The Craft of Writing

The Hopkins Review is a contender in the wide world of literary journals.

The Hopkins Review is a contender in the wide world of literary journals.

By Jennifer Howard
Photography by Will Kirk

It takes a certain amount of courage to publish a serious, print-based literary magazine these days. Readers have too many claims on their increasingly fragmented attention, and anyone with access to a computer or a smartphone can publish his or her work online as soon as it’s written. How can a small journal make its voice heard in the midst of so much digital clamor?

Like print books and independent bookstores, however, the literary magazine will not die. At the Krieger School, a small but well-regarded venture, The Hopkins Review, not only persists but shows signs of thriving, thanks to strong institutional support, robust creative and business partnerships, and a clear and evolving editorial vision. The founding editor of the journal’s current incarnation, John Irwin, is an author, poet, and beloved longtime Writing Seminars professor at the Krieger School with a joint appointment in the Department of English. His successor as editor is David Yezzi, a poet who teaches in the Writing Seminars and brings extensive editorial expertise to his role at the Review.

Some university-based literary journals have survived for decades. Examples include VQR (Virginia Quarterly Review), founded in 1925 at the University of Virginia, and The Iowa Review, founded in 1970 at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop. The granddaddy of them all, the Sewanee Review at the University of the South in Tennessee, has published continuously since 1892, an impressively long life for almost any publication.

The Hopkins Review doesn’t have that longevity—yet. It began its first run in 1947, published by the Writing Seminars, and ceased publication in 1953. Irwin revived it in 2008 as a partnership between the writing program and Johns Hopkins University Press.

Health issues recently forced Irwin to step down and pass the editorship over to Yezzi. But eight years on, the magazine appears stronger than ever—and it has avoided the fate of other journals that have had to either close down or move entirely online as the digital era overtook them.

“What John has built has weathered a culture that in other aspects is in decline,” Yezzi says. “We’re able to persist in bringing the best of print culture, with must-read articles by leading writers and scholars, with the support of Johns Hopkins University Press and the university and some donors.”

Committed to thoughtful prose

Literary journals are labors of love, run by dedicated editors who believe that what they do helps launch literary careers as well as build a community of loyal readers. Many well-known authors were first published in literary journals. The Yale Review, for instance, ran early works by such future literary lions as John Cheever, Eudora Welty, and Elizabeth Hardwick. That tradition of identifying and promoting talent remains a central preoccupation of journal editors today; it’s why they do what they do.

John Irwin, Decker Professor in the Humanities and former editor of The Hopkins Review.

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John Irwin, Decker Professor in the Humanities and former editor of The Hopkins Review.

The Hopkins Review owes much of its success to the broad and steady vision of former editor John Irwin, Decker Professor in the Humanities. Over tea at his house in Baltimore’s Homeland neighborhood, Irwin talks about the professional path that took him from his hometown of Houston to Johns Hopkins. He received his PhD in English from Rice University and landed his first teaching job in the Johns Hopkins English Department in 1970.

The Georgia Review, based at the University of Georgia, lured him away in 1974. He returned to Hopkins in 1977 to serve as chairman of the Writing Seminars, at a time when the program’s focus was expanding to serve undergraduates as well as graduate students. Irwin says, “Any kind of writing that could be taught, we would teach”—fiction and poetry, of course, but science writing and other nonfiction as well.

Irwin brought the same sense of mission to what’s known as the New Series of The Hopkins Review. He wanted the revived journal to be both serious and expansive, to reflect the broad range of creative and scholarly activity taking place at the university and its connections to the wider world.

“I envisioned that it was going to be a magazine where whatever your interest was, there would be at least one or two things in it that would interest you,” he says. That meant fiction and poetry and essays about music and the visual arts, even a regular roundup of Broadway shows.

And the new Review would run serious book reviews, a genre Irwin saw in decline. “One thing serious writers deserve is to have their writing taken seriously, first by an editor who accepts it and makes recommendations, and then by a reviewer,” Irwin says.

Irwin made it a priority to publish writers associated with the Writing Seminars or the Press, including marquee names like John Barth, John Hollander, and Frank Kermode. He also wanted to publish writers “at every stage of their careers”—not only the well-established names but the beginners and those in between.

Yezzi, too, intends to make the most of Johns Hopkins’ abundant local literary resources, though neither he nor the directors of the Writing Seminars want the journal to be simply a showcase for the program. For now, the physical magazine will look the same but feature an even broader range of material, including more artists’ portfolios and visual art as well as interviews with authors and artists.

That expansive sensibility appeals to one longtime reader and contributor, the poet and scholar Rosanna Warren. She earned her master’s degree from the Writing Seminars in 1980. She’s now the Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor on the University of Chicago’s John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought and the College. The fall 2015 issue of the Review carries her essay on Blake, Baudelaire, and Hart Crane’s relationship to the modern city.

The Hopkins Review doesn’t represent one school of aesthetics or one school of criticism,” Warren says. “It also has been committed to ideals of graceful, thoughtful prose, not laden with jargon.” In an era of specialization, “it’s important to have journals where sophisticated but comprehensible prose is an ideal.”

The reach of the internet

The Review exists thanks to a partnership between the Writing Seminars and Johns Hopkins University Press. The writing program provides the editorial vision and labor. Graduate students are recruited as readers and editors, gaining valuable experience. The Press handles business affairs and production, and takes on many of the financial dealings.

William Breichner, journals publisher for the Press, describes the pairing as a natural fit. The Press staff also believed that because Hopkins had one of the top writing programs in the country, “it should have a literary review that represents that community and that program,” Breichner says.

The Press publishes about 85 journals and also oversees Project MUSE, an electronic database of books and journals, which sells digital collections to academic libraries. That can help a small journal find readers in an increasingly digital environment.

“Literary reviews as a whole seem to be declining in terms of print distribution, like most print publications,” Breichner says. Even for journals like the Review that believe strongly in print, an internet presence has become a necessity. Readers can’t read what they can’t find. Increasingly the reach and impact is being felt online,” Breichner says.

photo of Hopkins Review staff

Associate Professor and Hopkins Review editor David Yezzi (center) discusses galleys with graduate students (from left) Zehra Nahbi, Amanda Gunn, John Allen, and Lauren Winchester.

The Review’s new editor is well positioned to take advantage of the possibilities of digital publishing without sacrificing the traditional strengths of a print journal. An accomplished and widely published poet, Yezzi has served as executive editor of The New Criterion (he’s still its poetry editor) and associate editor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review, among other professional accomplishments.

The journal’s website lists the current issue’s contents, along with submission guidelines and other useful details. Many of the poems in the issue can be accessed via links on the website, but longer pieces and full access require a subscription to Project MUSE.

The need to have a more robust online presence is very much on Yezzi’s mind. Enhancing the Review’s digital presence, however, will not displace the print edition. Yezzi sees the internet not as a threat but as a way to broaden the magazine’s reach.

“Once we’re able to put more content online, it will be seen by exponentially more people,” he says. “There’s no denying the reach of the internet.” A revamped Review website will go live this spring.

Using the internet as a megaphone for content does not mean giving it all away. Certain stories will remain behind the paywall, and others will be posted online for free “as a way to call attention to the issue.” Like many journals, the Review attracts more readers than subscribers. Yezzi points out that journals do not need lots of subscribers to be influential; serious writers still depend on outlets like the Review to build their careers.

“Polished and beautiful” works

Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s easy to run a literary magazine. The enterprise requires many hours of editorial time and attention to put together, and rarely do literary journals make money (which isn’t the point anyway). They’re vulnerable to institutional budget cuts at a time when the humanities rarely get enough support. “A lot of journals have been in crisis,” Yezzi says. “It seems like the only way to get support for these things is to ring the death knell and see who comes running.”

Johns Hopkins, however, has remained committed to its homegrown literary magazine. For that Yezzi credits Irwin’s strong editorship as well as the university’s ongoing investment in the humanities, including the Writing Seminars.

“There’s been a real effort to both honor that tradition and even to enrich it,” Yezzi says. “There’s lots going on in the arts at Hopkins, and the journal is part of that.”

Jean McGarry, who co-chairs the Writing Seminars with poet Mary Jo Salter, calls the Review “a tremendous asset for the department.” She says the journal “gives us a platform—in addition to our own books and the books of our students—to demonstrate what we’re doing at our own writing desks, and in the classroom.”

McGarry sees pedagogical and promotional benefit to having the Review associated with the department. “Our graduate students are deeply involved in the reading of manuscripts and copy editing, as well as the production that goes into serial publication, giving them a hand in the work of the journal, and a stake in its quality and renown,” she says in an email.

For Amanda Gunn, who received her MFA in poetry last spring from the Writing Seminars, working at the Review has been an integral part of her education at Johns Hopkins. An assistant editor this year, she reads poetry submissions and performs copyediting and proofreading—while also teaching as an adjunct in the writing program and applying to graduate school.

The Review gets several thousand submissions a year by mail and via Submittable, an online submissions platform used by many journals. The editors try to give writers an answer in about three months; at many publications, it can take editors six months or longer, to the great frustration of writers.

Because of Irwin’s interest in formal poetry, the Review has a history of publishing poems in that vein but is becoming more eclectic, Gunn says. The editors “each bring our own sensibilities to the magazine. It creates a nice balance.” Whatever they truly love, they pass on to Yezzi, who makes the final selection. “We work hard on the magazine, we’re proud of the magazine, and we want people to see it,” Gunn says.

Today, only a handful of contemporary literary journals are reliably strong, says poet and Ohio University English Associate Professor J. Allyn Rosser, who stepped down recently as editor of the well-regarded New Ohio Review. She counts The Hopkins Review among that elite group, noting that the works that appear in it are “polished and beautiful.”

“For the person who’s interested in serious literature and wants to see what’s being written now,” says Rosser, “we need these magazines.”


Jennifer Howard’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Chronicle of Higher Education, VQR, and elsewhere.