EditorialTough Acts to Follow
This is my first issue as editor of The Common Review, and thus my maiden voyage as the author of this column. In fact, this is the first issue in the magazine’s nine-year history not under the editorial stewardship of Daniel Born, its founding editor. As some of you may have by now heard, Dan has set sail for other shores: in August he stepped down both as editor of The Common Review and as vice president for postsecondary programs at the Great Books Foundation to take a position with Kaplan University.
Dan is one tough act to follow.
Michael Bérubé, a frequent contributor to these pages (and the president-elect of the Modern Language Association), recently remarked that The Common Review has “consistently been one of the best general-readership magazines of the past decade, thanks mostly to the superb editorial work of Daniel Born.” I couldn’t agree more. And I’m privileged to have seen what that superb editorial work looked like up close, in real time, as a member of the magazine’s editorial board since 2003.
Dan’s intellectual fingerprints are everywhere in the magazine. His editorial columns (themselves a heck of a tough act to follow) put his omnivorous range, his sinewy prose, and his mischievous wit on full display. But the work of an editor is often invisible to the reader’s naked eye. Those of us on the magazine’s editorial board, however, were treated to a series of private screenings of Dan’s prowess as an editor. Four times a year, he presided over some of the most spirited and stimulating conversations I’ve ever been part of. He was an orchestra conductor—he had to be, with the likes of me, and the former Poetry magazine editor Joseph Parisi, and the novelist and critic Achy Obejas around the table, each of us impossibly impassioned, at times downright intransigent.
Dan loved hearing us dig in and hold forth—he let us perform our solos—but he knew it could go on ad infinitum and come to no conclusion without his intervention. Strategically, deftly, without undercutting any of us, he moved the conversation forward. He took the various slabs of clay from around the table and molded them together. The editorial board meetings of The Common Review are our Algonquin Round Table, as one of our members recently remarked. Dan was their maestro.
And he skillfully conducted the larger orchestra that has performed in the pages of the magazine over these nine years.
Dan attracted a wealth of great writing into the pages of The Common Review. And he started from scratch. What exactly was this magazine he was inviting people to write for? Well, nothing—yet. It was what he was making it into. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Dan had studied with the likes of Irving Howe. The godfather of the New York Intellectuals supervised Dan’s dissertation at City University of New York, which became Dan’s 1996 book The Birth of Liberal Guilt in the English Novel: Charles Dickens to H. G. Wells. Howe knew a thing or two about editing a magazine—indeed, starting one up—having launched Dissent in 1954 and edited it until his death in 1993. Not a bad model. So Dan started The Common Review from scratch but had a deep well from which to draw.
Nonetheless, catapulting a new magazine into the world is a tall order. And Dan made The Common Review into something very impressive from the get-go. As he told the Chicago Reader in a wonderful 2003 profile, he saw in the magazine a chance “to try something, to gamble in a way. To launch something very tenuous, but with great potential.” Within just two years, Utne Reader had nominated The Common Review for an Independent Press Award for best arts and literary coverage, and three years later, Utne nominated it for best writing. “Book Coverage Is Down, but Not at The Common Review,” declared an Utne blog post in 2007. The Common Review, it continued, was “wholeheartedly dedicated to all things book-related.” To sit down with it is to get the “fix” that you “can no longer find in the daily newspapers.”
A historian and critic recently bemoaned to me that “there are so few good small magazines out there with both literary and critical verve.” The Common Review