Why You Should Pick Up That Copy of the New England Review Lying Around the Library


On entering the office, I am surprised by the scale, or lack thereof. A name like The New England Review evokes multitudes of desks, each manned by its own grey-haired reader or editor; rooms lined with large, industrial-grey bookshelves filled with manila envelopes; secretaries (one, at the very least) picking up phones to the complaints of rejected authors determined that somebody recognize the genius of their latest 40,000 word, stream-of-consciousness account of a sophomore-year sexual awakening.

What I didn’t expect: Carolyn, Marcy and Eli, three wonderful, local women, middle-aged and trying desperately to make Microsoft Word work on obsolete desktop computers. Two minutes into the staff meeting – a weekly event which consists of these three women, me and the other winter-term intern Hannah sitting around a banged-up kitchen table and drinking co-op coffee – it becomes apparent that this sort of small-scale literary operation is not unique to The New England Review. From what I catch of Marcy’s mug-stifled muttering (witty, witty Marcy the Managing Editor, who has a personal vendetta against every publication out of California and left early Thursday to attend a cat funeral), the entire literary industry is struggling, particularly those magazines who put publication before profit. And while the New England Review remains fairly lucky – Middlebury College funds it like any other academic department – there is desperate competition between journals for each and every subscriber. (“Should we send them all pencils this month?” wonders Eli, whose primary responsibilities include managing the office and negotiating with a dying desk chair Facilities refuses to replace, “can we afford that?”) I am shocked to learn that a magazine like The New England Review has something like a mere thousand regular subscribers – and that number is larger than many of its peer publications. When I get over my initial anxiety at statistics that surely signal the imminent death of literature, I can’t help but wonder who these wonderful people are. I’m as guilty as the rest; if I find an hour or two in a regular school week to read for pleasure, I almost always reach for the Fiction section of the New Yorker –  and only then so that everyone else in the library might noticed how Extraordinarily Cultured I am.

Still, the New Yorker is a business, and therefore a different beast entirely. As I continue to learn, running a non-profit operation like The New England Review has perks and downsides. On one hand, the Editor-in-Chief Carolyn remains free to place quality over quantity (“Do things slowly,” I was told in my first hour, “people these days underestimate the value of care and attention.”). This translates into reading each and every cover letter from “Dear Editors” down to “I hope you enjoy the attached story,” and sorting these and the accompanying pieces into personalized categories. It also translates into hours spent agonizing over each webpage, negotiating to little avail with WordPress html code in an attempt to replicate the poet’s original, artistically-indented formatting. More than anything though, it means granting each submission the individualized attention it deserves. During the prose editorial meeting yesterday, Carolyn admitted to reading a thirty-six-page story four times through, only to conclude (as she had after her very first read) that, in spite of “breathtaking prose”, a plot centered around “moon locusts” might be too far out there for the NER’s readership. Nothing could be clearer from Carolyn’s facial expressions than that she cares profoundly about giving new authors a platform for publication. She assumes an expression of great pain (usually accompanied by flurried hand gestures) whenever forced to cross a story from her publication list. She’s picturing the author, I’m sure, sitting at their computer and reading yet another rejection email.

“It’s awful,” she says, as I can’t help but laugh at her distress during the final, decisive moments of the editorial meeting, “caring is awful.” 

“Yeah,” I say, “but it’s also kind of awesome.”

On the other hand, a focus on quality rather than content makes it difficult to attract readers already overwhelmed by the formidable masses of content available online. How can The New England Review, a slim volume of carefully selected poetry and prose distributed out of boxes to libraries and coffee shops, possibly hope to compete—especially so long as it keeps its head down and conducts itself decorously? The fact of the matter is that they can’t, a sad reality which isn’t lost on anyone working there.

Still, the publication is anything but undignified, and Carolyn anything but despairing; she and a team of readers pay attention to every submission that shows up in their feed (or even—and this I couldn’t believe in 2018—by post, stamped and hand-addressed despite clear regulations on the website asking for online submissions only), and respond both personally and thoughtfully. Those who they do publish are not only grateful, but get to write The New England Review on their resume, a name which continues to carry serious weight in the literary world. And so the small scale that initially shocked me begins to impress me. As someone who has submitted a few things myself, it’s nice to know that my words are being discussed around a real-life table, by real-life people (because who counts as real more than Carolyn, Marcy and Eli?) who want nothing more than to get those words out and into the world—so much so that they place free copies all over the college.

And so with Carolyn, Marcy and Eli working diligently away to keep The New England Review relevant and afloat, the onus shifts to us – students of the very college with which the magazine is associated – to at very least pick up the fruit of their efforts. It shouldn’t prove too much of an extra-curricular chore: the poetry and prose included is beautiful, and selected with more thought and intentionality than I previously imagined possible. That, and the very thought of The New England Review’s existence is immensely heartening: in an academic environment where a particular brand of beaten-down-liberal, collegiate cynicism underlies every conversation, just down College Street there sits a clapboard house filled with women who refuse to succumb to disillusion. Instead they believe fiercely in the value of stories, and will continue plunking away on yogurt-encrusted keyboards to get them out and into the hands of grateful, if shrinking, audiences.