An Interview with Jennifer Acker

Natalie Shapero
September 9, 2014
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The issue of how the internet has altered literary publishing is, when you get right down to it, a trick question: we don’t know yet. New modes of existence for literature online continue to emerge and evolve, and we’re always on the lookout for fellow magazines that are taking risks and pushing into innovative new spaces. This week, in honor of new online initiatives at The Common, a literary magazine based out of Amherst, Massachusetts, we asked Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Acker to answer a few questions for us:

The mission statement of The Common tells readers that the magazine both “seeks to recapture an old idea” and works toward achieving “a modern sense of place.” How does the magazine reconcile or complicate these two seemingly contrasting impulses?

Natalie and KR, thanks for taking the time to ask these thoughtful questions.

For a long time, “sense of place” seemed to refer to American literature of a particular era and limited regions (Eudora Welty and William Faulkner in the South, Wallace Stegner in the West, for example). This archaic connotation was compounded when our day-to-day world began to “shrink,” when people began traveling more easily and more often and technology allowed us to talk with people far away—a physical and virtual mobility inconceivable to earlier generations. The first years of discovering the vastness of the Internet also made it seem, for a while, that where one lives, or where one was from, would become obsolete as factors that shape our identities and behavior. And yet, when was the last time you met someone who didn’t ask Where are you from? A quick eavesdrop—in a café, a party, a chat room—and a look around at contemporary art-making shows how relevant our places are in shaping our attitudes and aspirations. At The Common, we’re reinvigorating this seemingly old term to point out what we’ve truly never lost. The work we publish demonstrates how sense of place continues to be important, daily, on both practical and metaphorical levels. We investigate how modern lives are shaped, for good and for worse, by our environments, which are changing more quickly than ever, while acknowledging, in the very ‘conversations’ that take shape in our issues and online, that this sense is not one of confining boundaries but of opening and intersecting territories. My hope is that our mission statement calls attention to all of the old and new ways we engage in understanding, naming, and creating places.

Speaking of attending both to the past and the present, you recently launched a slate of new, online-only features. One of these offerings, The Common Podcast, includes excerpts from the magazine’s selections, followed by conversation between contributors. How did you settle on this format for your podcast, and what do you see as its advantages? Were you influenced by other literary (or non-literary) podcasts?

We’re very excited about this new podcast series, and we’ve gotten gratifying initial response. I love the way podcasts keep us company with the vibrancy of human voices while allowing us to stay in our own heads. I’d wanted to create a podcast for a while, but we didn’t have the bandwidth until Publicity and Events Coordinator Steven Tagle joined our staff last year and invested a lot of time and energy into developing the feature, with the significant help of many student interns. Though there’s magic in recordings like Symphony Space or The New Yorker‘s fiction podcast that are mostly one-way, because literary experience is so often solitary, we wanted a format that was more dynamic, conversational like the Slate Culture Gabfest and Late Night Library. Just as when you go to a reading and the Q&A brings a special charge to the room, these podcasts are an opportunity to communicate in real time, to access our contributors as writers and readers.

The other consideration in creating the format goes back to our conception of a print issue as its own space in which pieces subtly resonate with one another. One doesn’t have to read the magazine front to back, but it’s the way I put an issue together. I think about the arc of the reader’s experience moving chronologically page to page. As many magazine editors will tell you, surprising, subtle connections form, sometimes inexplicably and unintentionally, between writing and images bound between covers. Certain themes and questions emerge and recur, and reading an essay toward the end of an issue can make you reconsider a short story toward the beginning. The authors published in an issue are part of a special event; this group of people and their work will never come together in this way again, and we want to celebrate this singularity and to encourage that communal feeling. One of the most gratifying features that technology has given us is ready access to an author’s voice—the opportunity to listen, not only to the author reading, but in conversation.

Refreshingly, The Common doesn’t shy away from running longer pieces, both in print and with the online “Long Reads” feature. What do you say to the sometime conventional wisdom that online publications should err on the side of short and snappy, since a reader’s attention might be more readily diverted at a computer than when sitting in a chair with a physical magazine?

While I agree that short and snappy pieces are more shareable, and may be more visibly popular, they don’t make up the whole experience of any reader–any curious, intelligent, and empathetic reader. We strive to remind people of the pleasure and value of a longer immersion in imaginary worlds or the thought processes of a fellow human being. Technology offers readers a broad range, from the 140-character quip to multimedia investigative journalism, and in that space we certainly see a home for writing that demands and commands its length. Our web design, like the print design, features ample white space and is ad-free, intentionally creating a quiet space in which to read. And we—Web Essays Editor Elizabeth Witte and I—choose and edit the Long Reads pieces carefully; they must be captivating in style, subject, and revelation.

Interestingly, it’s also mobile-friendly technology that’s encouraged us to publish longer pieces online. So many of us spend daily time commuting, in a waiting room, or on a park bench, and we can now read a longer piece on our device in a nice font and without too much eyestrain—if not in one sitting, over the course of a day or two. So while I do sometimes think it’s a shame that we spend the in-between moments in our days head-down to the gadgets in our hands, instead of looking around and letting our minds wander, or striking up a conversation with a stranger, these moments can be equally wonderful with the company of a “long read.”

Your new interview feature, “Ask a Local,” offers a writer’s-eye view of a particular location, delving into landscape, climate, economic engines, neologisms, cuisine, and more. What was the impetus for starting this column? What goes into the choice of featured city or town?

Ask a Local grew out of the twin desires to talk to more writers and explore more places—to be introduced to a new place or see a familiar one with fresh eyes. Who better to give a sense of a place than writers, people who are a natural observers and who often feel ourselves to be outsiders? The column editor, Marian Crotty, and I met while we were both living temporarily in Abu Dhabi, so we have a shared inclination to seek out the particular, unusual details that can define a place. We began thinking about interviewing writers who wrote about particular places, but because people move around so much these days, finding a writer who returns in his or her fiction or essays to the same place is increasingly rare. Then we turned to asking writers to tell us things about their home that only locals would know. In a funny way, it’s also a kind of public service, a free quirky guidebook. We try to capture a diversity of places and people.

Do you think the internet has a “sense of place” all its own, or is it closer to being nowhere than somewhere?

I think about this question a lot, and it came up recently in a book review I was writing, considering a narrator who spends as much time online as he does in Dubai, a place I know to be a kind of no man’s land that’s always inventing itself. Since we began using the Internet, I think one thing we’ve learned is that digital communications and virtual communities are a fantastic means of getting in touch and of learning, of having conversations and even falling in love, but I think humans, as a species, will go crazy if we spend more time online than in the tangible environments where we eat, sleep, run, and breathe. The Internet is a means of spending time, not a place to spend it. We sometimes refer to it as if it were a place—just as we spend time “in our heads”—but it’s not a place. It’s a tool.

 

 

 

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