by Christopher S. Wilson
Anyone can learn to read, but being a good reader takes practice. Training helps: we all need to be given context that goes beyond our own lived experience to recognize where the value lies in a piece of text, particularly if it’s something that doesn’t resonate with you personally, or seems superficially objectionable, strange, confusing, or boring. Those are reflexes worth learning to control when approaching a piece of text.
When I started the creative writing MFA program at Emerson College in 2019, and even later when I began trying to bring Redivider back to life, I was still reading everything suspiciously—ready to hate what I read, dismissing any piece of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, for what now seem like minor problems. Reading suspiciously* is the legacy of postmodernism and poststructuralism, and while it remains a great tool for reading, oftentimes it acts like a crowbar when what you need is a tiny spoon.
MFA programs like the one at Emerson are now steeped in the culture of postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, etc., and this has brought us a great shift in perspective and a great search for marginalized voices and new angles—particularly since the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Some of these angles are not new at all, and have existed within repressed communities for hundreds of years, but are new to Western white readers.
But postmodernism is still not modernism finished off and dead, and I have found that many readers in the MFA program, and at Redivider, still apply long-standing reading techniques that feel current to our time—as we continue to navigate the long tail of modernity—but which continue to reinforce existing power structures of white supremacy, patrician intellectual hierarchy and class, heteronormativity, and its good friend New England puritanism (which in my opinion is still a force when it comes to what counts as “literature.”)
Redivider was in bad shape when I was selected to take over as fiction editor in April of 2022. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and some unsustainable practices, there was a severe absence of strong leadership; none of the meager remaining teams were talking to each other; there was a backlog of hundreds of submissions in fiction, nonfiction, and especially poetry; and worst of all, the Redivider website—our only connection to our readers—had been taken down and deleted because no one paid the bill. We didn’t have passwords to our social media accounts; one of the annual contests had never been concluded; the organization’s files were scattered across different cloud services and physical hard drives. Soon I found out our charter at Emerson College had expired years before because no one maintained the paperwork. Redivider was operating in a student organization no man’s land.
I began by pouring over the fiction slush pile (in okay shape), the nonfiction slush pile (worse shape), and the poetry slush pile (the very worst), as well as graphic narrative submissions. I wasn’t a great poetry reader, but I learned to read poetry better with some advice from a few friends. Katie Mihalek, who was just a poetry reader at the time, and who hadn’t heard from anyone at Redivider in months, jumped in to help read and clear those submissions (Katie is now the editor-in-chief). Cameron Schoettle, who was on the fiction team with me, helped out in fiction and in getting everything reposted to the website (Cameron is now the managing editor).
We built a completely new website in WordPress, created new file and email systems, caught up on the submissions, and started recruiting. I believe I onboarded around 25 people myself, and it wasn’t long before they were doing all the hard work themselves. By the end of the fall, when we published issue 19.2, I started to realize that Redivider was going to live, and probably thrive, because there was a lot of talent joining us.
Redivider now has a staff of almost 40 people, all Emerson grad students, and we expect that number will grow even further this fall. We added production personnel, editorial personnel, staffing and sustainability personnel, and even a social media director and graphic designer. I encouraged the organization to stop running contests, due to equity issues created by entry fees, and turn Redivider into a paying market, and the staff unanimously voted for that change. I sent Redivider’s first submissions to the Pushcart committee for the first time in years, and I’m feeling positive we’ll get some recognition this fall because we publish great work. We managed to dig up most of our social media passwords and complete our final Beacon Street Prize contest, more than a year late.
As you can tell, I’m proud of my work at Redivider, but what is most gratifying is to see the other Emerson grad students who so eagerly joined with me and quickly took on increasing responsibility, often doing thankless work. It created great meaning for all the thankless labor I did, knowing that this organization, in turn, means something to them.
No one dives into the work of operating a literary journal for the money (because there is none) nor for attention (because you are just one of many doing the same thing). Doing the work it takes to make a journal function gives one a great sense of what is good and valuable about writing, and why literary journals are such critical cultural junctions (or contact zones, if I can borrow Mary Louise Pratt’s term). As an editor or publisher, you are helping lift up new voices and new narratives, and ensure they are heard, which is what moves culture in the direction of both egalitarianism and justice, as well as in the direction of new imaginings, new problem solving, and new fun. It sounds esoteric and maybe even egotistical, and it is those things, but that is precisely what it feels like when you hit “Publish” on a completed issue—creating a new contact zone between people eager to say something and people eager to hear something.
I often told the editorial teams at Redivider that for many of our authors, being published with us will be the best publication credit the author has ever had, and for so many of them it may be meaningful enough to be encouraged to continue writing. It’s crucial as an editor or reader to turn down the volume knob on your suspicion, and seek first what is good and meaningful about a manuscript. Reading suspiciously causes one to disregard valuable writing because of superficially objectionable or confusing content, or because of relatively unimportant technical errors that can be improved by an editor; and some technical errors aren’t errors at all, they are just a matter of perspective, or even the naive but fortuitous mistakes of someone writing English as a second language. Suspicious reading means you’re assuming that the writer has a secret agenda, something they meant to write, but didn’t have the skill for. That’s your own reader’s ego—and writer’s ego—getting in the way, and sometimes it needs to step aside to allow a worthwhile piece of writing, even one that is flawed, to have a chance to sing its little heart out.
Speaking of egos, I want to close this parting essay with the words of my own all-time favorite critic, Anton Ego. He was writing about professional critics at the time, but the words apply to being an editor or publisher just as well, not to mention being a good reader:
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends…Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Thanks again to Katie Mihalek, Cameron Schoettle, as well as Vivian Walman-Randall and Miriam Taveras for your hard work and leadership. Redivider is in competent hands, good eyes, and strong hearts. I can’t wait to see what you all do next.
Christopher S. Wilson
(Former) Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Redivider
@dwicefox on X and Instagram
September 5, 2023
* More commonly referred to as “symptomatic reading,” but I prefer “suspicious reading” because it implies the reader takes a hostile position to the text. For a deeper dive into this concept, check out Surface Reading: An Introduction (2009) by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus.