Monday, October 1, 2007

Voices from the Masthead: Editor Joseph Levens On Why He Began Summerset Review

The Summerset Review is published online quarterly and in print form periodically. This fall, the literary journal is celebrating its fifth-year anniversary and has introduced features believed to be new to literary magazines: Readers are compensated based upon critical comments they contribute. The journal is hoping that this will increase the awareness and penetration of literary magazines in our world and culture.

Joseph Levens is founder and editor of
The Summerset Review. His fiction has appeared in Florida Review (Fall 2007), New Orleans Review, AGNI, Other Voices, Sou’wester, Swink, and elsewhere. We asked Joseph why he does what he does. This is what he said.


WHY I DO WHAT I DO

For the past twenty years, it has happened all too often: I’d start reading a story in a literary magazine, and within a hundred words whisper to myself: This is going to be good. Three or five or eight thousand words later, after other whispers and gasps and sighs along the way – Wow, Damn, God – I’d be left with a tear in my eye, knocked dizzy with emotion. I’ve missed train stations, had meals run cold, and been late for a variety of engagements because of stories like these.

A piece causing all this trouble won’t always be one that is terribly heart-wrenching. No, it could have been a happy story, and very often is. The prose is what usually gets me, the little things, those that make you stop dead, think, think of some aspect of life, lives like mine or very unlike mine, places I’ve been to, places I never knew existed, objects, an orange sapphire (weren’t all sapphires blue?), a piano in perfect tune and tone never played by its owner. It’s like ankles in ice skates; it’s like eating peas off a knife.

There’s no anticipating how I am going to react, what I will like, what I won’t, when I open a literary magazine. Things just happen. I’m a sensitive reader and allow myself to be easily manipulated, suspending my disbelief as if it were a helium balloon, floating, hovering, teetering. Almost always, the stories that have the most impact on me are penned by writers I’ve never heard of. They magically appear in these journals for reasons traveling well beyond scientific analysis. How the story got on the page, how the book got into my hands, how the connection is made in my head, these are all things that cannot be explained.

I do what I do because after this happens to you time and time again, you begin to conceive ways of getting more of these stories out there. I’m left thinking that, for every piece having a great effect on a reader, chances are likely another five, ten, twenty stories are waiting, waiting, waiting, never to be set on a page and exposed on a global stage. Why not? That, I suppose, is for another essay, likely to be a bit ugly.

In addition to my role as editor of The Summerset Review, I am a writer myself. My objective, in my writing, is to reach out and provoke that tear I myself have experienced, in as little as one or two readers who may have innocently stumbled across my work, persons I do not know. To the chagrin of some I am sure, the matter is not at all about money. I am assuming I may not be the only writer out there with this sentiment, and so I thought to do my part and create a vehicle others may use to meet similar desires.

This vehicle comes at a cost. The journal receives an average of five submissions a day and we do not solicit. We run no marketing or advertising campaigns because our humble staff of two (including myself) barely have time to give each story a fair shake (sometimes two or three shakes), edit, correspond, copy-edit, and do everything else, all so that we can put out what we believe are five quality pieces each quarter, chosen from the heart. We pay contributors a nominal fee and never look at the magazine as a revenue-generating source; the focus is elsewhere. (It would be remiss of me to not mention the CLMP, an organization I believe truly cares about literary magazines, and does their best to support them.)

I don’t know exactly how well it is working. It’s not the kind of thing you can read all about the next morning in the newspapers. Once in a while I will come across that shining submission, though, a story that would be like one I read in another magazine, ankles in ice skates, peas on a knife, and realize that, no, wait a minute, hold on; I am not reading another magazine. The writer is sending the story to me, understands what I am talking about, has had similar things happen on the train, gotten in trouble just as deeply and as often.

The real reason I do what I do, if you’ve stuck with me this far, is revenge, actually. I’m tired of cold meals, tired of missing my station, once again late for an evening of whatever else. It’s about time this happen to more people. I’m doing my best to see to that.