The Dialectic of The Missouri Review

By Lydia Ghuman

When I started my internship at the Missouri Review, I didn’t know what to expect. Despite my “superlative” qualifications of being able to quote both J.D. Salinger and Jhumpa Lahiri on the fly, being a self-proclaimed expert in feminist critical theory, and having the ability to read for a whole day on the couch while only being sustained by water and a plethora of junk food, there was little my ardent reading did to prepare me in knowing about details of publishing that were vital to a literary magazine. Before starting the internship, a multitude of questions would barrage my brain within a perpetual series of how’s : How does a literary magazine actually function? How does the Missouri Review make decisions about what pieces to include? How does the world of publishing differ from the world of a writer? How does publishing and writing intersect with each other? How do you become a managing editor of a literary magazine?

Luckily, I write this blog post after being an intern at TMR for almost three months now and can assure you that I have a much stronger understanding of literary magazines and publishing, but I didn’t gain this understanding just by experiencing interning at a literary magazine, as merely witnessing how a literary magazine gets published doesn’t necessarily mean you are learning about the process or anything about the industry of publishing for that matter. I was able to learn more about publishing, literary magazines, and TMR as a whole because of how my experience was shaped into one that questioned and explored the effects of every decision made. The importance of not only answering the “how” of a question, but also the “why” of a question was emphasized to me through the surprising intersectionality between my experiences at TMR and a feminist theory piece I had recently read by Shulamith Firestone titled “The Dialectic of Sex.”

For those that are well versed in the words of Firestone, I am in no means suggesting that TMR is a radically liberal magazine, that hopes to use the ideology of Marx and Engels to overthrow the patriarchy and create a society free from the shackles of sexism–but oddly enough, they are similar in how they both approach their goals in a dialectic way.

Firestone proposed that the first step in eradicating sexism was to change the way people approached getting rid of it. She urged that in order to change people’s approach, the intellectual patterns of Marx and Engels should be adopted—not because of the way they viewed the economy and definitely not because of the inherent sexism within their ideas, but because, to quote Firestone herself, “they attempted for the first time to put historical and cultural change on a real basis, to trace the development of economic classes to organic causes. By understanding thoroughly the mechanics of history, they hoped to show how to master it.”

Marx and Engels not only demonstrated how there were flaws in economic systems, but by looking back onto what parts of the past created this system and what elements of the present sustain it, they were able to critically think about the issue at hand and explain why what they viewed to be this flawed structure existed, bringing them a step closer in explaining how to get rid of it. Firestone also adopted this method to not only explain how sexism existed, but why it did in the hopes that this finer understanding would make it easier to remove sexism and create an inclusive society. In turn, I believe that TMR embodies this dialectic method by not only showing how decisions are made at a literary magazine and in the field of publishing, but why they are made in the hopes of creating a more successful magazine.

Along with reading manuscripts, my time in the internship class of TMR has been spent cultivating and analyzing a series of questions, as well as answers to those questions, in order to better understand how and why the magazine functions in the way that it does:

Why was this the certain cover for an issue? Aesthetics is of course a factor, but also to create something that is timeless, affordable, appealing, and that relates to the content of the issue. The analysis of a cover always sparks more questions, and makes one think: Was this the best choice for the cover? What parts of the cover’s design worked well, and which parts didn’t work so well? How can we learn from the parts of this current cover that didn’t work so well to improve the choices made for the next issue’s cover?

Are online submission fees inherently classist? It is classist in the sense that having a submission fee assumes that all people submitting to the magazine have the funds to create a bank account and have a debit or credit card, which isn’t the case. Despite this, part of me feels that this fee is necessary to support the magazine, but that feeling brings up another question: Is this three dollar fee really necessary to support the magazine? Would we be able to create a system where the online fee is taken away for a couple of months, in order to create a time of the year where people who can’t afford the online fee are able to submit, yet still have the rest of the year have paid submissions so the magazine can gain revenue? What problems exist within that proposed system?

Why does VIDA matter in the world of publishing? VIDA is important in the field of publishing as it highlights how difficult it is for women to get published. Doing this forces literary magazines and publishing agencies to asses themselves and see if they are publishing predominantly more male writers than female writers. As an intern who reviews manuscripts, it makes me question if I am doing the same thing, and makes me more observant when reviewing submissions. It also allows me to acknowledge the sexism that exists in the field of publishing, and wonder why it exists. Is there something intrinsically unsatisfactory with the way females write that makes their writing get rejected, some deeper psychology behind it all? Are some publishing agencies purposefully rejecting female writers? Is it fair to accept certain writers over others in order to diversify the literature that is published by literary magazines and publishing firms?

As evidenced by my answers to the questions above, some questions just lead to more questions and contemplation instead of a concrete answer, yet I would argue that the analysis and existence of these questions, instead of the concrete answers themselves, has been the most fulfilling way to learn about TMR and the field of publishing. Analyzing and attempting to answer these questions with my fellow interns creates an enriching learning experience that not only identifies aspects of the magazine, but explains why they are there, and generates discussions that debate whether certain aspects of the magazine should continue to exist. These discussions are important and are what allowed me to notice the parallel between what I was discussing at TMR and with Firestone’s writing. Just as Firestone wanted to spark a dialectic conversation of the origins and perpetuations of sexism in order to create an inclusive society, these discussions within my TMR internship class promote a dialectic conversation on how aspects of the magazine originated and why they continue to exist in an effort to make a magazine that creates a positive impact for its society of readers. Whether it be discussing the design of a current issue’s cover, highlighting sexism in the publishing industry, or identifying ways that our magazine may cause barriers for certain people that wish to submit their work, it reminds me how we all as readers, writers, and individuals should recognize and positively shape the impact that our writing and actions have on society.

I realize positively shaping our impact so that it benefits society is a huge call to action. Do I hope for all literary magazines, readers, and writers to band together in an effort to eradicate the microagressions of society they may subtly perpetuate? No, not necessarily. But should we all at least think about the idea? Think about the deeper impacts of our actions in something as seemingly harmless as publishing a literary magazine, writing a new piece, or reading without analyzing the content of the story? Yes, absolutely yes.