition of the magazine. I also publish a lot of pieces about political ideas, national and foreign affairs, which are just different ways of understanding the world. There’s the literature of fact and there’s the literature of fiction. The literature of fiction is fiction, poetry, art, film: the world in which people persuade you to believe in something you know to be a fiction. Literature of fact isn’t about empirical matters necessarily, but it is non-fiction. In our daily lives, art coexists alongside war and politics and financial crisis. Therefore it makes sense that those two literatures—the literature of fact and the literature of fiction—should coexist, sometimes in conflict with each other, but nonetheless coexist within the framework of the section. It’s a conversation about the very many different ways people try to understand the confusion and chaos of the world.

Are you producing a magazine within a magazine?
Based on the mail we get and the conversations I’ve had with readers, I think they appreciate that there’s not redundancy between the front and the back, that there’s variety in terms of the kinds of subjects that are covered and issues that are discussed. They see it as a virtue.

You pay your writers modestly. Is there an understanding between writer and editor that the bulk of their income has to come from elsewhere? Alas, one can’t earn a living wage writing exclusively for your section.
No, everyone knows that. It’s no secret. A fair number of people who contribute to the section are academics; they have very good jobs, they’re also very well paid. We pay them what we think is fair given the work they’ve done on the piece and all the other work they do in their life. And then there are people who aren’t in that position—they’re working writers, some of them write for commercial magazines and we treat them a little differently than we treat people with full-time jobs who are pulling down a nice salary elsewhere. People know this when they write for the section. But people are not in it exclusively for the money. There are different kinds of rewards. There’s the check and there’s the opportunity to do something that they think they can’t do elsewhere.

How many review copies do you receive each day?
It varies. We receive anywhere between 100 and 350 advance copies of books a week.

A publisher has to be lucky to get a book reviewed in The Nation. It seems that you ignore most of the books that are sent to you. Are there, say, thirty worthy books that cross your desk a week, and you have to choose, perhaps, three to review?
I don’t think of it that way. In print I’m responsible for publishing 10,000-12,000 words every week. That can be done with two, three, or four pieces, and occasionally just one. Sometimes there’s a columnist. I think of it in terms of what’s possible in terms of the words that I have to get out into the world. And we study the catalogues. You have to search, you can’t count on things just coming your way.

What I am really asking is: how do you choose books to review?
A guiding principle for me is for a piece to tell the reader about something she didn’t know she needed to know. And there are all kinds of ways that can be done. You can choose to commission a piece about James Joyce, a man about whom a lot has been written, but you find a writer who you’re pretty sure will tell a reader that certain something new. On the other hand, you can choose a subject that hasn’t been much discussed in the world, or hasn’t been discussed especially well. Sometimes there are writers or thinkers who I think are important and readers must be made aware of them. They may be obscure poets, but their work deserves more attention, so you shine a light on it.

Do you feel obligated to review the novel of the moment—which is usually a novel from a major publisher—or would you rather use the space to highlight a work by a smaller publisher whose books have a harder time making their way into the world?
We generally don’t cover fiction the way the New York Times Book Review covers fiction. It covers a lot of first and second novels. We only do that if the book is genuinely interesting. I feel no obligation to cover the waterfront—there’s not enough space, so you have to be selective. At the same time, you have to avoid letting clichés guide your choices. Not all small presses are great simply because they are small. Translations aren’t great simply because they are translations. Just because a house is part of a corporate behemoth doesn’t mean that everything it publishes is going to be junk. I don’t think it’s an either/or—you have to look everywhere for what you want. We do cover a lot of books published by university presses. There’s a top tier there, meaning that the general interest section in the catalogue is going to be good. All the books listed there may not be things that I feel compelled to cover, but nevertheless they are good possibilities.

Let me come back to the novel of the moment. Do you feel you can ignore it precisely because it’s getting so much attention elsewhere? Or do you feel the need to deflate it because it may be overhyped? You yourself, after all, wrote a pithy and devastating review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, one of the few critical pieces to appear about that novel.
Sometimes it’s the latter of what you just said, where it seems people are not seeing what’s obvious about something. They’ve been seduced by it for the wrong reasons and you feel it’s necessary to get an alternative viewpoint out there for people to read and to talk about. I’ve done this, as you say, with Jonathan Franzen, with Karl Ove Knausgaard, with Ben Lerner. I’ve just published a review of Franzen’s new novel Purity. I wanted us to be part of that conversation about the novel. But not all the time; it depends on what that conversation is like, if it’s fascinating because of what people are getting wrong, or if it just has the shelf life of a fruit fly.

Let’s talk about critics. In the 1950s, there were probably ten or fifteen literary critics whose work reached a wide audience in the U.S. Now there is one critic whose voice and influence towers over all the others. Do you agree? And what do you think about James Wood’s criticism?
Well, now that he’s at the New Yorker, Wood is a different writer than he was at The New Republic. His pieces are shorter, for one. Also, at The New Republic he was a real reputation breaker. I’m thinking of his essays on David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith. But he was writing to figure things out. He also had very strong tastes and still does, but his role is very different at the New Yorker. He writes a lot about first novels; his pieces are shorter than what he wrote at The New Republic; they’re still very good, but he’s no longer writing with an acidic pen these days.

Do you miss the “old” James Wood?
I don’t think there is a place for the slashing pen in the publication he’s now writing for. If he still has a slashing pen, it has to express itself elsewhere. And a critic’s interests change over time. I think it’s unfair to expect someone to write the same way over the course of a career. People’s tastes change, their approach to writing changes; expectations shouldn’t lead us to mistake good writers for machines.

The strongest voice in your section, on fiction, is William Deresiewicz. Do you like working with Deresiewicz?
It’s enjoyable and challenging, like my experience with most writers. I send him books and he sends back a piece that I work on and then it’s out in the world.

Of the many pieces he’s written for you, which one is your favorite?
It’s a hard question. He wrote a very good piece about higher education about 3 or 4 years ago that I thought was quite good. A piece about Garcia Marquez that was very good, a piece about Saul Bellow that was very good. He gets down to the nitty-gritty of the work. His pieces are rhetorically very dramatic, and they’re works of intellectual portraiture. Fiction is the scrim of a writer’s thought about the world and their art. Bill decoded the scrim; he does it very well with a lot of flare. People who write about poetry for the section do that, as well, they’re just different writers so they sound different. James Longenbach and Ange Mlinko: they’re reading the same kind of scrim, telling a story about the life of a writer’s thought and life in fiction or poetry or music, how someone’s thinking about the world and questions they find important in it have changed over time or not.

You were raised Catholic. How did that shape your career and your sensibility?
That’s a hard question. You know, even if you leave the Church, as I did, it never entirely leaves you. Its impress may be why I think important questions are related to the larger questions of "Why are we here?" and "Where are we going?" I was educated by Jesuits, who have been free thinkers on theological matters, so maybe that’s a source of my abiding interest in questions over answers. Because of the Church’s many episodes of overreach and oppression, I am suspicious of righteous indignation, which is often evangelicalism gone sour, and a sense of certainty that approaches the doctrinal. 

Your first love is poetry. You don’t edit poems, but do poems have a place in the way you edit prose?
I’ve learned from poetry the importance of being attentive to the rhythm or music of thought, in prose or poetry. You want language to somehow embody thinking, sound it out, instead of being a conveyor belt for thoughts. There’s also the importance of precision in language. I’m still a reader of modernist poetry, so I’m comfortable with juxtapositions, parataxis, apparent leaps in logic in any sort of writing.

Is there one writer in your orbit who deserves to be better known than she is/he is?
No, I think many of them deserve to be better known.

How do you feel about literary prizes? Do you wish there were more prizes, or fewer prizes?
I think there are too many, but I don’t think the glut of them is the most important issue in the world. It’s not really something I think about.

Something like three percent of the novels published in the United States are literary works in translation.
Now that’s an area where prizes actually matter. It’s often the case in literature in translation that something will only be translated if it’s won an award in the country where it was first published. Awards are filters in the translation world. Sometimes they’re not, sometimes work is translated that hasn’t won a prize, and it’s only through translation that the work may get greater recognition.

Do you see your job as assisting literature in translation because so little of it makes it through to American readers?
Not necessarily. The rationale for covering work in translation is the same as for other books: telling readers about something they didn’t know they needed to know. There’s now a fetish about work in translation undoubtedly. Just because it’s from elsewhere doesn’t mean it’s worth covering. It has to be interesting and worthwhile. It’s another world to explore.

Are you gloomy about the fate of paper books in the digital age? Do you read books on a device?
I don’t read digital versions of books. I read books in print. When I edit and read magazines it’s different. My editing is done on paper and on a screen, and I read a lot of magazines online. I think the thing to worry about is not the medium, but to what extent there can be genuine variety and vitality in the publishing world within a digital economy. The big houses sometimes publish good books, but they expect certain profit margins, and much of what is published can’t meet those expectations. I’m more concerned about whether the spread of conglomerates and the rise of digital publishing in combination can thin out the quality of what’s available. Does the expectation of big profit margins across the board lead publishers to take fewer risks?

What is the question I should have asked you, but didn’t ask you?
You had asked me before we started talking about what Ved Mehta meant when he referred to the “invisible art of editing.”

Which was the subtitle he gave to a book about his long career at the New Yorker, a book that focused on his friend and mentor, William Shawn.
I don’t recall his exact words, but I think he’s right to think that editing requires a certain degree of invisibility. I certainly believe that. I mean several things. One, that an editor brings writing into the world by editing it with an invisible hand. The editor isn’t seeking recognition through writing. When I edit, it’s not because I’m trying to ventriloquize through what a writer is saying. But being invisible doesn’t mean not having opinions or becoming intellectually withdrawn. It means that you’re trying to put yourself into a state of “negative capability,” in the sense that the poet John Keats meant: a state of being in mysteries and uncertainties without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. For me, in terms of editing, negative capability means becoming preoccupied with the way a piece thinks, the way a writer wants his or her thinking to sound in language. You want its thoughts to become your thoroughfare instead of trying to speak your piece through them, which is what some editors do. The byline is the writer’s, not yours. I think good editors are invisible and present, but their presence is undetectable. How are they present? Through what’s been selected and the way a piece has been shaped through the conversation or the exchange that happens during the editorial process. I don’t do this all the time, because of my editing load, but when I can I read along with a piece, reading a book or at least a fair amount of the book that someone is reviewing. To have a sense of what the book is about so I can better understand what the writer is trying to think and say.

Is there one piece you’ve published that became especially controversial?
Last year, Marshall Sahlins wrote a piece about Confucius Institutes. A Confucius Institute is a place where you learn about a country’s language and its culture. And like the Goethe Institute or the Alliance Française, it is sponsored by a national government. What’s different about Confucius Institutes is that instead of being freestanding institutions like Goethe Institutes, they exist within the department of a university, which means that they are part of the hiring and firing process within a university. At the same time, Confucius Institutes have to abide by the policies of the Communist Party in China, which often run contrary to ideas about free speech and the free exchange of ideas that exist within American universities. Marshall explained these contradictions and conflicts, and how they had led to people being unjustifiably fired by Confucius Institutes because they were teaching about, say, the Falun Gong. Because of Marshall’s exposé, several universities, including the University of Chicago, where Marshall is emeritus professor, cut their affiliations with Confucius Institutes.

Tell me about your reading habits these days.
These days I’m reading more fiction and fewer magazines than I used to. Before I started editing, it used to be the opposite: I read a lot of magazines and very little fiction. I think I’m reading fiction now because I mostly edit non-fiction, so it’s just a different world, and I also read a lot of poetry. I read fiction for pleasure, but also to see how a story gets told, what are the different ways of storytelling, because I think no matter what you edit, fiction or non-fiction, storytelling has to be a constant if a reviewer is doing more than describing a book in 900 words and letting someone know if they should spend $30 on it.

Who are the writers you read and re-read?
Joyce, Yeats, Marilyn Robinson, Thomas Bernhard, James Baldwin, Shakespeare, Sebald, Virginia Woolf, Dickinson, Stevens: these are the people I’ve been reading recently.

I think you meant to say “rereading.”
Yes, rereading. But also Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl, and Kamel Daoud's Mersault, contre-enquête for the first time.

A few of his favorites from among the many pieces Palattella has edited:

Ange Mlinko, "Her Nature Was Future," The Nation, Dec. 8, 2008

Scott Sherman, "In His League," The NationFebruary 2, 2009

Miriam Markowitz, "The Group: On George Price," The Nation, Sept. 22, 2010 

Marilyn Robinson, "Risk the Game: On William James," The Nation, Dec. 13, 2010

William Deresiewicz, "Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education," The Nation, May 23, 2011

James Longenbach, "An Imperfect Life: On George and W.B. Yeats," The Nation, June 6, 2011

Siddhartha Deb, "The Girl From F&B: A Portrait of the New India," The NationAug. 1, 2011

Jana Prikryl, "Erosion: On Errol Morris," The NationDecember 12, 2011 

Joanna Scott, "Self-Portrait in a Sheet Mirror: On Vivian Maier," The NationJune 11, 2012

David Rieff, "A Vast Choir of Voices: On Claude Lanzmann," The Nation, July 2-9, 2012

Alexandra Schwartz, "Adler’s Way," The NationJune 3, 2013

Thomas Meaney, "The Colonist of Good Will: On Albert Camus," The Nation, Sept. 16, 2013

Dimiter Kenarov, "A Captivating Mind," The Nation, Apr. 7, 2014

Timothy Shenk, "Thomas Piketty and the Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality," The NationMay 5, 2014  

Adam Shatz, "Writers or Missionaries?The Nation, Aug. 4-11, 2014

Corey Robin, "The Trials of Hannah Arendt," The Nation, June 1, 2015

Barry Schwabsky, "Acropolis for Sale," The NationAug. 31, 2015

James Longenbach, "How Patti Smith, Punk Chanteuse, Became Irresistible Siren of Middle Age," The Nation, Oct. 26, 2015

Susan Howe, "Vagrancy in the Park," The Nation, Nov. 2, 2015

Samuel Moyn, "The Beauty and the Costs of Extreme Altruism," The Nation, Nov. 23-30, 2015

Jesse McCarthy, "Love's Austere and Lonely Offices," The Nation, Dec. 7, 2015


One of Palattella's Prussian Blues.
Palattella edits with a Faber-Castell Wasserlack Prussian Blue pencil. “The color is bright without being offensive, like red,” he says, and “the leads are durable. They last down to a nub.” How many has he used? “I have no idea. A lot.” Palattella reads every piece multiple times in different ways to get a feel for it: sometimes with a blue pencil, sometimes without, sometimes in the office, sometimes on the subway or in a café to deal with the same distractions as his readers do.