The Future of The New England Review
In a turbulent economic climate, the College announces that it can no longer subsidize the New England Review. What will it take for the literary journal to survive?
Picking up a copy of New England Review is at once a titillating and an intimidating experience. Its high-gloss front cover depicts a recent work of visual art—oil paints on silver paper emulating waves, a zoomed-in photo of enoki mushrooms, or moody acrylics—while the shiny onyx back cover lists such authors as Franz Kafka and Aldous Huxley among the names you might not recognize. There are poems translated from French. Fiction stories invoking Joni Mitchell. A new play titled December Gold.
If you are a lover of words, you will find your heart beating with anticipation as you thumb through the 200-odd pages, uncluttered by photos, graphic-design elements, or advertisements. But if you are even the slightest bit savvy about how the publishing world works, your mind can’t help but do the math. With no ads, and a cover price only slightly more than your latest Harper’s Magazine, you wonder what, or who, is supporting such a publication.
For more than 20 years, the answer has been Middlebury College, which has fully sponsored New England Review, or NER, since 1987. But in an effort to cut costs in the current financial crisis, the College has given NER editor Stephen Donadio and his staff two-and-a-half years to figure out how to support the journal and get in the black.
The announcement, made in May by Middlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz in a campus-wide e-mail, has sparked an impassioned national debate about the literary journal’s future.
New England Review was cofounded in 1978 by poet and novelist Sydney Lea and Jay Parini, back when Parini taught at Dartmouth College. In 1982, the journal moved to Middlebury, and the publication became New England Review/Bread Loaf Quarterly, thanks to its new affiliation with the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. A few years later, Middlebury College began fully sponsoring the magazine, and in 1990 its title became New England Review, with the subtitle “Middlebury Series,” indicating the independent journal’s support. Since late 1994, its editor has been Donadio, the John Hamilton Fulton Professor of Humanities at the College and director of the Program in Literary Studies.
Hailed by some literary editors as one of the most selective and most respected of the 600 or so active journals in the country, NER has its office tucked away in the Kirk Alumni Center overlooking the golf course on the far southwestern edge of campus. There, managing editor Carolyn Kuebler ’90 weeds through most of the 4,500 manuscripts the NER receives or solicits each year, publishing around 2 percent of submissions. Among the 3,500 names of authors (living and deceased) in Kuebler’s database are Robert Penn Warren, Ha Jin, Julia Alvarez ’71, Seamus Heaney, Norman Mailer, Grace Paley, and Charles Baxter. And although NER is no longer officially affiliated with Bread Loaf, conference attendees often submit their work to NER, and writers published in NER often decide to go to the conference. “There’s a good deal of commerce back and forth,” says Donadio. “And New England Review keeps Middlebury’s name in circulation in the literary community in ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.”
In 2008, the Boston Globe wrote that NER is “one of the journals most often mentioned by writers and readers—including editors of other journals, as among the nation’s best.” Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowships, American Academy of Arts and Letters awards, National Book Critics Circle Award, National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowships, Pushcart Prizes, Mary McCarthy Prizes and publication in the Best American Short Stories have all been conferred upon NER writers.
But when the economy began to crumble last year and Middlebury had to find more ways to eradicate a $20 million deficit, a quarterly literary journal with a circulation of around 1,500, was seen by many as a relative, rather than absolute, funding priority.
Last fall, in addition to instituting money-saving measures, including a hiring freeze, Middlebury created the Budget Oversight Committee (BOC), consisting of faculty, staff, administrators, and students, who were tasked with meeting twice a week to discuss and recommend cuts to President Liebowitz.
On May 12, 2009, Liebowitz circulated a memo to the College with the latest round of budget recommendations. Most of them—including a 50 percent cut to expenditures at 3 South Street (the president’s College-owned residence), a 10 percent budget reduction at the museum, and an elimination of all nonessential travel for athletic teams—received an ACCEPTED stamp from the president.
Then there was line item 6: “The BOC recommends that effective June 30, 2009, the College will end its relationship with the New England Review (NER) and wind down operations. The winding down of operations will allow for the redeployment of staff and the fulfillment of existing contracts.” Liebowitz’s response? “AMENDED as follows: The New England Review will have until December 21, 2011, to eliminate its current operating deficit. If it cannot, the College will end its relationship with the Review.”
The reaction in literary circles and beyond was swift. A May 14 piece in the online journal Inside Higher Ed immediately elicited rat-a-tat-tat comments about the “core mission” of a liberal arts college, the cost of operating literary magazines, and the efficacy of undergraduate tuition dollars subsidizing them. Liebowitz reports receiving between 50 and 75 e-mails and letters—many of which were copied to the NER staff.
“I understand these are challenging times for the College,” wrote Ellen Bryant Voigt, a former Vermont poet laureate and longtime Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference faculty member. “Surely, though, the percentage of your budget represented by NER is very small, and the savings achieved by ending your sponsorship would be negligible.”
Rebecca Makkai Freeman, a 2004 graduate of the Bread Loaf School of English whose story “The Briefcase” was published by NER and is featured in Best American Short Stories 2009, took it one step further after writing that she was “heartbroken” to learn of Middlebury’s broken commitment to literature. “I get the sense that Robert Frost would be a particularly nasty ghost to be haunted by, and I’m pretty sure he’d be on our side in this one,” wrote Freeman. “If I were you, I wouldn’t risk it.”
Tim Spears is Middlebury’s acting provost and a professor of American studies, who teaches courses on Hemingway and American literary migrations. He’s also a member of the Budget Oversight Committee, which recommended that the College end its relationship with the New England Review. He extols the strengths of the journal, but he says that in light of the economic conditions affecting the College, the administration has to make budgetary decisions based on what best serves Middlebury’s students. And it was clear to the committee, he says, that for all its strengths, the Review has a very limited impact on under-graduates.
“There’s an ongoing discussion of what is essential, what is critical to the mission of Middlebury College,” he says. “One could argue that the New England Review is an important part of the general literary culture here; it’s part of a larger picture. But how important is it compared to something else?”
Jason Mittell, an associate professor of American studies at Middlebury and the chair of the film and media culture department, echoes this sentiment; he was one of the first to respond to the Inside Higher Ed piece, defending the BOC recommendation. During an early June phone interview, Mittell says that while he recognizes the literary value of the journal, it has a tenuous tie to the College’s “core academic mission of educating undergraduates.” He explains: “Anything that impacts classrooms and the student experience should be a priority,” he says of budget cutbacks. “The New England Review has a very narrow impact.”
NER publishes on a quarterly basis, producing about 1,500 books each run. (The subscription base is about half that; of the 700 subscribers, 300 or so are institutional subscribers, and 400 are “regular” subscribers.) Around campus, it’s available at the library, the Admissions Office, the President’s Office, the College Bookstore, and a few other places. But Donadio and Kuebler maintain that its effects on the College are far-reaching. In addition to publishing Middlebury alums such as Stanford Jones lecturer J.M. Tyree ’95 (who occasionally reads for NER) and novelist and screenwriter Justin Haythe ’96, the journal has published the work of several Middlebury faculty members. NER also has two interns per semester, and Kuebler has taught a winter term course on publishing.
Ted Genoways, the editor of Virginia Quarterly Review and a frequent Writers’ Conference guest, argues that journals like NER and VQR support the certification of faculty—if tenure review boards expect faculty to publish, the academy needs to support publishing, he says. “As soon as everyone collectively decides that they’re going to opt out, which is what is happening right now, the whole system will collapse,” says Genoways, adding that he’s baffled why Middlebury would ever consider chipping away at an academic cornerstone that has long distinguished the school from every other small liberal arts college in the Northeast.
When questioned about the NER’s role in career advancement, however, Spears has countered that journals like the NER do not play a significant role in tenure cases. “The journal is not peer reviewed—the gold standard in scholarly publishing—which limits the value that tenure committees place on the articles published there,” he responded to a commenter on Ron Liebowitz’s blog, Ron on Middlebury. “Of the 25-30 Middlebury associated faculty who have written for the NER,” Spears wrote, “few, if any, were untenured at the time they published in the journal, and few view the magazine as a vehicle for advancing their tenure cases.”
On the same blog, Spears addresses Middlebury’s commitment to literary studies: “Let’s be specific about Middlebury’s support of literary studies, or more specifically creative writing, since that is what is at issue here. We have a thriving creative writing program in our English and American literatures department, to which we have added a Robert Frost fellow (in poetry) this year (hiring, when other colleges chose not to). For six weeks during the summer, we operate the Bread Loaf [School of] English program up on the mountain in Ripton and at campuses in other parts of the world. Then later in the summer, we hold the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a program completely dedicated to creative writing. We have no plans to cut back on these programs, all of which foster literary culture on both local and national levels. This is a significant institutional commitment, and to suggest that we have pulled back on our support of literary culture, or the transmission of knowledge related to literature, is to ignore the larger picture.”
Between $250,000 and $275,000 is what Middlebury’s Vice President for Administration and Treasurer Patrick Norton says it takes to support New England Review every year. And while the budget item may not seem like much to some, it represents lots to others, says Liebowitz. “How much is socioeconomic diversity worth?” he asks, equating the yearly subsidy for NER with scholarship funds. “Or supporting faculty in their teaching, research, and mentoring of our students? Those are questions to think about.”
In his blog post, “Budget Cuts and the New England Review,” Liebowitz espoused the literary value of the journal and acknowledged the perilous climate for literary magazines without institutional support, but with today’s economic realities, he said that he finds “asking families who are paying $50,000 a year in comprehensive fees to, in effect, subsidize a literary magazine that serves a very small slice of the general population and is known only to a handful of Middlebury students, a very hard sell. . . . I must consider how our institution will weather the current financial challenges and, first and foremost, preserve what is most central to our students’ education.”
A student who works in the mail center was the first to respond to the post and went so far as to say that few students aside from mailroom employees knew that the NER existed. She was countered by a spring graduate and former NER intern, who spoke effusively about the value of her experience and said that others, like those who took Kuebler’s winter term class, felt the same way. Nearly a dozen students contacted by this magazine said they didn’t know what the NER was; one, a self-described fan, said he thought it would be a tragedy if the journal folded, but he understood the College’s position, in light of the budget crunch.
And Liebowitz says that not one of the letters he has received has come from someone who currently teaches, works, or studies at Middlebury; neither have the dissenting posts on his blog. So it’s not surprising that the dissenters’ focus has not been on what the College would lose if the New England Review was eliminated. Rather, they are looking more broadly, levying a charge that Middlebury is betraying an obligation to the literary community.
Spears disagrees with these critics. “In times like this, when universities and colleges are being forced to examine their own business models, it’s not enough to assert the cultural values of entities like NER and assume that they should get the same institutional support they’ve received in the past,” he writes. “During the last eight months, those assumptions have been turned upside down, and the NER, with help from the Middlebury administration, must now look for creative ways to fund the journal’s operation.”
He adds in a later interview: “The NER has never been asked or pushed to put itself on more solid economic footing. Not to sound Pollyanna-ish, but I think [the 2011 deadline] gives the Review a really good opportunity to go and find out what the potential is to gain additional revenues.”
Selling ads to be placed in NER’s pages is a possibility, though the advertising climate for literary journals isn’t so bright at the moment. Norton talks about boosting NER’s marketing—bookstore signings, reunion copies, etc.—to increase subscription numbers. Liebowitz talks about the possibility of a digital journal.
However, going purely online and eliminating all the printing (about $16,000 a year, according to Kuebler) and shipping costs (about $10,000 a year) would still leave the journal in the red. Even asking writers, who are paid $10 a page plus two copies of the issue, to contribute for free would leave a large gap. Cutting costs, alone, won’t be enough. Still, other literary journals have had success seeking outside funding. The Kenyon Review raised around $2 million, has established an endowment, and is supported in part by the National Foundation for the Arts.
Kuebler says that until now, the NER had never sought underwriting support, and she’s eager to reach out to foundations and potential benefactors. Perhaps that is why she sounds optimistic, even during such anxious times. She says that she knew of the NER when she was in high school; she saw it as part of the “Bread Loaf scene, the professional writers’ scene,” which helped attract her to Middlebury. She visits the writers’ conference every summer and says that the outpouring of support for NER from those writers is inspiring. She’s hoping that readers across the Middlebury alumni community and beyond will be similarly supportive.
For if the Review is to survive, that support—in dollars as much as in words—is more important than ever.
To support the New England Review, please contact Carolyn Kuebler at email@example.com