Bennington College literary magazine wins prestigious Whiting Prize
The prestigious Whiting Literary Magazine Prize honors five recipients considered to be among the most innovative and essential publications at the forefront of American literary culture. This year, Bennington Review was one of those five. Chosen out of more than 80 applicants, the magazine won alongside publications based in New York and California. In their decision, The Whiting Foundation said the judges, "marveled at the polish and verve of the writing ... and sleek, gorgeous design."
Vermont Public's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Michael Dumanis, literature faculty at Bennington College and editor of Bennington Review. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: For those not familiar with Bennington Review, how would you describe the look, the content and the mission of the publication?
Michael Dumanis: It's a magazine that comes out twice a year. It's about 250 to 300 pages in length. And it's meant to be a high-production value, curated literary space — where you'll encounter innovative, intelligent and moving fiction, nonfiction, poetry and writing about film.
So, it's a mix of things. Where do get most of your material from?
We get between 1000 and 1,500 submissions a month through our website. And so a lot of the work is unsolicited. We get it from around the world. We get submissions from Nigeria, from India, from here in Vermont. And we also occasionally solicit work from particular writers that we're excited about.
How big is the staff at Bennington Review, and I'm wondering what winning this really important prize means to you and those who work on the publication?
I'm the primary editor, which in part means that I select the poetry and the nonfiction that we publish. In addition to me, we have a managing editor, Katrina Turner, who's originally from Vermont but is now based in New York, and a fiction editor who's also a professor at Bennington College.
In terms of winning the prize. I mean, it's thrilling. It's also just really affirming to receive this kind of national recognition.Michael Dumanis, literature faculty and Bennington College and editor of Bennington Review
For the last few years our fiction editor was the novelist and memoirist Benjamin Anastas. This fall my colleague, the fiction writer, Manuel Gonzales, will take over as fiction editor. We also work with a great freelance designer on our covers, on layout.
But that doesn't really give the full picture of the magazine as its first-and-foremost a kind of teaching journal. Once every year at Bennington, we have a class of approximately 10 undergraduate students working as poetry editorial assistants, and another class of 10 students working as prose editorial assistants. They serve as our first readers on submissions we receive, the students comment on each piece, they then discuss it collaboratively in class, they make recommendations to the editors.
Additionally, several students work full-time in the winter as editorial interns. To me this level of student involvement and engagement is really one of the magazine's most distinctive features.
In terms of winning the prize. I mean, it's thrilling. It's also just really affirming to receive this kind of national recognition. To give you just a little bit of background, in 2016 Bennington Review relaunched after a 30 year hiatus. It was originally founded in the mid-1960s by Laurence Jackson Hyman, the son of Shirley Jackson and the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. And then it existed for a few years, and then it reappeared from 1978 to 1985 as a rather prominent national literary journal, but then it paused for several decades.
So when we restarted it in 2016, as a print publication in a digital age, when print journals were frankly dying, left and right, this felt fairly vulnerable, and we weren't sure of how much momentum we would have. This award lets us know that others also still find value in print literary magazines. And more practically, it means we can increase how much we can pay our contributors for their writing. And it gives us the resources to work on further broadening our readership.
You mentioned so many important things there. The student involvement is really key, I'm glad you mentioned that. And you anticipated my next question as well, because judges said that the biannual publication "foretells the future of literary magazines," and I'm wondering what you think that means at a time, as you noted when getting people to read at all, in an increasingly digital and visual media universe is more of a challenge maybe than ever before?
Well, at one point, it seemed that the future of literary magazines was entirely virtual. So we wanted to counter that narrative of everything moving to an online virtual reading experience. We believe firmly in the pleasure of the material page, in the deep reading experience afforded through sitting down with an actual book in your hands, that has a carefully determined progression of work for you to encounter: a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I think as a magazine, thinking about what does it mean to foretell the future, we aim to be an incubator for literary innovation and for discovery. In general, small literary magazines across the board are often the first stop in the publishing process for tomorrow's novelists and essayists and poets. You'll be reading their debut books over the next decade. They're getting their first publications now. It's also a space where more established novelist often try out new literary experiments and play shorter works.
I think as a magazine, thinking about what does it mean to foretell the future, we aim to be an incubator for literary innovation and for discovery.Michael Dumanis, literature faculty and Bennington College and editor of Bennington Review
In winning this award, as you noted before, you get material sent to you from really all over the world. But what does this mean, do you think, for Vermont to have Bennington, just that town associated with such a prestigious Literary Award?
Well, I think it's really wonderful. I think in general, Vermont is a place that has so much tremendous literary activity going on. That may not be fully known nationally. I mean, the Vermont state poet right now, Mary Ruefle, is one of the foremost, one of the best writers in America today, as far as I'm concerned, and a resident of Bennington. In fact, an interview she did is in the newest issue of Bennington Review.
But I also want to say we're not the only literary journal in Vermont. Middlebury College has a great Journal, New England Review. Northern Vermont University has the Green Mountains Review. So for one thing, I just feel like this is a place with a lot of great literary culture in general. And I hope that one of the magazines in Vermont, winning this award helps put Vermont even more so on the map as a place where a lot of exciting things are happening with writing.
This award also comes with a $30,000 prize, would you mind telling us what you plan to do with that money?
This is a way for us to pay our contributors more than we're paying them right now. It's an opportunity to also contend with something that's frankly, a real issue right now, which is the skyrocketing cost of printing just about anything. Our production costs have really increased, which is particularly a problem when you have pretty high production values to begin with. So it's a way of enabling us to continue doing what we're doing with a pretty artful product in mind, but also but also a way of compensating the writers in a way they more aptly deserve.
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