A Conversation with Eric Lorberer

By Lindsey Lewis Smithson


Can you tell us a little bit about Rain Taxi?

We started in 1996 as a book review, and have continued to publish our quarterly print magazine since then.  Along the way we also started two chapbook publishing imprints, Ohm Editions and the Brainstorm Series, which have published small books by some great writers like James Tate, Paul Auster, Anne Waldman, John Yau, Alice Notley, and so many other writers we’ve been really fortunate to work with.  We also have the website, which publishes a completely distinct edition of our review (no reviews that appear online appear in print, and vice-versa), and also includes video interviews and a good deal of other fun content.  In 2001 we founded the Twin Cities Book Festival, which is the largest literary gathering in the upper Midwest, and which has grown every year.  We’ve had the pleasure of hosting some amazing guests (last year we had Sharon Olds, Gerald Stern, Chris Ware, Mark Z. Danielewski, and more).  The Bookfest takes place in the fall, but we host a good number of smaller-scale readings throughout the year as part of the Rain Taxi Reading Series.  For the local crowd, we also maintain the Twin Cities Literary Calendar, a comprehensive and frequently updated calendar of literary events—there are often upwards of 30 literary events per week in the area, so it’s nice to have one consolidated reference for readers. In all our work, we aim to champion and grow the amazing literary culture that links adventurous writers, publishers, and readers.

Rain Taxi was founded by Randall Heath and Carolyn Kuebler in 1996—how did you come to be the editor and what goals did you have for the journal when you started?  Has the direction of the journal changed since 1996?

I contributed a review to the first issue of the magazine, then met up with Randall and Carolyn for coffee—which turned out to be an epic session of sharing ideas, a caffeine-fueled vision quest.  They subsequently invited me to join them full-on in their quixotic endeavor, and we all nurtured Rain Taxi together for several years, increasing page count, editorial scope, and circulation. The rest is just a bunch of hard work and scraping by. Our goal was to shine a light on underappreciated literature and to carve out a more culturally relevant space for the art form, and that hasn’t changed. I think the direction hasn’t so much changed as expanded in the ensuing years, though in some ways it’s also narrowed the aperture: we’re committed to print culture, for instance, though we use and acknowledge the role of the digital. 

What do you and your staff look for in a book review?

We look for any variety of thoughtful, considerate criticism.  By which I mean that we respond to someone who takes care to meet the work on its own terms, think of it in the larger context of the literary culture and history, and reflects not only upon the aesthetics of the work but the broader implications that can be culled from it. Most of what we publish, I hope, strives to assess the author’s aesthetic ambition and describe accurately its path in the work at hand. In some ways, it’s easier to identify what we don’t like: we don’t like book reviews that bring attention to the reviewer, rather than the work.  We don’t like book reviews that are uncritically subjective—snark, ax-grinding, or fawning don’t really do readers much good.  The purpose of a book review in our minds is to contribute to the progress of literature as an exceptional means of expressing the human condition.  Just giving something the “thumbs up or down” doesn’t quite do it justice.

Is there a particular genre or style of writing that you feel is frequently overlooked in terms of reviews, and what do you think authors and publishers can do to bridge that gap? 

Absolutely—we’re one of the only nationally distributed magazines that continue to emphasize poetry.  It isn’t marketed like novels, poets aren’t glorified like memoirists, there is no Hollywood machinery that can bolster its standing in our media culture.  We feel that poetry still matters, and we feel justified in part by the thousands of individuals who continue to write and study and earn MFAs in poetry all over the world.  But in terms of what we can do to bridge that gap, I think that’s a very complex question that goes beyond the literary realm.  This is a world of streaming, of instantaneity, which in some sense goes against the very ontology of the book.

For students who are just graduating with their degrees, how can they start writing book reviews?

Start by . . . writing book reviews.  Read a lot and write about the books you read. Read book reviews and see how people are talking about and thinking about books.

Do you have any recommendations for reviewers faced with having to write a negative review? And to follow, how do you handle negative reviews as the editor?

If a reviewer doesn’t like a book, there are still ways to think and write about it productively.  Talking about how much you disliked a book isn’t nearly as interesting as investigating the reasons behind your reaction, analyzing the failures of the book, or contextualizing the book in a way that lets readers learn something new despite its shortcomings.  If we get an overwhelmingly negative review, we’ll often try to locate these elements and suggest revisions that gear the review toward a productive reading of the text, rather than a merely subjective reaction to it.

Have you ever gotten backlash for a review that you have written or published? Is there anything you’d like to say to writers, or readers for that matter, who respond negatively to a review?

Yeah, we’ve had the occasional disgruntled writer weigh in, but if I were to say anything to them, honestly, it would be “Thanks for reading Rain Taxi!”

To switch gears a little, how can writers, especially indie writers or self-published writers, get their books out for review?

There are a lot of ways to increase visibility—participate on panels, give readings, exhibit at fairs, develop your social media presence.  There are a lot of outlets that won’t pay attention to a book until other outlets are paying attention to it—and writers just have to accept that. Work hard, believe in what you’re doing, and keep doing it. Of course, writers should send their books to appropriate outlets, but don’t try to blanket the known universe, and do recognize that there just isn’t enough world and time for those outlets to get to everything. We only review a fraction of what we receive, but we do look at everything, and our knowledge accretes over time, and that’s turned out to be beneficial for some folks down the road, in myriad ways. 

Aside from reviews and criticism, Rain Taxi also publishes chapbooks, takes the lead in the Twin Cities Book Festival, and hosts the Rain Taxi Reading Series. What inspired the transition into publishing and public events?

It’s the same motivation across the board: we love books, and we want to increase their audience and cultural relevance. We host the annual Twin Cities Book Festival, which came about because the Twin Cities didn’t have one.  Now we’re in our thirteenth year, and it’s the biggest literary festival in the upper Midwest. We’ve been able to invite some brilliant writers to the Twin Cities, and our community here reacts really strongly to it—it’s a highlight of the year for sure.  As for publishing, a lot of the opportunities to work with writers develop organically, and that’s how we like it. Just like the review focuses on books that don’t get the attention they deserve, our chapbooks tend to be works that aren’t necessarily conventional or expected; they have some sense of challenge and risk. I think it’s some of the coolest work some of these writers have done. For both events and chapbooks, they round out the work of the Review—we couldn’t be as holistic in our mission without them. 

 

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