ARETÉ: A RETROSPECTIVE
For the last 14 years Craig Raine’s astonishing stamina and drive has produced more than 40 issues of Areté, the arts triquarterly he edits. Raine is also a poet, sometime novelist and playwright, and until recently a fellow of New College, Oxford. That’s at least three full-time jobs, and he’s just published a collection in celebration of the magazine’s longevity called A Retrospective. On the inside cover is a flattering but pessimistic note, written not long after the magazine’s first issue came out, from the then literary editor of the Observer, Robert McCrum, advising his readers to buy copies of the magazine to keep as collector’s items, “because, he assured them, the magazine would shortly close down.” The retrospective (which looks just like the regular magazine, except that it’s 504 pages long and an inch and a half thick) proves that McCrum’s prediction turns out to have been greatly exaggerated.
Areté is made possible by a team of terrific editorial assistants (the novelist Adam Thirlwell was one), a few grants, Raine’s spectacular literary chums and family and the support of New College. They’ve also published a few books, including a play by Raine’s daughter Nina, entitled Tiger Country, and A Scattering, a collection of poems by Christopher Reid. Bold-face names with work in this bumper issue include Tom Stoppard, Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Ralph Fiennes, William Boyd, Patrick Marber, Martin Amis, David Hare, Hugh Grant, Christopher Hampton and Harold Pinter; it ends with a piece about Raymond Carver by Raine himself. Less bold names include Raine’s playwright son Moses, his Shakespeare scholar-wife Ann Pasternak Slater, wwword contributor Veronica Horwell and me.
Any length, no money
The editorial policy is simple, says Raine: “We publish anything we like. I don’t have a position at all. I’m open to anything.” The range is broad—in Raine’s opinion, as broad as the New Yorker‘s, “if not broader.” He never gives people word lengths for articles, he says: “We like long things, short things, anything that is independent. The only thing we don’t like is the sort of stuff that fills the Sunday newspapers: completely thoughtless, bandwagon-hopping, consensus journalism.”
Despite his propensity for bombast and his inability to pay most contributors, Raine is fantastically good at wooing writers for the magazine. “Kundera took seven years,” he says, and eventually wrote for the magazine not once but twice. He’s grateful for how little contributors mind about the money. “The truth is,” he says, “I do pay when I have money—it’s just that I use it to pay people who live in places like Poland and have no money. People like Tom Stoppard really don’t expect payment.” Raine believes that writers understand that what they are getting in exchange for not being paid is as much space as they need. “The common idea is that if you’re paying for it, it gives you the right to cut,” says Raine, but, he admits, “I’ve never been inhibited by the fact that people are doing things for nothing. If you choose good writers they know what you’re doing when you edit them. They’re not stupid and they’re not vain.”
An editor who likes to edit
Raine, who has been book editor at the New Statesman and poetry editor at Faber & Faber, is an editor who likes to edit. “People think that poetry is something that cannot be edited, but actually I edit a lot. It depends if the pieces are any good or not, but I’m not a non-interventionist editor. I was much too scared of Philip Larkin [published by Faber] to say anything to him, but then I didn’t handle any of his books. I edited Seamus Heaney, though.” He pointed out to Heaney, for instance, that the phrase “sweat-cured haft,” which Heaney used to describe a hay fork, was something he’d used four times previously in other books. Editing Areté, he says, isn’t so different from those other jobs. “I have more help, in fact, and my assistants put their oar in,” he says. “They’re not shy.” Thirlwell, for example, once insisted that they not publish a lazy piece by a well-known drama critic that Raine for a moment had felt obliged to run.
Exquisite in its execution
It would be wrong not to mention what Areté looks like. John Updike said that “Areté is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions,” and he was right. Richard van den Dool, its designer, has done something very clever and very hard to pull off: the text-only magazine is designed in a very quiet way, using classic, unshowy typography—and yet it doesn’t look boring. It’s distinctive and low-pitched in much the same way as the New Yorker is, but without the cartoons. The look also helps to tame the diversity of Areté’s many voices and subjects without dimming it. A collector’s item after all, perhaps.
A Retrospective is available from Areté‘s website, or you can order a copy directly from wwword by sending a cheque for $25 (includes postage and packing) made out to Lucy Sisman, or by sending/calling in your credit-card details:
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