Tuesday, May 29, 2012

TCR Literary Journal Series: African American Review

The Committee Room continues its Literary Journal Series with a look at the African American Review.

For nearly fifty years, the African American Review and its predecessors have published groundbreaking articles on the African American contribution to a variety of literary fields including science fiction, theater, children's literature, and literary theory in addition to offering contemporary fiction and poetry.

Houston A. Baker, writer, critic, and former president of the Modern Language Association, has called the African American Review "vibrant and invaluable" and a "foremost influence" within African American scholarship.

African American Review traces its roots to the Negro American Literature Forum, a newsletter-like publication founded in 1967 at Indiana State University and aimed at school teachers and college professors eager to introduce students to African American texts. Despite its modest format, Negro American Literature Forum quickly began attracting contributions from leading figures on the African American cultural scene including poet/novelist/librarian Arna Bontemps, scholar/educator Richard Barksdale, and film historian Thomas Cripps.  In 1976, Negro American Literature Forum updated its name to Black American Literature Forum and strengthened its commitment to presenting scholarly, theory-based material.  In 1983, the Modern Language Association's Division on Black American Literature and Culture named Black American Literature Forum the division's official publication.  In 1992, Black American Literature Forum changed its name to African American Review, a more encompassing title that reflects its goals of reaching a wider audience and making a broader cultural impact.

Since 2001, African American Review has been based at Saint Louis University. Its current editor is Nathan Grant, a scholar who has written extensively on intellectual history, film, theater, television, and literature, particularly the Harlem Renaissance.

Nathan Grant recently sat down for a talk with The Committee Room.

TCR Talks with African American Review Editor Nathan Grant

Nathan Grant
Q: What vision did you have when you took the position as AAR's editor in 2008?
A:  I began with the idea that the journal could be a truly international one—in other words, that African American Review could serve the interests not only of African Americans, but those also of Africans in the Americas, and Africans elsewhere in the diaspora.  I also wanted to expose our readership to more art and art criticism than had been in the journal previously.  The challenges in each case are those partly of heritage and partly of access.  In the first case, AAR, even unto its name, has a history so rich in African American literary and cultural criticism that it can be difficult to get some critics of postcolonial literature and film, say, to publish with us.  The art market, particularly in terms of permissions for images, is indeed a tough terrain to negotiate because these can be very costly.  But none of this means I have to stop trying.

Q: How many submissions (including all genres) does AAR receive in a typical month?
A: We receive about thirty-five submissions a month, of all types excepting book reviews, which we solicit.

Q: What happens when a manuscript is received at AAR?
A:  I read any manuscript that comes through and decide whether it should be sent to peer reviewers.  The soundness of the argument—in short, strong, intelligent, incisive writing, and for creative work, a lyrical intensity, among other things—is generally what is sought.

Q: What percentage is accepted for publication?
A: Our current rate of acceptance is nine percent.  When I see some other editors’ rates, I’m sometimes persuaded to think that nine’s too high, but the consistently high quality of manuscripts we receive makes it acceptable.

Q: What are common reasons why a manuscript is rejected?
A: Sometimes it’s for pretty remarkably simple things, such as prospective authors not following our posted instructions for submission.  This might seem picayune, but good workflow management is important to both editors and authors.  Often a submission is simply cut from a larger piece of writing, such as a dissertation, and not trimmed even to the ordinary specifications of the much shorter journal essay.  The rest include the absence of a clear focus or argument, an inability to conceive an audience—in short, poor execution generally.  Even potentially publishable manuscripts can be rejected because peer reviewers, after having seen a revision, are still not satisfied.  However, scholarly publication is not a minefield—it just demands some of one’s concentrated attention.

Q: What percentage of the submissions received by AAR are fiction and poetry?
A: Roughly fifty percent.  In March we had twenty-nine submissions and fifteen were articles.  This is pretty typical for about any month.

Q: What is AAR's circulation?
A: About 1,200.  Maybe eighty percent of these are institutional subscribers.

Q: Who are AAR's readers?
A: At about the time AAR came to St. Louis University (in 2001), there was a survey that said that approximately sixty-seven percent of readers held one or more graduate degrees.  I think that number likely holds true today, as the journal has had an even more scholarly emphasis over time.

Q: Does AAR seek readers outside the academic community?  If so, how do you reach these readers?
A: We’re first and foremost an academic journal, but we have tried to bridge the gap between the academic community and other reading publics particularly through our poetry and fiction sections—we also hope all our readers enjoy our book reviews!—and also through the interviews we have, usually with poets, fiction writers, and other artists, from time to time.  We’re a fairly hefty quarterly that’s run only by myself and one other person, so as much as we’d like to engage the kinds of news and news analysis that a larger pan-African and progressive public might like to see, we do well just to stay current with trends in scholarship.  Would I like to be David Remnick, who edits the New Yorker, and have people like Hilton Als, Jane Mayer, and Malcolm Gladwell writing for me?  You bet!  But as soon as I feel that recurrent fantasy coming on, I put away the caffeine.

Q: Would you agree that contemporary readers are more interested in non-fiction than in fiction?
A: I do publish nonfiction, and a lot of it, but I still love a good story.  So I probably don’t have a useful answer to this.  But there’s something of fiction, or a kind of suspended certainty, if you will, that’s retained in the reading of much nonfiction that takes the form of give-and-take between reader and author.  In reading nonfiction, for example, what adjustments must a reader make for what a historian admits she may not know?  And the verisimilitude of good fiction continuously captivates us as something that could happen, or could have happened, even if we do the good though unconscious work of suspending belief for much or all of it.

Q: How is AAR responding to changes in technology?
A: We’re responding to technology only slowly because, as we know, the rush to technology (as with almost anything else) isn’t always a good thing.  Academe also moves slowly in situation with technology, even if only, as some critics might say, because of its own inertia. But the entire content of our journal is always available online, critical essays as well as poetry and fiction.  There are of course access barriers, such as required university affiliation for readers of these articles, which are set up by our online vendors, and these represent the last two decades or so of ever-burgeoning technology. In the case of our critical essays, scholars generally dislike having to pay for access to work they ultimately produce.  I sympathize with this, but no workable solution has yet been found. During this same period, there’s been the recurrent discussion about the end of the printed book as the gold standard for tenure and promotion cases, and the installation of the online article, or several of them, as principal arbiters in these cases. Although university presses have been struggling under the weight of the marketplace for a very long time now, people are still being tenured mostly by publishing printed monographs that we as journal editors are still reviewing.  So then, which cog in the system gets to turn first?

Q: Could you talk a bit about the differences between editing for print and editing for an online publication?
A:  I’ve never edited for an online publication, but with some fellow editors who do, stories vary from those of gratification to those of frustration.  It’s wonderful not to have to worry about printer and paper prices, distribution, cost per copy, housing back issues.  But then, online publications are also generally less respected than those that appear in print, or those journals that have a larger life in print but also appear online, and my remarks above about online journals and tenure and promotion cases would tend to reflect this.  There’s also the business of managing the terrains of new software, new technologies, and new forms of expression.  Also, there’s the question of institutional support from one’s university, whether you’re online or print, and online efforts, perhaps smaller because they’re less visible, may be more vulnerable to withdrawal of that support if deans and departments deem this necessary.

Q: The mission statement on AAR's website says that AAR "promotes a lively exchange among writers and scholars in the arts and humanities who hold diverse perspectives on African American literature, art and culture."  Could you tell us something more about this?
A: Well, I think that’s what we continue to do.  For every statement, there’s a counterstatement, and authors, essay by essay, frequently argue on our pages.  Right now, perhaps the most controversial work in recent African American literary criticism is Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature? in which he states that the passage of both slavery and the Jim Crow era mark the end of African American literature as we know it—that is, as literature protesting discrimination.  There was a lively roundtable to this end at the Modern Language Association conference in Seattle earlier this year, and we’re reproducing that roundtable in an upcoming issue, which will doubtless continue that conversation.  We also have upcoming special issues on James Baldwin, African American performance, and Samuel R. Delany and pornography, to name several.   What we generally hear from poets and fiction writers who have published with us is that exposure on our pages is important to them.  They appreciate being given a voice in a publication that is serious without also being unrelievedly tony.  That counts for a lot in making more effective the confluence of both scholarly and creative writing.

Q: Could you tell us something about AAR's efforts to uncover heretofore unknown material by African American writers of the past?
A: We do have a section that appears from time to time called “Forgotten Manuscripts,” and it was developed before I arrived.  I’ve published several such works  (poems, excerpts from stories, novels or plays, musical scores) just since 2008.  In our last issue, for example, we published Bob Cole and Billy Johnson’s 1897 farce A Trip to Coontown, which, despite its title, but also because of it, is a wonderfully humorous send-up on racial stereotypes.   In our next issue, which has now already gone to print, is the novel John Blye by William Steward, about postbellum black uplift and integration written in about 1878.  Just a few issues ago we published a long-lost, never-before-published or collected poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, dated 1894.  I’m really encouraged by these finds, because they demonstrate that African American literature lives so vibrantly beyond the past that we know.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you face as an editor?
A: I think there are several.  We’ve got to continually expand the conversation by admitting new voices, discourses, and media.  We do have an international presence, and that’s good, but there is a lot of necessary advance work in order to keep that up.  I’d say that the biggest challenge, though, is keeping top scholars and talented creative writers in partnership with us.  We have to stay fresh in order to keep everyone engaged, and it’s a big job, but a rewarding one.


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