In June, my story, “The Opal Maker” had the good fortune of being published in the 59th issue of The Collagist, which had come to my attention via Amber Sparks, who writes humorous, magical realist fiction.
I asked editor Gabriel Blackwell for an interview to try to get a sense of whether there was a certain type of story the magazine was trying to promote, something we writers are always trying to figure out when we decide who to send to, and something editors usually ask us to try to do when they say, “Read the magazine before you submit.” I am also interested in questions of genre, as I find I’m devoted to the literary fantastic, though there are many realist stories that I also adore.
As you will see in the following interview, he wonderfully eludes all my attempts to pin him down, and in the process describes the difference between an artist’s approach to art vs. an academic’s or publisher’s approach.
Flannery O’Connor once said, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” which paradoxically suggests that all those literary analyses we read in school and were taught to write are not really an explanation of a story, but rather a completely different message that uses the story as a spring board.
In much the same way, Gabriel Blackwell urges us to experience literature without the confines of preconceptions and genre frameworks, and to write what we want. I, on the other hand, am of two minds. On the one hand, I’m a low-brow academic, meaning I see the usefulness of trying to define things, but understand that no definition is truly adequate. The experience of life can never be be fully quantified. On the other hand, I’m a fiction writer who has never written anything that truly fits in one genre or another. What do you think? Is the concept of genre limiting or helpful as we seek to understand, write and publish literature?
LD: On your “about” page, you say that The Collagist publishes “powerful, progressive literature.” What does that mean to you? Does the magazine have an aesthetic or a pattern that tends to show up either by unconscious or conscious design? Many of the pieces that appear in The Collagist seem to fall under the category of magic realism or fabulism. What can you say about these choices
GB: Our “about” page precedes my time as editor of the magazine, so I can’t take credit for it. I do of course hope others will find the work we publish powerful, and so, without intending to dodge the question, I very much hope readers of the magazine will spend more time reading its contents than its “about” page; those fictions and poems and essays are far more complex and interesting than any description I could possibly give of them. (Or, as the case may be, a predecessor may have given of them.)
As far as genre (and aesthetic, I suppose) goes, I’m interested in reading all kinds of different work and mostly uninterested in categorizing that work. Genres are marketing devices—if you like x, you’ll love y—and they can be very useful in getting things read, but I’ve always been a wretched salesman.
I don’t know; I think you’re probably right to say that many people would categorize much of the fiction we publish as fabulist or magical realist, but the number of stories I read and don’t publish that could be considered fabulist or magical realist dwarfs the number that we do publish, and the same goes for submissions in most other genres I can name.
What I mean to say is: I’m not attracted to whatever defines a piece of writing as fabulist (or K-Mart realist, or experimental, or horror, or Alt-Lit, or etc.), I’m attracted to the experience I have while reading that piece of writing.
LD: Other than a marketing device, can genre identification help us to understand the inner workings of a piece – how it achieves the reading experience it provides, how it can be distinguished from other reading experiences?
GB: That’s a fair question, Lale, but not one for me to answer. The Collagist isn’t a genre magazine. All of our readers are free to bring whatever expectations they like to each piece we publish—we don’t set out to put a frame around them. That’s what genre is: a frame, a set of expectations, a way of thinking about a piece of writing. That we do put a frame around what we publish—the Collagist frame; no grandness implied—is probably inevitable, but the existence of such a genre, such a frame, also presupposes some familiarity with the magazine, which I would never presume.
LD: John Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction was famed for shaping an entire school of science fiction by sounding a call for a particular aesthetic and then selecting those who adhered to his ideas. Other editors try to keep their finger on the pulse of the literary zeitgeist of the times and select works to represent it. Which role more closely describes your approach to editing The Collagist? What role should the editor play in the creation of literary movements?
GB: I have no interest in making the fictions that we publish conform to my own personal aesthetic preferences (except of course that I will have chosen them in the first place based on those preferences; that’s unavoidable, though, and doesn’t make me any different than all of the other literary editors out there). When I want to write something, I write something, you know? I’m not a top-down kind of guy. So I find it difficult to think in terms of literary movements or my particular role in them, especially as an editor.
I do think that there is isn’t enough literature being published that has much of substance to it—I mean beyond or above melodrama or language-play—and I’d like to believe that The Collagist is helping at least some of that literature find readers. I should maybe say that I think that’s always the case—literature with substance is always in short supply—and that there are other excellent magazines also doing the hard work of publishing such fiction. Fortunately.
LD: In your mind, what constitutes literature of substance? Could you articulate patterns you tend to find in those “unavoidable” personal aesthetic preferences?
GB: Yes, sorry—I’ve just substituted one vague and reductive description (literature of substance) for another (powerful, progressive literature). In the end, neither really satisfies me and so my attempts at their elaboration probably won’t satisfy you.
I do think good examples of “literature of substance” (and of my personal aesthetic preferences) would include but not be limited to the forty-four stories I’ve published in my tenure as fiction editor of The Collagist. I really don’t mean to be evasive or vague, but I have misgivings about any attempt to reduce literature to a set of characteristics (genre, aesthetic, etc.), no matter how broad those characteristics may be.
In his introduction to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, William H. Gass writes, “reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes.” I can’t agree more. To say Hamlet is a tragedy is to say something about oneself: “I find Hamlet tragic.” Hamlet exists apart from that feeling and cannot be reduced to that feeling. One may say that Hamlet is a play, sure, but what does that tell you about Hamlet, exactly? That Hamlet is more or less like The Importance of Being Earnest? Is it? If we go down the list of characters in Hamlet, can we be said to have taken in some part of Hamlet? Even if we give those characters some basic characteristics? If someone tells me the plot of Hamlet, should I assume that I then don’t need to pay attention to it when I see Hamlet? And even if we put all of those things together, as CliffsNotes does, will we have anything even approaching the experience of reading or seeing Hamlet? Of course not; we will not have the pleasure of the thing, either—we will have learned much about what others think about the thing, but we will not have any idea of the thing itself.
LD: How has The Collagist changed since its inception?
GB: We went through a fairly big change last year, when Matthew Olzmann and I took over from Matt Bell. We got a new reviews editor, Michael Jauchen, a new interviews editor, Liz Morris, and a new podcast editor, Rachelle Cruz. That’s pretty much the entire staff.
Even though Matthew has been our poetry editor since the beginning, and even though I’ve been with the magazine for four years, it was a shift. I mean, I can’t help but be a different editor than Matt Bell was—I’ve been a fan of the magazine from Issue #1, so I don’t think my taste is so different from his, but it is different. I’m indebted to him for all the hard work he put into making the magazine what it is, and I have always been proud to be a part of the magazine. That said, I’m not trying to carry on a legacy, I’m just publishing things that I believe in.
Format-wise, we haven’t changed much. I’m a bit more open or agnostic than Matt Bell was, genre-wise, in terms of what I excerpt (we’ve had a couple of excerpts of book-length essays, and a couple of excerpts from hybrid or cross-genre books since I started editing that section), but we’re still doing four fictions, four poets, an essay, and four reviews every month.
With all of the changes going on last year, we didn’t do the chapbook contest, so I’m excited to bring it back this year, and Matthew and I are always talking about ways to make the magazine better, but we have a really good template to work from and neither one of us wants to mess things up just for the sake of doing something different.
LD: How would you describe the relationship between The Collagist and Dzanc Books?
GB: Dzanc is our publisher—they’re completely hands-off, editorially, but they’re also really supportive and easy to work with as a publisher. In addition to hosting the website, they publish the winner of our annual chapbook contest, and they help out with design and are, in general, very helpful.