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.
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!