From the Editor
In Search of ... Creative Nonfiction
Each year at AWP, those of us who edit presses or journals compare notes about what we are and aren't seeing in our slush piles, what we are or aren't wanting to see: are there too many poems about colony collapse disorder? Too many stories featuring alien abductions? Not enough pieces featuring colony collapse disorder and alien abductions? One of the glories of the small-press literary scene in America at this time is the sheer breadth and diversity of tastes.
That said, what I heard again this year, as last year, over and over, is: where is the high-quality creative nonfiction we're looking for?
Wasn't there supposed to be a revolution? It seemed so, with the launching of journals like Creative Nonfiction (1994) and Fourth Genre (1999) and especially the publication of John d'Agata's provocative anthology The Next American Essay (Graywolf, 2003). What these developments promised was a new, outward-looking, nuanced, and formally innovative approach to what had been called the "personal essay": at times taking its cues from the best prose, at times bordering on the formal and lyric complexity of poetry.
Instead, what we got was memoir. And more memoir. And yet more memoir.
As a colleague who teaches creative nonfiction asked me some time ago, "why is it always about me, me, me? There's a whole world out there." Memoir makes nonfiction look easy, because we all have access to our own autobiographies. The formula is an artless compilation "this happened, and then this happened," capped with a winsome life lesson and/or epiphany.
If you are going to go artless, then the story you tell had better be breathtaking and unusual, on its own terms.
To be blunt: here at West Branch we receive far too much memoir, in the most basic and formally derivative sense. We do not receive enough of anything else.
What we are looking for is creative nonfiction that is artful: that exhibits the same rich, vivid qualities and challenging approach we demand of the poetry and fiction that interests us. Whether the work evinces the subtleties of good prose style and observational panache one associates with Joan Didion, John McPhee, Annie Dillard, or Barry Lopez, or whether it seeks the sort of formal electrification produced by Anne Carson, Brian Doyle, Thalia Field, or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, we want to see essays that challenge the complacencies of the merely autobiographical, that tyrannical "I" and its small kingdom.
So: send us colony collapse order, send us alien abduction narratives, send us speedboat chases; send us medieval Cistercian monasteries and Jupiter's moons. We await the world.
- September 2013
It's an act of hope to submit work to a journal. We editors, in turn, read with our own hopes: that writers are sending us what they believe to be their best work, that the next piece we read may startle, give us pause, transport us—take off the tops of our heads.
- August 2013
We all have places we want and long to be; as it happens, the place I most want and long to be right now is South Wales. Delightfully, Bucknell University is affording me this opportunity (and many others) as I prepare to go on leave for the 2013–14 school year.
- February 2013
Our editorial staff here at West Branch includes myself as Editor-in-Chief; Andrew Ciotola, our extraordinary (and long-serving) Managing Editor; two undergraduate interns; and-most importantly, for present purposes-six associate editors who play major roles in the process of reading and evaluating manuscripts.
- November 2012
A few interested parties have written over the past month asking, in one form or another, how West Branch operates.
- August 2012
Editing a literary journal is a professional calling, but it is also a labor of love.
- June 2012
What does it mean, in the world of contemporary American literature, to be an "outsider"?
- December 2011
As a child, I was terrible with riddles. (As a bright child, I resented my inability to master the form on the form's terms-which only added to my antipathy.) A successful solver of riddles must decode on two levels.
- October 2011
Speaking of translation, some of us suffer from the suspicion that truly great literature is being written somewhere else, by somebody else, in a language we can't read.
- September 2011
It's axiomatic-or should be, and especially in the American poetry of our moment-that in fact there are many poetries, many overlapping constituencies of readers, poets, and poems.