In order to celebrate five years and 20 issues of Cleaver Magazine, we are interviewing senior editors to hear their thoughts on their time with the magazine. It was my privilege to interview Nathaniel Popkin, the fiction review editor here at Cleaver.
Nathaniel is a writer, editor, historian, journalist, and the author of five books, including the novel Everything is Borrowed, forthcoming in May 2018 from New Door Books. He’s the co-editor of Who Will Speak for America?, a literary anthology in response to the American political crisis, also forthcoming, in June 2018 from Temple University Press. He’s the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine, as well as a prolific book critic focusing on literary fiction and works in translation. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Rumpus, Tablet Magazine, LitHub, The Millions, and the Kenyon Review, among other publications.
Nathaniel and I sat down, he in his office in Philadelphia where he lives and works, and me in my office in Seattle, and talked about why literary criticism is important, and what makes for good criticism.
Interview by Ryan Evans, producer of On the Edge.
Listen to the podcast interview of Nathaniel.
Ryan Evans: So how about you tell me a little more about your role with Cleaver?
Nathaniel Popkin: I read a lot of literary criticism, or I have been over the last couple of years, from a lot of different publications and I had a sense of what I liked about it and what I wanted to do with it and where I wanted to take it and so, somehow, proposed to [Karen Rile] that Cleaver should have a book review section and that that would be an interesting feature that could develop into something. It came naturally. And then we started to assemble a cadre of writers.
R: What was it that drew you to Cleaver specifically to start this project?
N: It was a couple things. One, I liked the vision for a literary magazine that was unbeholden to anything else. That was really focused on the quality of the work, the range of the work, that promoted young writers, and that sought to do something with a kind of seriousness. I think, more than that really, was the opportunity to start a review section that would focus on independent press and work in translation that was mostly being, and still is, being overlooked.
R: What about work in translation makes it important to have the criticism on?
N: There’s a whole world out there. There’s a whole world where people don’t give a shit or think about the United States of America or English language culture at all. Those worlds are vast, they’re complicated, they’re real, and we barely have any sense of them whatsoever. There’s lots of ways of getting a sense of them: you could learn another language and read the Budapest daily newspaper, you could watch foreign films, you could travel. And you can read literature, and literature always ends up being this magnificent entry into minds, events, and places. For me, as someone who cares deeply about literature that emerges from place, that is connected from place, that explores place, that seemed like an obvious thing to me.
R: I’m definitely starting to see more work in translation, even in small literary magazines.
N: The other thing about it, when you’re trying to…we’re trying to create a rich conversation. And we are trying to think in a very serious manner about literature of quality. So you get that because even what we get in translation to the US or to the English speaking world is a very select bit of what’s out there. But often that means it is of very high quality. The concept, the process, the system, the world of translation is kind of infinitely interesting. It’s interesting at an intellectual level, its interesting at a cultural level, and I think for anyone who’s interested in the way that people think about language, translation is just kind of an infinite deep pool.
R: So when you think about producing these book reviews and these works of criticism, how do you see your role as an editor coming into play?
N: It’s tough. One thing to say that really needs to be understood is that all of us work on Cleaver as a sideline. No one is getting paid. That’s important to remember. We are producing this very high-level magazine without it being real in the way that reality is judged in this country in the marketplace. We are doing it on the side. We are doing it with purpose, but as a result of it being on the side, the amount of intention is tempered a little bit. However, we do try to have a Cleaver approach. A lot of times the readers aren’t going to know who the writer is. Who is the author? And why then care? Why do you want to care about this person’s book? Is it just because of the subject or the plot? Maybe, but maybe there is something more that it can be embedded in. Looking at what the interesting contexts are, situating the book, the author, into those contexts, enriches, it seems to me, what we can do with a book review. There’s ways of connecting little book reviews to something much much bigger, and therefore making books, and literary life, more relevant.
R: So is that what sets a good book review apart from a subpar one is relevance or context?
N: In my opinion, a good book review situates the book so that it can be understood on its own terms and helps the reader to understand where it came from and what it means to us as readers. That would be the relevance. So I think yes, absolutely, a really great one will engage with the work on multiple levels and bring it to life. And that’s what we try to do.
R: To move away a little bit from that subject, from what I read about you and what I know about you, you’re a Philadelphia writer.
N: Yeah, I’m a Philadelphia writer.
R: What does that mean to you? To what extent does this idea of community impact your writing?
N: Me as a Philadelphia writer means two things. One, on a very basic level, over the years I’ve engaged with this place as subject of my writing, sometimes object of my writing, and sometimes setting for my writing. It’s just given me this sort of almost, but not quite, infinite world to explore the past, present, and sometimes future material-wise to work with. It’s also though, as I’ve been around for a long time, community. At publisher level, writer level, journalist level, reader level, bookstore level, we have great archive libraries and literary societies here that are important. So engaging with them too. It’s a very rich life. Because Philadelphia’s story has an origin story that’s connected to the American origin story, deeply connected of course, but it’s a place that has produced its own culture, its own particularity over a very long period of time and allows it to be a great literary subject. For me it’s that well. Cleaver is part of the well, it’s situated itself there from the get go. There is a Philadelphia connection to Cleaver that is important but also doesn’t limit it. And I think that’s an important concept.
R: What is the best advice you’ve been given as a writer or an editor.
N: Don’t overstate, in fact the opposite. Pull back as hard and as long as you can and let the power of what you’re concerned with come through on its own.
Ryan Evans is a writer from Seattle, Washington. After graduating from Western Washington University with a degree in creative writing, Ryan traveled to both Mongolia and Chile to teach English. He has a passion for nurturing underrepresented voices in literature.
Ryan edits and produces Cleaver’s podcast On The Edge.