George Core (Editor of the Sewanee Review) Talks With George Garrett About the Quarterlies

Shortly following his appearance on a panel about book reviewing at the annual Miami Book Fair, this interview with George Core took place in a 15th-story hotel room high above downtown Miami, its boarded-up storefronts and decay, its winos and druggies mercifully out of sight. A quiet, light-filled room with a view of Biscayne Bay and Miami Beach beyond that. An occasional jet gliding toward Miami International Airport. Oddest and seemingly most incongruous of all, flocks of buzzards soaring on the air high above downtown Miami. What brings them here? Neither of us, George Gore or myself, has ever seen buzzards in an urban setting, though we have both read about them as a fact of life in the cities of Third World nations.

It’s all of it, high and low, a far cry from Sewanee, Tennessee, the lightly populated, 10,000-acre domain of the University of the South, isolated and beautiful atop a mountain, where in a gray gothic-style building the Sewanee Review has its offices.

We are still talking about the themes of the panel on book reviewing and the news of the day.

“Isn’t that a chilling story about that Bret Easton Ellis?” Gore asks. “Reading between the lines, I found that it sounds absolutely repulsive. Yet what comes across in the press is that the wife of the GEO of the company that owns Simon & Schuster is another Mrs. Doubleday suppressing a work as great as Sister Carrie, which is nonsense, of course.” This latter-day Mrs. Doubleday tried to carry out a public service—at great expense to Simon & Schuster; but her efforts were immediately thwarted by Random House, which to its immense discredit and obvious greed is now publishing this wretched book, which might make the Marquis de Sade blush with shame.

“We are faced with the fact that reading is a dying art. People read this kind of trash, this new novel, American Psycho, that certainly is worthy of being suppressed if anything ever has been. We are going to be in bad shape if Jesse Helms starts deciding the artistic taste of the country. I also think we’re going to be in bad shape if work as bad as this Bret Ellis novel, work that bad, isn’t suppressed occasionally.

“It’s not really being suppressed, of course; it’s being rejected. But what happens is that the word censorship comes up and a great many people get exercised. You shouldn’t censor art once it is in the public domain. But if you couldn’t censor books in some form and at some stage before they are available to the public, then everything would see print in one form or another. The book reviewer ought to be prepared to say that something is rubbish. George Woodcock once said about some very bad book he reviewed for me that it was a waste of good trees.”

Speaking of the earlier panel discussion. Gore says: “The operative word in all that conversation was ‘entertainment.’ I would have been happier if they talked about being lively and entertaining, but not about simply providing entertainment for their readers. What a lot of these people don’t understand is that book reviewing ought to be a department of criticism. It shouldn’t be entertainment or news or something else that is ephemeral by definition.

“I think a lot of people start reading quarterlies by reading the book reviews; then they go on and read the fiction and the essays and the poetry. Some of the quarterly editors haven’t figured out how important the book review is in the economy of the magazine—if for no other reason than that they have to get ads. And they have to keep getting review copies.”

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, George Gore was educated at Transylvania College, Vanderbilt, and Chapel Hill. He served as an officer for four years (1960-1964) in the U.S. Marine Gorps. He is editor or coeditor of some five scholarly and critical books dealing largely with American literature. Forthcoming are The Literalists of the Imagination: Southern Letters and the New Criticism (L.S.U.), a study of the criticism of Ransom, Tate, Brooks, Warren and other New Critics. Some years ago, together with the novelist and critic Walter Sullivan, he wrote Writing From the Inside (Norton), a textbook on composition. Gore has reviewed for numerous publications and was senior editor of the University of Georgia Press from 1968 to 1973, when he began editing the Sewanee Review.

“The experience I had at the University of Georgia Press was enormously helpful in terms of editing the magazine. I picked up a fair amount of information about design and production on the one hand and, on the other, promotion. But it seems to me that these are matters that everybody has to be constantly learning about. I don’t pretend to be an expert. For instance, when the copyright law changed in 1978, we went to the Library of Congress, and I talked to a lawyer there who actually called me up. I found out what was going on, how to make up the copyright forms, and how to protect our authors and protect the magazine. Other magazines, like the Yale Review and the New Yorker, kept doing what they had always done as if the copyright law had never changed.

“My greatest frustration since I have been editor of the Sewanee Review is that we can’t seem to get more subscribers. We are between three and four thousand; and the only comparable quarterlies that do better are the Virginia Quarterly Review and the Hudson Review. The Hudson has done well in the recent past. They were at twenty-five hundred at one point and now have about four thousand subscribers. The Morgans have been very resourceful at pushing up their subscriptions. On the other hand, there’s the Partisan Review, which doesn’t do much better through the mail, but has a very good sale on the newsstands.

“The fact is,” Core continues, “we are now living in an age of the specialized magazine. I talked to one guy who has done all this body work—not on me, but on my automobile and my children’s automobiles. He does antique cars on the side. I talked about doing a piece about him, and he told me there are three antique automobile magazines. And there are all these other magazines about gourmet cooking and everything else. The literary quarterly is taking it on the chin. The heyday of the quarterlies was probably the late 50’s. And there’s really nothing anybody can do culturally to create issues and make them important for the informed general reader. The thing that keeps staring me in the face is that the informed general reader is going to be as dead as the dodo in the near future.”

We are soon talking about the individual quarterlies, those he admires and those he does not and, as well, features of this quarterly or another that he can praise or criticize. For example, he singles out the “Bookmarks” section of the Georgia Review as “a good idea,” adding that “the problem is they are not reviewing enough books.” He argues that the Georgia Review has done well in recent years, in part “because they have held down the subscription rate. It’s a big fat magazine selling for a modest amount of money.”

He adds: “The Southern Review is comparable, but the Southern, it seems to me, is becoming more and more academic. Unless Dave Smith turns it around, it may not be a literary quarterly anymore.

“The ones who do what, say, Peter Stitt is doing at the Gettysburg Review, running only essay-reviews, are making another kind of mistake. I think you need as much review coverage as you can possibly get.”

About the others—to use Mailer’s phrase, the other talent in the room:

“My judgment is that the American Scholar is a wonderfully edited quarterly and that Joseph Epstein—who is a very good short-story writer and one of our best essayists, not only a personal but a critical essayist as well—does a first-rate job. Everybody in the country who edits a quarterly is envious of his situation. He has forty or fifty thousand people, the membership of Phi Beta Kappa, taking the American Scholar. I doubt, frankly, that he has many more careful readers than the rest of the quarterlies; but he’s got an ideal situation and he’s done a superb job.

“I think we might devote a little consideration to the demise of the Yale Review. The Yale Review proved that it was not essential to literary life in this country under the editorship of Kai Erikson, who could not bear to bring it out on time. As a result it was six to nine months late, and he finally had to give up altogether putting the season on the cover of the magazine. So you had to look inside and in tiny type it would say something like ‘Vol. 79, No. 2, for Spring 1989, published January 1990.’ I’m afraid that Professor Erikson is largely responsible for the fact that the magazine has been threatened with closure, not because he didn’t do a fairly decent job of editing it, but because it was not out on time. People just forgot about it.

“That’s one side of it. And on the other hand you have got a president at Yale who is an attorney who has decided that instead of putting up the necessary money for the Yale Review—which is not much money for an institution that has a $3.5 billion endowment—he will, instead, fund a lecture series or bring in a visiting writer or something of that kind. He and his advisors simply didn’t know what a quarterly does for a university.

“It’s astonishing, really, that a little school like Sewanee has supported a magazine for almost one hundred years. Except for the very first few years when the magazine was funded privately (although by people who were with the university after all), the college has always supported it and put a lot of money into it.”

The problems of the Yale Review lead, by a simple and direct segue, to what Core calls “a very complicated matter,” the recent history of the Kenyon Review.

“T.R. Hummer edited the Kenyon for about a year after having been managing editor of the New England Review-Bread Loaf Quarterly. Then he decided he could go back to the NER and left them, at the Kenyon, high and dry.”

Following the departure of Hummer, David Lynn was a kind of temporary editor.

“He was never given a chance to grow into the job,” Core adds. “Just to hold it together until they could find somebody. Then—believe it or not—I was told that the three final candidates were all from Manhattan. I don’t know who the committee members voted for, whether it was Koch or Dinkins, but the fact is that there were plenty of people elsewhere in the country who would have been at least as good and maybe better.

“So now the editor they chose, Marilyn Hacker, says that she cannot bear to leave Manhattan until her child finishes school in the Bronx. Which to me is comparable to saying that you are enjoying having your house napalmed and so you will stay in it until it burns to the ground. The problem is, I don’t think she can edit a magazine long distance from Manhattan. And her first issue certainly indicates that. In her initial editorial she is talking mainly about censorship and the NEA and about the fact that the Kenyan cannot possibly take a six- or seven-thousand dollar NEA grant if it means she will have to censor her authors. It seems to me that censorship is not the real issue and that it’s simply a matter of terminology. It will be interesting to see what happens, but I don’t think anybody can edit a magazine long distance for a considerable period of time.”

Core immediately thinks of an exception to his rule, however: Joseph Epstein of the American Scholar, who has a very good staff working in Washington. He also notes that the American Scholar has always been edited in this way, that Hiram Hayden edited the magazine from New York. “But this is the only exception I can think of Every other editor is going to have to be on the ground most of the time in order to get his quarterly out.”

I ask Core about some of the other directions taken by quarterlies, for instance the special issues, entirely built around a subject, published by the Michigan Quarterly Review.

“In theory the Michigan Quarterly idea might work, but in practice, when you see those special issues on the airplane and the automobile and things of that kind, although they could be good, they just don’t work out. The issue on the automobile had one very brilliant little piece in it that was about two pages long, but the rest of it was almost a dead loss.

“One thing that goes on at a lot of quarterlies is that people think you can hoke up these ideas and bring in great editors who will be interested in following up on a subject. But the truth is every quarterly has to have an editor, a benevolent dictator—he may even have to be a savage dictator—and he can’t just farm things out. He can’t just pass his magazine around to everyone in the country and have him do a special issue.

“If you look at the history of literary quarterlies, beginning with Ford Madox Ford, you will see that the editor is the essential ingredient in these magazines and is in general a person who has been a benevolent tyrant.”

Any exceptions to that observation?

“The only exception I can think of is the case of Brooks and Warren. Brooks and Warren working together were such an extraordinary team that they made up a third person. You can read their textbooks and you can’t tell which one is writing. And yet, if you read the criticism of either man, there is a distinct difference in style in many respects.”

Since Brooks and Warren are associated with the inception and the heyday of the Southern Review, this leads to some consideration of that venerable and once-influential quarterly.

“In general the way that the Southern Review has been edited since then bears out what I am talking about. I had Malcolm Cowley say to me one time in conversation, and not with any malice whatsoever, that the Southern Review was two different magazines. He was speaking, of course, of the two different editors—Lewis P. Simpson and Donald Stanford. I think the same thing is likely to be true now with Dave Smith and James Olney editing the magazine.”

What about the regional situation, the place of the quarterlies, then and now, in Southern letters?

“Well, for a long time there were two Southern university presses and a few quarterlies that carried the whole Southern literary establishment. There was the Sewanee Review and the Virginia Quarterly; there was the Southern Review; there was that magazine that came out of New Orleans—The Double Dealer. The whole literary scene in the South used to depend on the quarterlies and two university presses—L.S.U. and North Carolina. Now we have got a much better situation. We have got at least a half a dozen good university presses. And the South is probably characteristic of the rest of the country in that there are too damn many publications. I would hate to see any of the good ones go. But, on the other hand, if somebody came to you or me and said what do you think about starting another quarterly, I hope we would say it is the most dismal idea we have ever heard of.”

What about the future? What do the 1990’s look like to this editor?

“Well, I would like to find some way of recharging our batteries, so to speak. I don’t really know how to do this. I think that a magazine, when it tries to be different, is usually on the way out.”

He cites the example of Grand Street, which he sees as “now finished.”

“It’s got a new format; it’s got a new editor; it’s bloomed with illustrations. The writing looks much worse. It’s got the first interview or two in the magazine’s history. I think that it’s very important for a quarterly to stick to what it has always done well. And I think literary quarterlies essentially ought to stick to literature. One of the biggest problems all of us have is that nobody reads with much intelligence. I don’t know what to do about that. One of the essential aspects of the good quarterly is that your readers have got to know what you are going to do. You can have a lively magazine, but you also need to have a discernible program, one that your readers recognize and understand.”