"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Paris Review Poetry Purges: Some Ethical & Professional Considerations

by Luke Hankins

*This article originally appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, October/November 2010.

When Daniel Nester broke the story of what he termed “The Great Paris Review Poetry Purge of 2010” on the blog We Who Are About To Die in July of this year, a flurry of online discussion quickly followed. Lorin Stein and Robyn Creswell had recently been instated as Editor and Poetry Editor, respectively, of The Paris Review, and shortly thereafter they “de-accepted” poems that had been accepted for publication by previous editors. A wide range of opinions regarding this de-acceptance was expressed in online forums, predominantly on blogs, but also in such venues as the New York Observer and Canada’s National Post. The responses ranged from basically saying “Tough luck” to calling for punitive measures against the editors.

Renewing the zeal of commenters was the eventual revelation that this poetry purge was in fact not the first event of its kind in the history of TPR. A number of poets have reported that they had their poems “purged” in 2005, including Joel Brouwer (again, see Daniel Nester’s coverage, which includes interviews with several de-accepted poets—or “Purgerati,” as they have come to be known) and my friend and colleague Keith Flynn. What’s even more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Robyn Creswell himself was a victim of the previous purge. Stein indicated the following to me [1] : “Robyn—when he used to write poems—had one accepted by Richard Howard and killed when Richard was fired. We both laughed it off at the time as a bit of bad luck. (...) I do understand that others would see it as an injustice—but it simply didn’t occur to either of us back then.”

Lorin Stein’s justification for “killing” previously accepted poems in the most recent purge was “to give Robyn (Creswell) the scope to define his own section,” as he put it in his de-acceptance e-mail to the Purgerati (reproduced in one of Nester’s articles). Another complicating factor became clear over time: Stein and Creswell were facing a large backlog of accepted poems (roughly a year’s worth), so that the influence of the newly appointed Poetry Editor would not have been felt for quite some time if they had published them all. Some online commenters saw this fact alone as justification for the “purge,” and preferred to lay blame on the previous editors who had built up such a sizeable backlog. Others pointed out that there was no signed contract with any of the Purgerati, in any case, and thus no legal obligation to publish the poems. Still others noted that a “kill fee” is sometimes offered for pieces that are cut from newspapers or magazines, and suggested that such a fee would have been a more appropriate way for Stein to handle the situation.

I think, however, that there is a more fundamental ethical issue involved in this situation that none of the above perspectives address. The most basic assumption underlying my perspective on the ethics of the poetry purges is that an editor is not commensurate with the publication he or she represents. An editor (and, by extension, an entire editorial staff) is a representative of a larger entity, in a position of service to a purpose that extends beyond the person or persons acting in editorial capacity. In the case of a continuous publication (i.e., a publication with a history and, theoretically, a future as the “same” publication, under the same name), while an editor does and should exercise control over the content of the publication, he or she should also honor any commitments that the publication as an institution has already made. The implications of such a view have obvious relevance to the most recent poetry purge: The poems that Stein de-accepted had already been accepted not by any individual as merely an individual, but by a person representing TPR as an entity. Thus, TPR remains obligated to publish the work that has been accepted even by previous editors.

As a result of my stance, I created a “group” on the social networking website Facebook that I called “Conditional Boycott of The Paris Review.” I outlined my views regarding the poetry purge and the conditions of the boycott in the group’s description. The group was never large—there are currently fifty-two members—and includes a former TPR Poetry Editor (currently an Advisory Editor), at least one past TPR contributor, and several other prominent poets and editors. I created the group on principle, with little hope that it would even be noticed by the folks at TPR. However, the group did end up playing a part, along with many other sources of protest and debate, both private and public, in attracting the attention of Stein and convincing him to make amends with the writers he had treated poorly.

I wrote a private message to Stein outlining the group’s position. That message read in part: “The ‘de-accepted’ writers had contractual [agreements] (verbal contracts should be honored in a just society) with The Paris Review, not with any individual. Your current editorial position is actually irrelevant to the fact that their poems were accepted by previous editors on behalf of The Paris Review.” I also invited Stein to join the group himself in order to engage in discussion. To his credit, he did join, and he responded to my message and to the group’s stance publicly on the group’s “wall” and “discussion board.”[2] He said, in part, “I have to say, I agree with you entirely. I feel a strong duty, as the new editor of the Review, to shape the magazine as best I can, according to the lights of our new staff. But having heard powerful arguments from several of the poets whose work we cut (and having read the posts of Daniel Nester’s blog), I’m also persuaded that we have a lasting obligation to every poet whose work was accepted by the editors who came before us. I’m about to write to these poets personally, to express my apologies and to offer the full fee that we owe them.”

As it turned out, Stein offered more than he at first indicated he would. Nester reported from primary sources on his blog that Stein offered not only an apology and the full fee owed the poets, but also publication on The Paris Review Daily, the magazine’s blog, with an introduction for each poet by one of the former Poetry Editors (now Advisory Editors), Meghan O’Rourke or Dan Chiasson. As a result of this news, after consulting with the members of the boycott group, I officially ended the boycott (though the group still exists as a forum for discussion and as an archive). Stein’s engagement with the boycott group and response to the Purgerati is admirable, especially considering the small size of the boycott group, which, in all honesty, did not pose a real threat as a boycott.

In personal correspondence, both Meghan O’Rourke and Dan Chiasson expressed to me their appreciation for the efforts of the literary community to convince Stein and Creswell to make amends with the Purgerati. “I’m glad you did this [created the boycott group], and glad it seems to have made a difference,” Chiasson said. “As you can see,” he added, “Lorin’s a good guy, great mind, great skill and unprecedented gift as an editor, amazing energy for the paper; I just disagreed with his decision about poetry.” It’s clear that O’Rourke and Chiasson both disagreed with Stein’s decision to de-accept poems (see Nester’s coverage for a statement by O’Rourke), and they undoubtedly played a role in his eventual decision to seek to make amends. It seems clear that, thanks to the literary community, including his friends, his colleagues, online reporters and commenters, and the boycott group, Stein came to be genuinely convinced about the unethical nature of his decision. Writing to me, Stein said, “I’ve learned a bunch of lessons from the last week. Your very well-reasoned letter was the final clarification for me. All of which is to say, thanks.” Stein’s willingness to apologize, to make amends with the Purgerati, and his expressions of gratitude toward those of us who protested his decision all seem to demonstrate that Stein recognizes that his action was a mistake and genuinely intends to behave fairly.

The most important aspect of the TPR poetry purges is the fact that they have raised ethical and professional issues relevant to editorial practice at literary publications. This is a rather isolated practice in the world of literary publications. But the fact that such an event has happened at least twice at TPR alone, not to mention any unreported instances there or elsewhere, is good enough reason to carefully consider the ethical and professional implications for editorial practice.

In a post on the boycott group’s discussion board, Keith Flynn shared some of his thoughts on the ethical issues involved in the poetry purges. He wrote that he joined the boycott group and offered his opinions “not because I have been treated shabbily by The Paris Review, but because as editors we have a personal responsibility as caretakers of the journals we create to treat with tenderness all the folks who trust us to comment upon, to judge, and support their hard-won efforts in the small but immense minority that is the poetry community.” Regarding the de-acceptance of his poem in 2005, Flynn remarked, “In my thirty-year career as a poet, musician, and editor, this is the only time this has happened to me… (W)e as editors have a particularly poignant mission to treat every submitted work with the same respect as we hope to receive when other editors contemplate our own carefully constructed poems. It is basic human fairness, but sometimes it is all we have.”

Calling it an issue of fairness may be the best way to describe what is, ultimately, a very simple ethical issue. So many literary publications today operate entirely on a good-faith basis that it has become a standard practice—a kind of “honor system” that no one expects to be broken. This is evidence that editors in general have agreed that they, as editors, have a good-faith obligation to honor even verbal contracts because, as Flynn noted, “It is basic human fairness.” In other words, we operate this way not because we are forced to by law or by any outside agent, but because we wouldn’t dream of treating people unfairly—and we have faith that others will behave likewise.

In cases in which an instinct for fairness does not prove sufficient, such as the most recent “poetry purge,” I would emphasize the principle that I have suggested above: An editor is not commensurate with his or her publication, and acts as a representative of a larger entity with a life that extends both before and after the editor’s tenure. Thus, it makes sense to think of the publication itself as engaging in certain obligations. These obligations might indeed prove impossible to fulfill for financial or practical reasons, but that is not the case with the “poetry purge” at TPR. This was simply an instance of a difference of opinion about the merits of certain poems. For the sake of their aesthetic opinions, Stein and Creswell were willing to break the obligation of TPR to the poets whose work had been accepted by previous editors. In my mind, this is not sufficient reason to break an obligation, as Stein himself seems to have admitted.

It is interesting that so many literary publications these days subscribe to a set of written ethical guidelines for any contests they hold, and yet few, if any, have thought it necessary to instate written ethical guidelines for their general, everyday editorial practices. (Some publications make brief remarks about “considering each submission carefully,” but that is typically the extent of it.) The reason for this is most likely the fact that, as noted above, the “honor system” has worked most of the time for many years. The popularity of written ethical guidelines for literary contests is due in large part to the exposure over the years of certain questionable or outright unethical practices on the part of contest judges (e.g., awarding prizes to friends or former students). It will be interesting to see if a similar phenomenon takes place in response to the poetry purges at TPR. Perhaps more literary publications will begin using written contracts for each poem (or prose piece) accepted. Perhaps many will continue to operate on the “honor system,” which has worked perfectly well in the majority of cases. Still others might find it advisable to adopt written ethical guidelines in order to be transparent about their professional practice, which is standard practice in a number of other professional fields. This last measure, in any case, could easily be implemented by any publication, regardless of whether they use written contracts. What is certain is that the best way to maintain respect as a literary publication is to behave fairly at all times, and editors would do well to invest time in considering, developing, and articulating their views of what it means to do so.

Luke Hankins


1. Permission from the correspondents has been obtained for all quotes from private correspondence in this article.
2. The group page still exists, and all content, including Stein’s complete posts, are viewable by anyone with a Facebook account.

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