For Yale Review, 200 years in print — and one new editor
Since becoming editor of The Yale Review in July, Meghan O’Rourke ’97 has been reimagining the quarterly journal of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and criticism for the digital age. A former editor at The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Slate, she is also an award-winning poet and nonfiction writer. O’Rourke recently spoke with YaleNews about her first Yale Review issue — now out — and her plans for the journal, which is celebrating its 200th year. Interview condensed and lightly edited.
Did you imagine yourself in an editorial career when you were a Yale student?
I didn’t know I wanted to be an editor; I knew I wanted to be a writer. I worked on the Yale Literary Magazine and wrote for the Yale Daily News Magazine. I took as many writing courses as were then allowed. There was no writing concentration, and I was one of those students beating down the doors of the English department asking, “Why can’t we take more writing classes?”
After meeting in one of our workshops, a group of us [undergraduates] started our own writing workshop to continue reading each other’s work. Some of those people later worked with me at The New Yorker, and we kept up that practice. At Yale, I found a community of writers who were interested in literary publishing that has sustained me to the present day.
What drew you to The Yale Review?
I felt that there was a huge potential to do something bold and imaginative with the Review, because it hadn’t yet pivoted to digital like the rest of the literary world. There were big decisions ahead, which makes it an exciting project.
And I felt I had the right skill set: I have a lot of experience in digital literary journalism, and have been a poetry and fiction editor. At Slate, I created our culture section at a moment when there was still very little cultural criticism being published online. In 2005, I started a podcast — the Slate Audio Book Club — which was, I believe, the first literary podcast in a major magazine.
I also have some history with The Yale Review. My junior year at Yale, I applied for an internship at The New Yorker and the Review. I was lucky enough to get both. I ended up at The New Yorker, which was a wonderful opportunity, but I was sad about turning down the Yale internship. Later, at [previous Yale Review editor] Sandy McClatchy’s suggestion, I submitted to the Review what became my first published essay, and Sandy later published my poetry. I have a deep affection for the journal; Sandy was a really important model for me in my own career.
Were you apprehensive about filling McClatchy’s shoes, given that he was editor for more than 25 years?
I don’t think of myself as filling anyone’s shoes. That would just make me anxious! But if I did, yes.
Without spoiling any surprises, what’s in your first edited issue?
It’s an exciting issue! It contains powerful essays by writers Sheila Heti and Cathy Park Hong; Yale English professor Langdon Hammer and Yale alumna Emily Bernard; the critics Dan Chiasson and Brian Dillon — and, thrillingly, some really powerful debut writers. I think of it as a celebration of what are, in essence, 200 years of The Yale Review. Like many anniversaries, it’s slightly concocted — The Yale Review hasn’t existed for 200 years under that name, but traces itself back to a precursor that came into existence in 1819.
The journal has been re-designed and to some degree re-imagined. It now contains art and visual elements. We live in a very visual culture, and I wanted to animate the pages.
We also want to use the journal as a space to point out things we are noticing about culture at large. We are introducing a new column called “The Moment,” where writers will talk about something current that’s on their minds. The first issue features a short piece of memoir by poet Cathy Park Hong that is an evocation of the fear and dread many of us feel about climate change and political turmoil.
It’s important for us to publish criticism alongside literature, as the world of ideas stands shoulder to shoulder with imaginative literature. Those things speak so powerfully to each other and support one another.
In the past, the back of the journal featured poetry, film, or fiction reviews. It’s now a little more books-oriented, but reviews of books become occasions for essays, almost in the style of the New York Review of Books or the “Critic at Large” section of The New Yorker. We are continuing to do art, film, and music reviews, but more of that will move online.
Is there anything else you want to reveal about the issue?
There’s a really beautiful piece by the writer Sheila Heti about the death of her father, her grandfather’s failed career as a painter, and the painter Pierre Bonnard. It’s about ambition and mortality. It tries to relocate ambition not in wild novelty but in quiet repetition.
There’s also a fabulous interview with the novelist and poet Ben Lerner by the poet Catherine Barnett, and a beautiful, poignant piece by Langdon Hammer remembering Sandy McClatchy [who died in 2018]. I asked him to write it as way of bridging the past and present — to connect looking forward with looking backward.
Will every issue have a theme?
Not necessarily. But we are thinking about future themes. There will be one with the theme of documentation. It will explore literature as a form of documenting, about the crisis of “undocumented” immigrants, and also the question of what gets documented and what does not. Whose voices have we heard or not heard? Which voices have survived, and where might there be documentation that we don’t know we have?
At the moment, there is a lot of blurring of imaginative literature with documentary-style approaches, from autofiction, which blends memoir and documentation, to the new “docupoetics” movement and more. Why is literature bumping up so hard against fact at the moment? That’s one way of exploring this theme.
What else has changed for The Yale Review?
We are trying to build our digital identity, thinking about what the next decade will look like. There will still be a print issue, but we will now exist primarily in a digital space, with a new website, which just launched, a newsletter, and a podcast. We’ll have a more active online presence, and more engaging social media, including Twitter chats, even as we also work to build out more live events, to bring our readers together.
Students will also have a bigger presence at The Yale Review. What will they be doing?
We’ve really expanded student programs, both for graduate and undergraduate interns. In the past, we’ve used one or two interns. Now, we have eight undergraduate interns who are helping with the planning and organizing of our anniversary celebration. We have also introduced a new professional development fellowship, whereby graduate students in the humanities who are in their third or fourth year of training can work for The Yale Review for a semester or two — in lieu of teaching — for an immersive experience producing a professional literary magazine. They will be editing, fact-checking, thinking about media strategy — doing all the things we do here. They’ll also oversee the undergraduate interns. Three graduate students will begin in the spring.
What will the 200th-anniversary celebration entail?
We will host a festival on campus in February. It will celebrate the new issue and bring the writers we admire most in the world to campus to meet with students and to talk about their own writing in conversations with me or with other faculty members. It’s going to be an amazing opportunity for students to meet some of the best American writers at work.
We hope to more regularly host events for students to listen and talk with writers about the craft. In the fall of 2020, I will also be teaching a course on editing.
What are you the most excited about?
This is an exciting moment for the Review, because it is making this huge pivot. I’m very excited about bringing exceptional literature to a wider world of readers. Digital publishing means the potential to reach more readers than ever before.
I’m excited that we are trying to engage more broadly with ideas: to be not only be a literary magazine but also a site that engages with and inquires about subjects we all care about. We want the website and print journal to be like Yale itself — a place of rigorous and creative discourse, where you can find exciting minds thinking along with you.
Finally, I’m excited to work with writers. I love seeing a piece start with ideas and over time come into sharper focus, until finally you have a glimmering piece of prose. That process of helping writing find its way out into the world is a joy for me.