Inventing The Common Reader Part one

During the years I served as director of the Center for the Humanities, I started a small literary review called Belles Lettres. I had hoped that it could become something like the New York Review of Books, if it could attract sufficient capital to expand its distribution and to pay its contributors respectable fees. For several reasons, Belles Lettres was never able to become a truly self-sustaining publication, or even try to become that. But in stating this aspiration about Belles Lettres, I am hardly revealing anything that people who had some knowledge of what the Center for the Humanities was about did not know. That is to say, I express this hope to anyone who would listen.

To be sure, I was not interested in starting a journal, academic or otherwise, but rather a magazine with some of the intellectual trappings of a journal, or let us say a magazine with the qualities of a journal that would be attractive to a non-academic audience.

Belles Lettres was mostly review-essays, most of them written by Washington University faculty, many of them of amazingly high quality. And apparently it was read by far more people than I ever suspected. Dana Gioia wrote that he enjoyed it immensely and thought it was the one of the best publications on the scene. Amiri Baraka sent a card about how terrible, how dumb, one of the reviews was. (I won’t say which one as to spare the writer’s feelings.) But his note indicated that he read the magazine, if not regularly, certainly more than once, which is the only thing that really matters to an editor. In short, despite the fact that I was unable to make Belles Lettres what I wanted it to be, it had, remarkably, an incredible reputation. Getting letters, post cards, and emails about how wonderful Belles Lettres was from various readers, famous and not, was heady stuff, especially as we at the Center were not trying to make it a national magazine. And it surely was not, by any means, a national magazine, in any meaningful sense of that phrase. We simply mailed it without charge to anyone who wanted it. As it turned out, close to 10,000 readers around the country wanted it. We even had readers in other countries. That surprised me, but it also convinced me that if a publication has high quality writing, then it will find readers or, at it were, readers will find it. And Washington University faculty members were good writers. Many of them better than good. And WU faculty worked cheap, in fact, for nearly nothing. Doing Belles Lettres, despite the stress of putting it two or three times a year, was undoubtedly the most fun I ever had as an editor.

I had been doing quite a bit of editing in recent years. For two years, Bantam published the Best African American Essays and Best African American Fiction series of which I was the general editor. (How I was talked into doing that is another story.) Amassing work for the volume editors to read (Nikki Giovanni, Randall Kennedy, the late E. Lynn Harris, and Debra Dickerson) was a daunting task, all the more so because while there is more writing around by African Americans than many may think, there is less of it by far than white writing, because, alas, blacks are a minority group. It was the dilemma of both too much and not enough. Thank God I had a graduate student who helped me locate material. On the whole, though, it was a genial but uneasy challenge working with the individual editors. The effort resembled a director working with actors: How hard do you push them to make certain choices, and whose book is it anyway, theirs or mine? Am I trying to get a book that reflects their thinking or reflects what I think their thinking ought to be? I was disappointed that Bantam pulled the plug on this experiment after two years because I think that over time the books would have made a major difference in how readers see and understand African American letters. For those few years, at least, I knew as much about what was being published in the corners and crevices, in the Internet nooks and crannies of African-American literature as anyone could. Now, I am as ignorant as I ever was, a sort of blissful discomfort.

There was something so exquisitely American about the chance, like playing rock music in a garage with your buddies or making meth in a trailer with some local losers in the hopes of getting good and rich. So, I gave the publication that tentative title of The Common Reader, not necessarily after Virginia Woolf or Samuel Johnson, but rather in homage to the grade-school texts that are used to teach children to read.

As a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (rather unsettlingly so this past summer of our presidential discontent), I have thought for a long time about throwing my hat in the ring and becoming a candidate for the editorship of Daedalus, the noted journal of the Academy. Daedalus has not had an editor for years, since the departure of Jim Miller in 2008. Every issue since then has been under the aegis of a guest editor. (I liked Jim’s work as editor but I guess some others, whose opinions counted a great deal more than mine, didn’t.) As it is published four times a year, and being the editor is a paid position, it would have necessitated reducing my obligations here at Washington University. I think in today’s parlance that is called “transitioning.” Living for some significant part of the year in Cambridge did not seem such a horrible fate. I guest-edited the winter 2011 issue subtitled “Race in the Age of Obama.” I just recently finished co-guest-editing (with music professors Patrick Burke of Washington University and Mina Yang of the University of Southern California) the fall 2013 issue on American Music. I have served on the Academy’s publication committee for years. In other words, I am deeply familiar with Daedalus and have experience editing it. But I never did begin a campaign to become the editor of Daedalus. Mark Wrighton intervened before I really could get any effort in that way off the ground.

In 2012, Mark approached me about starting a journal at Washington University, something that would be along the lines of Daedalus, sort of. Maybe a bit more along the lines of American Scholar or perhaps The Wilson Quarterly. “Writing with just the right patina of eggheadedness,” I would sometimes jokingly say to myself. I did not instantly say I would take this on. Going after the editorship of Daedalus seemed far more attractive: Daedalus was an established publication with an established readership built on the membership of the Academy; it has a very good support staff in place; it is dedicated to remaining a print publication, something that appealed to me greatly.

But the invitation to start a journal—I mean, a magazine, a publication—was simply too seductive to resist. Suppose I could make this thing a star, a real presence in the intellectual and cultural realm? Suppose I could actually make it self-sustaining? Suppose it could make money? (Daedalus loses money; the Academy is trying to make it lose money more slowly.) I think every editor is at heart not simply a talent scout or casting director but an entrepreneur looking for the heroic moment when he or she snatches profit from the jaws of failure. This could be everything that I dreamed for Belles Lettres and more. Besides, I was especially intrigued by the idea that the journal would be both print and online. Why drive a car that has been built for you (Daedalus) which also comes with its fair share of fiercely opinionated but well-meaning engineers when one can actually, like a bad black dog of a tinkerer, build your own car. There was something so exquisitely American about the chance, like playing rock music in a garage with your buddies or making meth in a trailer with some local losers in the hopes of getting good and rich.

So, I gave the publication that tentative title of The Common Reader, not necessarily after Virginia Woolf or Samuel Johnson, but rather in homage to the grade-school texts that are used to teach children to read. The chancellor helped me to form a journal committee made up of faculty and administrators from around the university and placed the whole bundle, like a baby on a doorstep, before the office of the new provost. And so the adventure begins.

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