On a spring day in 2011, I got a call from the editor of The Southern Review. Jeanne Leiby—the first woman to run the storied literary journal—told me I'd been selected as the publication's graduate assistant. I was still waiting to hear back from other graduate schools (I had apps in from Missoula to Manhattan) but I said yes on the spot.
I had a pretty good setup in NYC—a great job at a design nonprofit, an apartment in Brooklyn, a great network of family and friends—and I got some screwy looks when I announced I was moving from the hippest corner of the country to Baton Rouge, and taking a 70 percent pay cut to work part time for a publication that was barely on the internet. But since I was a little girl holding court over “Emily’s Writing Club” in my backyard, I’d wanted a writing career. My jobs since undergrad had been great, including a stint at the Met. But they had shunted me away from literature until the only editing I was doing was on painting captions and press releases. I knew I needed to make a change.
Many say New York makes the world go round. But I knew that important things were happening down south, too. The Southern Review, founded in 1935, had been amongst the first to publish authors like Pulitzer Prize winner Eudora Welty. I wanted to contribute to that tradition; to help find the next generation of literary luminaries. So I stopped setting my watch to a New York minute and headed to Louisiana.
It turns out “Louisiana time” (more often associated with “Let the good times roll” than deadlines) is a great pace for thoughtful publishing. I set up camp in an upstairs bedroom (The Southern Review is housed in a converted sorority house) and sifted through thousands of manila envelopes full of submissions. After reading submissions from a huge range of talent, from National Book Award winners to ninth graders, I understood why Baton Rouge had become a magnet for literature in the first place, and why The Southern Review had become a standard bearer in American letters. I realized: There was a sort of magic down here.
Literary journals, a small but important slice of our culture’s creative pie, have faced the same challenges as many other fields in reaching gender equality. The Southern Review had a 70-year run of very talented, but also very white male editors. That tradition—the male part—stopped with the woman who hired me, Jeanne. She passed away unexpectedly in 2011, but had already set a precedent in her too-short tenure. I subsequently worked under two full-time editors—both women—and with colleagues at LSU Press, also run by a woman, we put out the journal four times a year. I’d had great female role models in New York, but found another, unexpected set in Louisiana. I’ll be the first to admit I had plenty of unfair southern belle stereotypes when I moved down here, but I found a set of smart, talented, hard-working women who were setting a new course for contemporary letters.
This summer, The Southern Review’s coeditor position came open. I threw everything I had into the chance to lead the creative vision of the journal and, with equal parts southern charm and Brooklyn chutzpah, I came out on top of a national search.
We just put the finishing touches on the autumn issue this past week--my first as coeditor, a post I share with the first mom to run the publication, Jessica Faust. As we were closing the issue, we heard that Margaree Little, a young poet we are publishing for the first time, had just won a major national prize. She’s one of 17 female writers in the autumn issue—a number that says less about gender and more about talent.
The Southern Review has come a long way in its first seventy-five years, and I’m looking forward to helping with the next decade or two. Now, go pick up a copy!
Emily Nemens is coeditor of The Southern Review, a literary journal published quarterly at Louisiana State University. Her writing has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Alimentum, and Esquire.com. In addition to writing fiction and editing, she is an accomplished illustrator.