Writing in Public

An Interview with:

Boris Dralyuk (Executive Editor, Los Angeles Review of Books)

Maya Vinokour (Assistant Professor at NYU and Editor, All the Russias’ Blog)

 

This interview is part of a SEEB series written and organized by Jennifer Wilson on the “Public Humanities.” Interview responses edited and condensed for clarity.

“The Knowledge”
Portland Center for the Public Humanities at Portland State University
Designed by Harrell Fletcher

 

Jennifer Wilson: Can you each say a bit about your respective publications and how they’re distinct from other forums academics might be interested in writing for?

Boris Drayluk: The Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) is for the most part an online publication, although we have a print component. We publish three pieces a day and cover a wide range of subjects; we’re not simply a book review. We have about fifteen section editors who oversee genres ranging from the hard sciences to the humanities to memoir to science fiction. In terms of why academics might want to publish with us—our venue allows them to speak in more accessible terms, terms not devoid of specificity but aimed at a broader audience. As disciplinary discourses get narrower and narrower, we aim to broaden the conversation. We also attract half a million readers a month from all parts of the globe. Few academic publications can reach that kind of audience. I think that’s inherently appealing.

Maya Vinokour: All the Russias tries to embody a hybrid space, or something like the “third space” that coffee shops are supposed to be (not home, but not work, either). I like the idea of a publication that is academic but also open to experimentation, speculation, and even (or especially!) weirdness. As editor, I want the blog to be as heterogeneous as possible, so anything that’s of interest to the field is fair game. I would also say that 500 words, our stated minimum for submissions, is a low barrier to entry. The short form can be really helpful in that it requires low commitment, but offers a high potential for visibility. The blog has a wide and quite diverse readership, as I’ve learned over the past few months. I frequently get emails from people who are not in the field either with comments or submissions. They’re not involved in the formal academic pursuit of Russian, East European, or Eurasian studies, but they’re reading the blog and interested in what it has to say.  In terms of how we’re distinct from other places academics might publish, we take from a variety of contributors—both those entirely outside academia, and also from undergrads all the way to full professors and beyond. My ideal version of the blog is a panoply of voices and people who are all experimenting with new ideas.

JW: What kind of work by scholars do you typically publish and what kinds of writing would you like to see more of from them?

BD: Because we are, at least nominally, a book review, we tend to receive pitches for reviews. The kind of work I’d like to see from scholars of East and Central European and Eurasian studies would be reviews of important academic titles and translated fiction, as well as reviews of fiction yet to be translated—and not just reviews, but essays and think pieces on trends in their disciplines. One piece we published by Maya is exemplary of that. It was a review in shape, but also much more than that: a broad essay on books by Sorokin and Pelevin that have yet to be translated into English. I want our publication to push the conversation, to enable new translations, and to familiarize people outside of the discipline with work they should know. I want readers to clamor for new work, for new translations.

MV: We generally feature things that offer cultural or political observation, but also like to include posts pertaining to local matters in New York City. Anytime there’s an interesting new play or exhibition in New York or an event at the NYU Jordan Center, we try to illuminate it. It’s a combination of being tied to the origin of NYU and the Jordan Center and also looking out at the world beyond. In terms of the kind of post I’d love to publish more of in the future: ideally, All the Russias would become a really experimental forum, a laboratory for working out new research directions that may not be fully fleshed out. It could be really cool if people were willing to go out on a limb and feature things that they were just beginning to work through (although of course I understand how risky that can feel!).

JW: What do you think scholars, particular those with backgrounds in our field (Slavic, Eastern Europe and Central Asia studies), have to offer the public sphere?

MV: We’re obviously living through unique and interesting times, to put it lightly. I think in a way there’s a positive aspect to this for us as scholars in the humanities. We’re living in this unresolved and terrifying ideological free-fall, which means there’s also demand for explanations and narratives, for new means of theorizing this world we’re living in. As scholars of Russian and East European Studies, the most obvious thing that we have to offer is cultural insight that would be helpful in public policy matters. More broadly, as scholars of REEES literature and culture, we have this privileged access to a rich philosophical, social, and aesthetic tradition. If we learned to present it in the right way, in the most powerful and beautiful way, I believe we could parlay it into those insights that people are really craving. Personally, as a scholar of Russian literature, I feel pretty uniquely positioned to deal with the “accursed questions” which, in the past, the Anglo-American world felt largely free to ignore. But it can’t do that anymore. As humanists, we hold the intellectual and epistemological keys to thinking through all of these challenges. And that’s where places like LARB and All the Russias fit in—as bridges to a wider world.

BD: As humanists, as people who study literature, and as translators—Maya and I both translate—we have faith in literature’s explanatory power. We believe that the humanities can offer answers that no other discipline can offer,, especially when it comes to logo-centric cultures. Writing matters a great deal in the Slavic realm. These are cultures that have invested in the written word, and their literatures give us clues to a world beyond the confines of any book.

JW: Both LARB and All the Russias’ have featured numerous essays and interviews by academics. What in your experience are some of the most common challenges scholars face in adapting their writing style for a wider audience?

BD: The real challenge is that people are trained to speak to certain audiences. This isn’t just true of academics. If you work in a machine shop, you’re geared to speak to other mechanics. Academia is a kind of machine shop. Specialists have a jargon, a shorthand by which they communicate their ideas. When speaking to a broader audience, academics have to let go of that shorthand. They have to unpack terms they’re no longer used to unpacking. That is a challenge, but a challenge that can be easily overcome in the course of an edit. It’s just a matter of reminding contributors of what it takes to speak to a broader audience. [laughs] They remember what it’s like to speak to outsiders—you just have to remind them. The skill is never lost. It’s like riding a bicycle.

MV: I like this idea that it’s a process of re-socialization. [laughs] Everyone knows what it’s like to read something that’s captivating. The idea is just to identify that element in your own work and say it in the first sentence. That’s my most common comment: the interesting nugget that the piece was written to showcase is in there, but it has to come out quickly. Scholars want to qualify claims and equivocate and prepare the ground for whatever idea is coming, but when you’re writing something between 500–1200 words, you have two sentences to reveal that nugget or you’re in trouble.

BD: It was at one point the case that people who were specialists in their fields were expected to speak to a broader audience. And I think today’s academics want that too. They spend 15–20 years digging into something for a reason. And they’re eager to explain that reason.

JW: What kind of feedback have you gotten from academics who’ve written for LARB and All the Russias? What, if anything, have they shared with you about the experience of writing for the public? 

BD: I can’t even count how many notes of gratitude I’ve received from academics. People are deeply gratified, especially when they see comments on the bottom of the page from general readers. They enjoy receiving emails that acknowledge the value of their difficult, lonely work — emails from friends and relatives, as well as from perfect strangers. It’s a wonderful thing for me to see as an editor.

MV: Another thing you learn in academia is to never let anything out unless it’s in its most glorious polished form. It’s understandable. You don’t want to appear not fully together or incur the disapproval of your peers. People also worry about getting “scooped” in some way. And all of that is normal, and even conditioned into us by the structure of the profession. But I do think it’s vital for spaces to exist where people actually feel comfortable to be more informal. Man is a social animal, and the way that we develop our intellectual apparatus is by displaying it to other people and having a conversation about our ideas. So I try to balance that spirit with people’s comfort in sharing their ideas.

JW: For someone interested in publishing with LARB or All the Russias’, what advice would you give? 

BD: Write to me! I’m at boris@lareviewofbooks.org. We do like a robust pitch that explains the importance of a given topic, but we’ll take a one-line pitch and spin that out as well. We’re willing to work with writers on just about anything. Give us a try. We’d like to hear from you!

MV: People can reach me at alltherussias@gmail.com, and before that I encourage them to check out our style and submission guidelines. I’m excited to hear from people with ideas, whoever they may be—whether you’re just entering the field, adjacent to it, outside of it, whether you’ve published a little or a lot. The main thing for me is that you have some insight or thought you want to share. So when in doubt, just pitch or submit! The way that something like a blog works best is if it’s intellectually open and curious.  


Selected examples of public writing from scholars in the field:

 


Boris Dralyuk is a literary translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His recent publications include 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016), as well as translations of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2014 and 2016) and Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press, 2018).

Maya Vinokour is Assistant Professor in the Department of Russian & Slavic Studies at NYU.


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!


 

 

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