TRAPDOORS

Jim Clark used to describe a good story as one with a “trapdoor, that once discovered, leads the reader below the surface to a big room filled with a richness of stuff.” Since taking the helm of The Greensboro Review from Jim, I have been struggling—with little success—to arrive at my own description for those deceptively simple words: “a good story.” Though I know I shouldn’t admit to this (especially in print), I’m a poet and poets tend to play loose and fast with definitions—at least when it comes to things like character, plot, and setting—so it makes me more than a little nervous not to have some sort of formalized idea (or at least a checklist) in hand for our editorial deliberations. Wouldn’t life be easier if I could say, “Well, yes, the narrator does make me laugh out loud, but where are we? There’s no setting. We don’t have the vaguest sense of place; we don’t know if we’re in an apartment or house, the country or a city.”

A checklist for “a good story” might make my editorial deliberations easier, but it wouldn’t be good for my staff or for the magazine. And I’m not so sure readers really want  exact restrictions on a story, not anymore. What if a story has a memorable setting but there’s no plot, nothing happens? À la Seinfeld. Where does that leave us? There are too many intangible aspects with which to blur the lines. And yet, reading a good story for the first time, I feel, is as close as we come to magic—the discovery of Jim’s “trapdoor.”

I guess what I’m working my way around to is this: it’s not that I’m incapable of creating a checklist as that I don’t really believe, in my editorial heart of hearts, that I should. In the end, the best stories might just be the ones that do the things we think a short story writer shouldn’t attempt. But by doing them well, they win our hearts and make us shout, “This one; this is the one!” For each of these stories, at least one of us felt that way when we first read the submission—and by the time it made its way here, we all did. That’s how a good story should work. I think you’ll feel the same way.

EDITOR’S NOTE

As Fred Chappell notes in his poem “Origins,” a tribute to Robert Watson, after the writing faculty in UNC Greensboro’s English Department reluctantly installed a formal MFA writing program in 1965, the program faced neglect and disrespect.

A year later, when its first students wanted a publication in which to publish their work, Watson as the program director begged $500 from the chancellor for the project, and The Greensboro Review was founded. Fred Chappell and Peter Taylor served with Watson as faculty editors, with Lawrence Judson Reynolds and Thomas W. Molyneux serving as the student editors. Watson’s wife, Betty, designed the logo for the cover.

The magazine was to be published only once or twice. Printed in the UNCG campus duplicating shop, the first issue was collated and stapled by hand with students and faculty going around and around a table to pick up the sheets.

“For all we knew,” Watson once recalled, “the first issue might be the last, and we never knew from one issue to the next if we would have money for another.” For that reason, he added, the Review was designed as “a no-frills magazine, plain and dignified.” And the first issue looks very much like this our hundredth issue.

Faculty editor Tom Kirby-Smith put in herculean efforts to keep the journal afloat, but it remained so broke that instead of a Tenth Anniversary issue, the Review could publish only a sixteen-page index to its first decade. It did create the Amon Liner Poetry Award, honoring a poet who died soon after finishing the program. Liner, as the Asheville Poetry Review has proclaimed, is one of “10 Great Neglected Poets of The 20th Century.”  The award is presented annually to one of the best poems written by a current MFA student, and the first award went to Kathryn Stripling Byer, who became a North Carolina poet laureate.

By the time Lee Zacharias assumed the editorship in 1977, the  magazine had increasingly opened itself up to the work of such writers as Joyce Carol Oates and Ezra Pound, and when she became president of AWP in 1981 the Review had become a decidedly national publication, featuring stories by the likes of Madison Smartt Bell, Lewis Nordan, and Julia Alvarez.

Still, the Review prided itself on discovering new voices, often publishing the first work of new writers. The same year I became faculty editor, Robert Watson provided funds to start a Greensboro Review Literary Awards competition, with $500 prizes for both fiction and poetry The first story to win our fiction prize was later selected by Margaret Atwood for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 1989.

When Watson retired, we put together a special issue of the Review dedicated to his work and career. The cover was pumpkin orange in honor of his favorite holiday, Halloween, and it was the fattest issue of the Review ever published.

The winter of 1991 brought our Twenty-Fifth Anniversary issue, and in the summer of 1992 we published a special “Peter Taylor Homecoming Issue,” featuring tributes to Taylor’s work and the publication of one of his shortest stories, “At the Art Theater.”  Because of a stroke that severely affected his speech, I copyedited the story by sending him letters with suggested editing and yes and no boxes he could check off, accepting or rejecting the changes.

To work so closely with one of the greatest short story writers ever was a highlight of my career as an editor. Another happened in the fall of 2006, when we published our Fortieth Anniversary issue. In my introductory essay, I got to celebrate the great success of one of our former poetry editors, Claudia Emerson ’91, who had just won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her collection Late Wife.

The joy of discovering new literary voices has been one of the best parts of my thirty-year editorship of the Review. Yet in some ways even more pleasing has been working with fledgling editors, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers as writers, editors, and teachers.

The Greensboro Review office is actually an editing laboratory, where the editors and editing interns at both the graduate and undergraduate levels learn the finer points of copyediting, proofreading, style, and usage. Our Bible is The Chicago Manual of Style. In conversations with one of our former editors, George Singleton, he never fails to mention how I made him and others of my publishing students memorize the Chicago Manual by chapter and verse.

If I stacked all the books published by Review editors in the last half century, the pile would reach almost two stories high. In addition to tomes of mainstream poetry and fiction, they have produced award-winning children’s literature, a new Little House on the Prairie series, dystopian looks at the future of America, and nonfiction books on everything from candy to the oysters of America and the history of apples.

Even more remarkable than the prolific and diverse nature of their writing is the widespread success of their careers. Our editors have gone on to start dozens of literary journals, and still others have started such celebrated publishing houses as Small Beer Press or become editorial assistants to folks like the president of Harvard University and novelist John Irving. They teach in or direct writing programs at institutions like Florida State University, University of Missouri, Goucher College, and Clemson University. One of our fiction editors now holds the William H.P. Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross.

In the last few years alone, Review editors have won, among others, the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, a Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, the Brittingham Prize in Poetry, the Agnes Lynch Starret Prize, the Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel, the George Garrett Fiction Prize, and the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Earlier this year, former editor Kelly Link ’97 was one of the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

In the ranking of MFA programs based on alumni publications  in the prize anthologies, we are consistently in the top ten, with our editors making the pages of such publications as New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, and The O. Henry Prize Stories.

Perhaps most fittingly, in this our 50th anniversary year, UNC Greensboro has awarded two of its highest honors to Greensboro Review alumni. Kelly Link has received the Distinguished Alumni Award, and Kelly Cherry ’67, a member of the first MFA class whose poetry appeared in the first issue of the Review, has received the Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award. Link told The Millions in a recent interview, “My favorite thing [at UNCG] was working on The Greensboro Review. I loved reading the slush, and I loved proofing the stories that we published.”

Not bad for a stepchild program that was once taunted on campus with such sarcastic questions as, “How many Pulitzers have your little crew picked up so far?”

The answer, fifty years later—only one, but we’re just getting started . . .

THIS IS IT

In the spring of 1983, I was given the chance of a lifetime: to be guest editor of The Greensboro Review while the editor, Lee Zacharias, was on leave. I was nervous because while I had edited an alternative newspaper, The Greensboro Sun, for a number of years, I had never done much in the way of literary editing.

When my first issue arrived, I quickly tore into the printer’s shipping boxes and, to my dismay, found the blue cover stock way too dark to clearly see the names of the writers on the cover. But my “Damn!” was mild compared to reader response.

Disgusting!

How could you?

That story has no fitting place in a literary magazine.

The story in question, “Morrison’s Reaction” by Stephen Kirk, was about a dentist named Dr. Morrison, contemplating his approaching retirement after thirty years of dealing with rotten molars. In walks Vincent, the patient from hell, who represents three decades of odiferous decay by negligent patients who refused to practice simple hygiene. Vincent requests a marathon session of dental work but refuses all painkillers and becomes increasingly abusive to the dentist. The story concludes with Dr. Morrison’s violent revenge.

Perhaps because I grew up in South Florida with a family of fishermen and barroom comics for whom exaggeration was the norm, or perhaps because every dentist I had ever known was an extreme risk-taker prone to wild swings of mood, I found nothing out of the ordinary about the story. However, many disagreed and I was asked by the Chancellor’s office to forward a dozen copies of the new issue for the Board of Trustees.

My saving grace was John Updike, whose early stories I’d always greatly admired. He selected the story for inclusion in the 1984 edition of The Best American Short Stories, alongside such writers as Joyce Carol Oates, Madison Smartt Bell, and Andre Dubus.

In a way, this polarizing story was a precursor of my long thirty-year-plus tenure as editor of The Greensboro Review.

The tumult subsided and my stint as guest editor came to an end. Lee Zacharias returned and made me her editorial apprentice. Over the next four years, I learned her award-winning techniques of literary editing. When she officially handed the reins to me, I was bombarded with comments: “Up to your old tricks again?” “That lead story didn’t make one lick of sense.” “You gave your first Literary Prize to that story? I just don’t get it.”

This time it was “Kubuku Rides (This Is It)” by Larry Brown from Oxford, Mississippi, who admitted to me nobody got the story. After criticism from readers, the story was selected by Margaret Atwood for The Best American Short Stories 1989, where it appeared alongside work by Charles Baxter, Bharati Mukherjee, and Alice Munro.

With two Best Americans under my belt, I had a mandate to seek the most “out there,” exaggerated, risk-taking stories I could find and subject them to the highest standards of literary editing.

One example that comes to mind is Lou Gallo’s “Bodies Set in Motion,” which won the 1993 Literary Prize and which, as I let my editorial staff know in no uncertain terms, I detested, at first. The protagonist, Pepe, does absolutely nothing except think interesting thoughts about the universe and his place in it:

Give me an anarchic jokester, not a mere stand-up (or in Pepe’s case, a sit-down) comic . . . Aren’t entropy stories as common as all those other stale tales of kids trying to figure out their lives via algebra homework.
. . . How do these overdone topics catch on?

My rant—and my eventual change of heart—became  an essay about the Review’s editorial process in Warren Slesinger’s The Whole Story: Editors on Fiction. We require our student editors to read this piece so they can continue our tradition of selecting stories that are both unconventional and, as I describe, “bolted to a narrative drive that makes me reach for my seatbelt.”

This essay also explains my insistence on editorial deliberation—even for those stories we loved from the beginning. If I believe our team has engaged in intense editorial debate, I don’t mind admitting that a story won me over on the first read.

These are the editorial standards we’ve refined during my tenure, the methods I’ve attempted to instill in my editors.

So it is with great pleasure that I hand off the editorship to Terry Kennedy. Terry was my teaching assistant here in the MFA Creative Writing Program nearly twenty years ago. I liked his teaching style, which involved his climbing up and sitting on the desk to lecture. It reminded me of the Review’s founder, Robert Watson, who also used to climb up on the classroom table to lecture—and supposedly sometimes while standing on his head!

Now I have never seen Terry stand on his head inside or outside the classroom, but I have watched him work many other wonders, including his editorship of the online journal storySouth. Under his direction, the journal has garnered many awards, including Best American Poetry 2008, Best of the Web 2008, and e2ink-1: The Best of the Online Journals.

If Lee Zacharias took the Review from a local journal to a national one, Terry is sure to develop a global following in the digital age. By upholding the storySouth mission of finding and promoting the works of promising new writers, Terry shares the goal The Greensboro Review has held from its beginning: to showcase the best writing possible.

When I first published “Kubuku Rides (This Is It),” Larry Brown was a relative unknown serving as a fireman and working in a Mississippi general store. As I talked via telephone with him on story edits, I could hear the store’s screen door creak open and shut as he waited on customers. He said he’d had a difficult time placing the story, and went on to write in his “Contributors’ Notes” for Best American:

I kept it around the house for nearly a year after I’d finished it, scared to send it out because I thought nobody would like it, or understand it. When I finally did send it out, to a major magazine, I believe the phrase that accompanied the rejection slip was “boringly monotonous.” But fortunately, Jim Clark at The Greensboro Review didn’t see it that way. He did call me up and ask me what the title meant. Jim, this is what it means: a bolt of lightning through the head.

After his publication in the Review, Brown went on to publish several novels and short story collections, and he won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award for Literature, as well as the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award.

In the decades since we published “Kubuku Rides,” the pages of the Review have been filled with some of the most outrageous barnstormers, chicken killers, schoolyard psychics, and circus performers. We publish stories about finding Eden and the fabled fruit of knowledge, about men transporting truckloads of penguins, about evil spirits entering living people and causing mental illness. More than thirty years after I first assumed editorship of The Greensboro Review, I believe stories like these exemplify both the kinds of writing we look for and the editorial eye that can spot the talent others might miss.

Terry, I am sure, will preserve the Review’s legacy of publishing the work of newcomers, the next Larry Browns of the world. He will find the unconventional, the “out there,” the bolts of lightning, the kinds of stories that make us shout, This is it!

BEST,

First off, I have to say, Jim Clark would hate every last thing about this. He would hate the picture, he would hate the essay, he would hate that we “wasted” two good pages that could have been used to flesh out a story or give voice to another poet. And it was precisely this position that made Jim so well-suited to serve as Editor of The Greensboro Review for over thirty years. First and foremost, the magazine was always about the stories and poems it contained. Not the outside cover, not the authors, and certainly not the editor.

The other large part of Jim Clark’s greatness as an editor came from the way he observed, the way he paid attention. Jim was never one to flinch from the hard realities of life, and he showed this in both his own prose and his editing over the decades. As long as I knew him, Jim read deeply and widely, yet conversations with him were always accommodating and generous and honest, ranging in topics from historic chess matches to Fleer bubblegum comics, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to George W. Bush.

Jim once said that the best fiction works like this: there’s a story, and somewhere in its narrative floor is a trapdoor that, once discovered, leads the reader below the surface to a big room filled with a richness of stuff: allusive artifacts, bits and pieces of our collective history on this planet. And that’s where Jim preferred to stake his ground—below the surface, working like a wizard or mad scientist to pull together the disparate and overlooked and somehow, beyond all reason, mix everything so that the surface elements bloomed effortlessly, brilliantly. When Wordsworth speaks of finding the “greatest things from the least suggestion,” I like to think it has to do with this kind of attentiveness.

A former colleague of Jim’s recently reminded me that Jim always signed off his correspondence with “Best,” and I want to end here with that because, well, that is what Jim Clark was: the best. The best of bosses, the best of editors, the best of people.