On Three Cultures: Workshop, Review, Translation
Being called a name is disconcerting, as several commenters have noted. Tim Parks counted the number of times Lawrence Venuti called us (well, some of us) “belletristic” in his response to “Towards a Translation Culture,” and it is a telling total, certainly part of the rather persistent tone of Venuti’s essay. One response that hasn’t been voiced, though I know it is out there because people have told me, is the embracing one that not only acknowledges “belletrism” as the goal of a translation but even laments when it is not perceived in one’s work at all. One translator colleague said to me, “I wish someone would call me a belletrist!”
But Venuti’s critical term, for he uses it that way, disconcerting as that may be, arises out of a claim about workshop culture, some of its techniques at least, and an idea of its major mode of being. The picture he paints shows a workshop leader, Starr Poette, let’s say, who pronounces aesthetic judgment on the works brought to class by her budding poet MFA students with comments such as, “This isn’t working for me” and “Doesn’t that just take the top of your heads off, people?” These, Venuti claims, are the rather lazy tips of unexamined belletristic icebergs, the pronouncements of people who may not understand their own political engagements, their own biases of gender, race, class, and so on, people who are, most importantly, clearly unable to articulate, in anything but the most basic expressions of likes and dislikes, how such engagements influence their judgments. This “workshop culture” he sees reaching into the world of literary publishing, with editors who, if they have not emerged from the very same workshop-based MFA programs, at least mimic their lingo and, by extension, their major mode of being.
This picture, while somewhat caricatured (partly by me in my paraphrase), is accurate for only the weakest of teachers. Some workshop leaders use more modeling than others, requiring that their students read a lot. Others use only the material brought to class by their students. Either way, the method is based on peer evaluation supplemented by a “master teacher,” who is expected to guide, give tips, clues, strategies, and examples; and, if not say outright what is good and bad, then at least provide a general direction for how to figure that out for oneself. Who knows what kind of a teacher Starr Poette might turn out to be? She might be extremely knowledgeable about the history of poetic forms and ask her students to practice some of them. She might insist that her students read three books of poetry outside of class every week. She might recommend a range of poets that they are not likely to have heard of, from parts of the world they are not likely to think about. She might tie her students’ study of poetic composition to other forms of artistic creation, filmmaking for instance, or dance, or painting. Or she might very well have them read critical works of the sort that Venuti suggests would be helpful in enabling them to articulate their judgments effectively, Venuti’s own works perhaps. A principal virtue of the workshop method is its flexibility; but this can also turn into its main deficiency. As a result, what happens in such classes is variable, largely dependent on the teachers running them, but not only in the negative way Venuti suggests, where Starr says, “I like this, people; therefore, it is good.” Reducing the method to a recipe for “belletrism” depends upon painting an incomplete picture of the method in practice. The same is of course true of the translation workshop.
At the level of the aesthetic judgments exercised by literary editors, whom Venuti also targets in his piece, let me put on my editor’s hat to say that he is absolutely right, at least as a characterization of The Iowa Review: we only publish things that we like. On the other hand, we don’t publish everything that we like, because we can’t, so somehow we have to make judgments among the things we like, and that is usually the point at which the most interesting conversations take place. These are conversations about consistency and form, freshness, voice, politics, gender, age, style, color, reach, race, torque, place, bias, and business. And of course other stuff, too, like what else we’ve already got in the pipeline and for how long, how many other authors of X or Y kind we’ve published in recent issues, how vociferously or eloquently one reader or another might champion something, when in our submission period the work gets noticed, whether the author has a book coming out from a micro-press that we might nudge along by publishing an excerpt, whether we have artwork or an online feature or features to serve as accompaniment, or an upcoming event to serve as a platform. These discussions take place around a table, over email, over coffee, bagels, and cocktails (not in the office), among a diverse group of readers, students, editors, teachers, designers, scholars, writers, and translators. We try not to leave anyone out.
Venuti begins his essay by lamenting the inability or unwillingness of some editors to say exactly why they rejected some of his work. This, it seems to me, still with my editor’s hat on, shows a lack of understanding on his part of how publishing often works, the many parts, human and institutional, that need to be kept working, preferably together with a sense of shared purpose and enthusiasm. (Getting the institution enthusiastic is always a stretch.) If there is a big flaw in the system, and of course it is not perfect, it is likely at the very beginning, when the thousand-plus submissions come in and need to be fielded, sorted, mostly rejected. We publish about two percent of what we get. Sometimes excellent work—given the chance, I hope I would be able to articulate why it might be excellent—gets overlooked. That is inevitable given our volume and personnel. Ultimately, to quote my predecessor at TIR, David Hamilton, we take responsibility for the things we publish; we cannot take responsibility for the things we don’t. To articulate the myriad decision-making dynamics through which we publish particular works would probably be possible, though the document would be detailed, nuanced, and very long. It might be of interest to a scholar, but it would not be at all helpful to those planning to submit. To those whose work is rejected, it would be even less helpful. We often resort to the shortest of shorthand: we cannot “use” the work; it does not fit our current editorial “needs”; we did not find the voice compelling; or, as in the subtle former rejection note that now graces our aprons (which will be on sale at AWP, btw): “This is just to say / We have taken some plums / We found in our mailbox. / Delicious. Forgive us, / You were hoping….”