Speer Morgan has been with the Missouri Review for 40 of its 41 years. In that time, Morgan has led the publication to wild success, and the Missouri Review is now considered among the top literary magazines in the world. Its pages hold the work of Pulitzer winners and up-and-comers.
For our fourth episode, Morgan spoke with Vox about the Missouri Review's mission and history as well as his own views on writing and publishing.
"The editorial vision of the magazine," Morgan says, "includes the idea that we are going to try our best at all times, 12 months of the year, to be the one American magazine that is dependent entirely on quality, not on reputation."
Listen to Vox Voice on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play and Spotify.
Want more Vox?
Don’t miss a thing: Get more Vox straight to your inbox. Fill out the forms to receive highlights from our monthly issue, hand-picked calendar events, reviews, recipes and everything else you need to thrive in Columbia.
Speer Morgan, 2:02: Missouri Review is our literary magazine and we're working into our 42nd year. (We've) been publishing the magazine since 1979. And it's gone through a lot of a lot of changes over the years. We started as any young magazine, very much dependent on grants from the NEA and so forth to even exist. As we got better known and began to develop the magazine in the 80s, we decided what our editorial vision was, what our editorial purpose was. The editorial vision of the magazine includes the idea that we are going to try our best at all times, 12 months of the year, to be the one American magazine that is dependent entirely on quality, not on reputation. And so we became known as a discovery magazine over the years that followed, and consequently, we published over the years 25 Pulitzer Prize winners, and we've been called the mighty oak of the publishing world along with such presses as Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Knopf and The New Yorker and the Paris Review.
Taya White, 2:44: About how many submissions Do you get per issue?
SM, 2:46: About 3,000 to 4,000.
TW, 2:49: So what's the process like after submissions are accepted?
SM, 2:53: The process is that they're accepted, the acceptance letter is written, we make sure that they're okay with edits and and we work with them. Often, Evelyn Summers, our senior editor, will work with them on finalizing the manuscript and she's really, really good at that and sort of, again, kind of famous for that. The final edits are done, and that usually takes a month or two. And then we line it up and get all the contents ready for the issue. I mean, it is true that we have other readers, interns and advisors who are other readers, both undergraduates and graduate students who work for the magazine, and who thereby learn a great deal about the reality of publishing.
TW, 3:48: How does distributing a literary magazine work these days?
SM, 3:50: We started by simply printing the magazine and distributing it and finding subscribers. Of course in the old days, what that involved was mass-mailing and efforts in libraries to publish the magazine and so forth. But fortunately, we had enough sense to start quite early in doing online versions of the magazine. In fact, we started in the 80s before there was even really an internet. We started trying to distribute the magazine online insofar as there was an internet. So at that time it was a pay-per-minute use network that was really part of a defense computer that you could rent space on. So we started, actually, in 1983, 12 years before there was ever really a real internet, with the help of one of our interns, Mike McClaskey. Mike was the one who started us out, and we spent hours creating this early internet version in 1983. But then, when the internet really became real, we had a real website early on. And we started early on in distributing the magazine through a thing at Johns Hopkins called Project Muse, which is a worldwide distribution system for academic libraries. So it's all over Europe and Asia and the Americas, all over the world. And we have for the past 12 years or so, been the most-distributed literary magazine on Project Muse, receiving over 22,000 reads a year on Project Muse. So we're the number one lit mag on Project Muse, by far. So that's helped, being sort of aware of, and we also distribute the magazine to subscribers online. We have a very up-to-date subscriber system that allows you to read it on your phone or read it on your iPad or whatever with connections and all kinds of recordings. So that's a very up-to-date method of distribution with the subscriber method, the Project Muse method, and the print version. And these days, you've got to have those other things. It also allows us, because we're small and because we're academic and because we're at a university, we can try things that we ought to be doing, which is to make the magazine available in all-audio for those who maybe can't read or who prefer audio. So that distribution method, the subscribers who receive a subscription online have a professionally recorded version of the magazine that comes with it. All the pieces are professionally recorded. So, we're I think the only literary magazine that has that in the world.
TW, 7:43: What are qualities essential for a good literary magazine editor to have?
SM, 7:48: The combination that you need is both flexibility, inventiveness, literary taste and a business sense.
TW, 7:59: Do you have time to read outside the Missouri Review, and if so, what do you like to read?
SM, 8:03: Lately I've been reading a lot of history, and because my novels are historically set, it's not completely irrelevant. I'm reading Robert Wilson's history of P.T. Barnum right now.
TW, 8:14: Talk more about your own writing. In the past, you've said that you prefer not to write about your own life and you encourage young writers to look outside of themselves as well. Why is that?
SM, 8:22: I think the mistake that a lot of young writers make is that they're trying to rationalize their own lives and their own choices. And that can that can really mess up your fictional imagination. And if you can find a way to liberate yourself from that desire to rationalize your own choices, if you can liberate yourself from that and write freely about human nature, that's the way to go. Because that allows that opens up your imagination. In my case, I was I was trying to, in some ways, rationalize some of the difficulties of my life. And there were two or three of those major difficulties in my early life including the fact that I was an epileptic, and I kept trying to write about that in some interesting way. And so I would disguise it in various ways, and really it kept me, in some ways, locked into that group of issues. When I decided that I had to open up and find some subject that I could be free with, in my case it was historical but the area of the country that I come from and knew the most about and could research, I found myself able to be freer in that zone, writing about historical reality than about myself in disguise.
TW, 10:07: Do you always use influences from your own life in writing?
SM, 10:11: I think you do. I think you can't help but be influenced in some way, by your past, by your own history, by your education by what you've learned in the world. So I think that inevitably, it will affect your writing and it will influence your writing, and there's nothing wrong with that. I mean, it's easy for me to write easier for me to write realistically about, you know, western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. And it's easier for me to reach back in time in that area, and be surprisingly, even shockingly realistic about what it was really like because I reach back into that zone. My own history and my family's history reaches back into that zone.
TW, 11:10: What are some of the biggest surprises that come with the Found Text series?
SM, 11:12: Well, one thing is that when you're working with primary texts by important people, there's a kind of magic in primary texts when you find the letters from someone or an original manuscript by one of the Brontes or something by Twain, and you're actually reading the real scribbled-down first version of it. It's always interesting. I mean, there's a kind of magic and a kind of power in that. That is, and I hesitate to say this because it sounds like I'm merely using an exaggeration, but it's inexplicable, and it's magical. And there is a power that exceeds the obvious in dealing with primary text. And everybody who deals with primary texts will tell you that in one fashion or another.
When we started doing these, one of the first ones I did was from the Huntington Library in Pasadena. And the Huntington Library was a wonderful place to start because I met a very kind scholar who had been around for a long time. He was a Twain scholar, and he was aware of some of the new and underused material in the library. And he turned me on to the papers of Robert Morris. And we ended up doing a feature on on on the papers of Robert Morris, and he's a very interesting guy because he was the funder of the American Revolution. He was the man who came up with the money, even though there wasn't enough of it. He's the man and came up with what money there was for Washington's army. And he did it basically by hiding debt around Europe. Because he had various connections with through his mercantile business in Philadelphia. And so he had connections in Europe and was able to make those connections and come up with money. But the the Found Text that we did to concerned him going bankrupt after the Revolutionary War. And it was due to America's first speculation mania in the early years of the Republic. Revolutionary War debt in 1789 was trading at about 15 to 30 cents on the dollar. And there was much less reliance on bureaucracies and laws and other systems.
Various things popped up, various kind of crazy things popped up, including, speculation mania in Washington, D.C. real estate, and in other areas of real estate. That was the first crazy what you might call bubble in American history in the early 1790s. Indeed, in some ways, it was the most it was the grandest bubble in American history, the first and grandest. They were trying to build this new capital, Washington, D.C., in a swamp and trying to get money, trying to get people to pump money into this effort. So it depended very much on private investors. The initial auction in Washington, D.C. real estate was a total failure. A lot of people bought pieces of property, including George Washington. But, you know, it was a miserable failure as an auction. And so, Washington and others got their old friend from Philadelphia, Robert Morris, to contribute to this effort. He had been signatory to the Declaration of Independence, He'd been, you know, part of the Constitutional Convention, he'd been the superintendent of finance during the Revolutionary War. He was the one, if anyone, to figure this out. And he himself had already been engaging in land, and real estate speculation. He bought 1.5 million acres in New York and he bought 6 million more acres in seven other coast coastal states. So he bought 18,000 lots in this new city of Washington DC. And he had this plan to build an elegant home and in Philadelphia, which to turned into a nightmare as he began to go broke. But when he did go broke, when it became apparent that all his stuff wasn't going to hold up and that it wasn't worth that much money, he was imprisoned and thrown into debtors prison in Philadelphia.
During that time, he continued to write both in a diary and he continued to write letters. And so his papers were at the Huntington Library, and I was able to get them and to put together a kind of diary of his downfall and of his going to jail, where he spent most of the rest of his life. He spent seven years in prison at the first big new prison in the United States. The guy who funds the American Revolution is the guy who ends up in it. He was released long enough to live in home for a year or two before he died. So it's a fascinating story and a fascinating kind of early look at the catastrophes that we can fall into financially in this country and, from the start, we have fallen into in this country.
TW, 17:15: Do you remember what it felt like the first time when your work was published?
SM, 17:18: When I got my first novel acceptance, I do remember exactly how I felt. It was wonderful, because it was my third novel and my first two took a long time to write and fail at. My second novel took me three years to fail at. And so by the time I finished this third novel, it was do or die. And so, I was very happy when Atlantic Monthly Press took that took that novel, and I do definitely remember.
TW, 17:54: How would you say your own writing has changed over the years?
SM, 17:57: Writing has almost become enjoyable to me again, which is rather strange because when I was young, a young writer, it was a difficult experience. I mean, I was always having to sort of slave drive myself to get anything accomplished. And now, it comes much more naturally.
TW, 18:17: You said that you're not planning to retire just yet. But what are your hopes for the future at the Missouri Review after you're gone?
SM, 18:23: I hope that we remain able to evolve with the times. In my career, publishing has been through a lot of changes and and it's going to have to stay open to those kind of changes. And so I hope the magazine's able to do that.
TW, 18:39: If your life wasn't so consumed with literary magazines and writing, what do you think you'd be doing?
SM, 18:44: You know, I'd probably just be teaching. But if I weren't teaching literature, which was how I started, mostly teaching literary courses, I would probably be an entrepreneur or business person of some kind. Got it in my blood.