When novelist Adam Ross was approached to take over the editor role of the Sewannee Review, the job came with a significant catch.
“Once a towering institution within American culture, the review had languished over the decades as its influence and readership had waned,” explains Alexandra Alter, writing in The New York Times book section.
“The journal, which once published works by literary giants like Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Cormac McCarthy and Wallace Stevens, was nearly moribund,” Alter continues. “When Mr. Ross was approached to apply for the position, the review had just a few hundred subscribers, and virtually no web presence. Its plain blue cover hadn’t changed since 1944. Reviving it seemed daunting.”
Daunting, indeed, especially given Ross’ background as a native New Yorker, now being asked to edit what was a bastion of America’s Southern literary tradition.
He took the job.
“This is a magazine with some of the greatest DNA in the American literary ecosystem,” said Mr. Ross, who has lived in Nashville for 22 years. “That seemed worth slowing my literary career down for.”
That was a year and a half ago, and the publication, which was on the brink of extinction with just a handful of subscribers and a design that hadn’t been updated since the mid-1940s, is enjoying a new life.
“Since Mr. Ross took over, individual subscriptions have climbed to 700, from 389 in January,” Alter notes, adding that, with schools and libraries included, the review now has a circulation of more than 1,000.
“At a publication that, for most of its history, skewed white and male, Mr. Ross has made a point of publishing women and writers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds,” Alter continues. “The new spring issue includes an autobiographical essay by the novelist Hannah Pittard about the dissolution of her marriage and an English translation of a triptych of stories by the Mexican novelist Mónica Lavín.”
Incredibly, this fall will mark the 500th edition of the Sewanee Review, now sporting a fresh design (including visuals for the first time ever) and a renewed energy and focus.
“They published every major American writer there was,” said Gary Fisketjon, vice president and editor at large at Knopf. “That was in an age that kind of has passed. I like to think it’s an age that can occur again.”
“It’s too soon to say, but he has the editorial attitude I like best, which is no rules except for taste,” said John Jeremiah Sullivan, a contributor to the most recent issue.
Could be that’s the best rule to have for a literary magazine. We wish Ross all the best.