Interview with Poetics Today editor Brian McHale

We recently sat down with new Poetics Today editor Brian McHale to discuss the journal’s DNA, upcoming special issues, and what submitters to the journal need to know.

IMG_5179Can you tell us a bit about the history of Poetics Today?

Poetics Today has an origin story, like a superhero. It was founded in 1979 as the platform and mouthpiece for a group of researchers at Tel Aviv University. The founder was Professor Benjamin Hrushovski (who later changed his name to Harshav), who was my mentor, and who left Hebrew University in the late ’60s and migrated to the new, brash Tel Aviv University.

Hrushovski brought with him some young scholars and founded a group dedicated to the systematic study of literature in the tradition of Central and Eastern Europe, where he had been educated. That circle, his younger colleagues and his first generation of students, became the Tel Aviv School. Initially they published in Hebrew-language journals, and then by the mid-’70s or thereabouts, they felt like they were ready for prime time and needed to jump into an English-language journal.

There was a journal called Poetics and Theory of Literature, or PTL, which lasted for about three years and was published by a European press. Hrushovski thought he could do better, so he started publishing Poetics Today on his own through the Porter Institute at Tel Aviv, starting in 1979. The idea was that the journal would represent the work of this group, but that it would also represent the international scope of their collective project. Right from the get-go, it was very internationally oriented, mainly thanks to Hrushovski’s cosmopolitan view. Americans and Europeans were in there from the beginning with a sense of a shared project.

In its early years, Poetics Today had a really major impact on reviving the systematic study of narrative, in particular. It captured papers from some important conferences that were held in Tel Aviv in the late ’70s and early ’80s. That tradition of narrative study was revisited about ten years later with another set of issues at the end of the ’80s and beginning of the ’90s—about the time when the journal came to Duke University Press—which again gave a boost to narrative studies.

So the journal made some important interventions right from the beginning. I think a lot of it remains in the spirit of Professor Hrushovski, even though he didn’t continue as editor for very long. He left Israel, went to Yale, and left the journal editing to other people. But thanks to him, part of the journal’s DNA is this continuity with the Central and Eastern European traditions of literary study—Russian Formalists, the Prague School, German literary theorists of the early twentieth century, all of that—and a friendly rivalry with the other schools of literary study of about the same vintage: the French group and the Soviet semioticians who were the contemporaries of the Tel Aviv School.

And I think that’s all still there. That’s one of the virtues of the journal, that the DNA persists, and that gives it part of its distinctive quality.

It sounds like the journal has a very rich history.

Right, and it’s interesting to many younger researchers. Many of the upcoming special issues are being guest-edited by a younger generation of scholars, and they’ll include many contributors who belong to that younger generation. So there’s some consensus among them that it’s still relevant and worth thinking about.

ddpt_37_2How did you come to be involved with the journal?

I arrived in Tel Aviv as a research assistant in 1977, and I worked on the last year or so of the journal PTL. When Poetics Today was launched in 1979, I was an editorial assistant at the outset. I worked with the journal as long as I was in Tel Aviv, which was until 1993, and continued in some editorial role even after I returned to the States.

In a sense I was there from the beginning, with changing job descriptions over time, until the start of the twenty-first century, when there was a parting of ways between me and the editor. After that, I didn’t have much involvement with Poetics Today until a year ago, when the previous editor needed to withdraw and I stepped in to be an editor for the interim.

Given its history and its distinctive DNA, my sense is that Poetics Today is really a journal that belongs in Tel Aviv, that the editorial headquarters should be there. My intention is to return it there at the earliest opportunity and, in the meantime, be a responsible steward for the journal and its tradition.

Where do you intend to take the journal during your tenure as editor?

I want to preserve the journal’s sense of continuity—that it’s the journal that continued to revisit and rethink those traditions of literary and cultural study from the early twentieth century. Over the intervening decades, the previous editor had done excellent work keeping that tradition alive by being hospitable to the newest versions of that kind of literary study: in particular, the recent crossover between cognitive science and literary studies. I want to continue revisiting that tradition in a critical and revisionist way.

I also want to maintain the journal’s cosmopolitanism, which is one of its strengths. We have nearly as many contributors from Europe as we do from North America, and we have a large European readership. I want to make sure that continues and, if possible, to expand our range to Asia. There’s a good deal of interest there but not very many contributors yet, so there are some opportunities there. I’d also like to expand the readership there—that would be a good outcome of my tenure as editor.

Pragmatically speaking, I want to turn the journal over in good shape to whoever comes next, so they can pick up and step into this role without too much pain and adjustment. I want them to have a cushion of material in the pipeline so that, right from the get-go, they can begin working on the projects that interest them most.

ddpt_36_4Tell us about your forthcoming special issues.

We actually have a number of special issues in the pipeline. Part of my strategy has been to invite people to propose special issues and to pursue the special issues that were already in the pipeline. It has lots of good upsides: it buys me some time, and it also expands the range of the journal in all kinds of senses—in the disciplinary sense, but also in the sense of the people who are involved. It’s good advertising, and it’s good for the intellectual health of the journal.

There’s a special issue coming up at the beginning of next year on metaphor, which has historically been one of the strengths of Poetics Today. There was quite a lot of important publication in the study of metaphor early on in its history, and now we’re revisiting some of that.

Over the next two years, we have two and a half issues on the interface between cognitive science and literary and cultural studies, which is a cutting-edge topic. We’ve got one full issue on cognitive studies and cultural studies, and we have another issue on cognitive literary studies from the point of view of knowledge, understanding, and well-being, which is a different concept than we’ve seen before. There’s also at least half of an issue involved in a dialogue between cognitive literary studies and another tendency in contemporary literary studies, which is the study of the unnatural, or the unnaturalness of literature. The two are sort of competing paradigms, and there’s lots of occasion there for dialogue but also for mutual miscomprehension, so this issue will put the two approaches in conversation with each other.

Then we’ll have a special issue on the history of the novel from the point of view of narrative theory and at least two issues on various dimensions of new media and media studies, which is another cutting-edge topic in the field right now. Those are planned for somewhere around 2018 or 2019.

These issues are a pretty good representation of the areas we cover and that we have historically covered. The media material is new; we don’t have a long history of that. But there’s a long tradition in Poetics Today of addressing the other topics. So that’s what’s on the horizon.

Is there anything specific you’re looking for in submissions?

We’ve been very open to all kinds of material. When I get queries about appropriate contributions, I say, “Go look at some issues of the journal and see what kinds of things we’ve been doing. If you can imagine your paper belonging there, then send it to us.”

One rule of thumb is that this is a theory-oriented journal, and anyone who’s proposing a case study or specific analysis has to be able to demonstrate that it has theoretical implications. Poetics Today is not a journal of interpretation, except interpretation in the light of some clarification of theory, demonstration of theory, or reflection on theory.

Submitters should also know that the journal conceives of materials quite broadly. That is, it could be canonical literature; it could be so-called genre literature; it could be pop culture materials; it could be film, video, or new media materials. The range of cultural products that we feel could belong in the journal is very wide. As long as we can see that the paper is entering into conversations about theory in the field, then the actual materials discussed could be very various.

Want to keep up with Poetics Today? Read the latest issue,No Future (I),” or sign up for table-of-contents alerts at the journal’s online site. Subscribe to the journal at dukeupress.edu.

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