The Pissing Dog and the Hydrant: A Meditation On Nonfiction & Editing

B.J.HollarsB.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction–Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America (the 2012 recipient of the Society of Midland Author’s Award) and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa (the 2014 recipient of the Blei/Derleth Nonfiction Award)—as well as a collection of stories, Sightings.  He has also edited three books: You Must Be This Tall To Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside The Story (2009), Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings (2011) and Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction (2013).  His hybrid text, Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction will be published in the fall of 2014. An assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, he lives a simple existence with his wife, their children, and their dog.


It could have been any of you in here. And probably, it should have been many of you. But the difficulty of editing a nonfiction anthology such as my own, Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, is that the work is too great and there is too much of it. Of course, in many respects this is a wonderful problem and speaks to the strength of our genre. Not only do we have a surplus of stories, but we have a surplus of stories worth telling. You don’t need to take my word for it. Pick up any issue of Creative Nonfiction or Fourth Genre or Brevity, or any of a hundred others, and the proof will be in the pages.

We are a genre thriving, and though the people on this panel represent various anthologies, even with all our collected work combined, there are still plenty of omissions. We can champion great work, sure, but we can never champion all of it.

When I think about my own experiences editing anthologies, the part I rarely talk about is what an uncertain process it truly is. There’s rarely an art to it, unless your definition of art includes reading essays in your underwear for sixteen hours a day. If so, then yes, this is art of the highest caliber. But truthfully, selecting work for an anthology is often a scattershot approach firmly grounded in illogicalities and aesthetical aberrations too numerous to name. What we do is imperfect, culling a mere fraction of so much deserving work. But for me, making the attempt is better than not, and while no one anthology will ever be all-encompassing, at least it’s a place to start.

At the risk of putting myself at the center of a target, I’ll add that when it comes to editing an anthology, there’s always the problem of the gatekeeper. To put it in terms we can all understand—and I’m going to ask you to say it with me later, so listen closely—“What the hell does B.J. Hollars know?”

It’s a question I’ve faced often, one that usually warrants a reply, though rarely is one given. Mostly what B.J. Hollars knows is to keep his mouth shut, acknowledging that his own selections as to what makes the cut is usually dependent on a wide array of flawed factors from biased personal preferences, to horoscopes, tea leaves, Tarot cards, and even the occasional weather report.

I kid, of course (at least about the weather report).

But if we’re going to get real for a moment, isn’t this unscientific approach to selection—to some extent—true of most of the world’s publications? In our defense I’ll add that art is not science, and thus, the unscientific approach we often take seems fitting for our work. For many, serendipity is our science, and when the work falls in place we just know. Though I will be the first to admit that intuition can be a faulty metric, and having been behind the curtain for more than a few selection committee meetings, I know—as I think may of us in this room know—that sometimes even the best intentioned editors overlook the masterpiece for the safe bet, take the big fish over a small fish because the big fish is less of a risk.

I’m a strong believer that anthologies shouldn’t be about the “who” but the “what.” That they should be less about who contributes and more about the contributions themselves. At least in a perfect world. But the difficult truth is that the world remains imperfect—check my lottery tickets as proof.

We are but mere mortals, after all, and who among us will pass on the Pulitzer Prize winner in the hopes that we might make NoName McGee a star. I joke, but the truth within the joke is that when a publisher finally gives an editor the green light to move forward, its with the implied understanding that the editor will create a product that might just manage the most unlikely of things: a profit.

Now before you start slinging your fruit, let me repeat: I believe an anthology should be about the writing, not the writers. Nevertheless, we mount our big fish on our walls for a reason. Because there is at least a little pride in what has been obtained.

All fish taxidermy aside, what I’m trying to say is this: when it comes to the world of editing and publishing we make due with an imperfect system. In the words of—let’s say Socrates—Sometimes you’re the pissing dog, sometimes you’re the hydrant.

Meet the hydrant.

Of course, I like to tell myself that it all gets worked out in the karmic bathwaters of the universe, though I suppose we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that while there are many factors beyond our control, the one factor we do control is our ability to create great work.

That is it, but that is everything.

Sure, we can hobnob at conferences and trade any number of business cards and communicable diseases, and this, too, might make some difference. But even at the risk of being carted off by the AWP police, let me take a moment to tell you the truth: Shaking hands and buying drinks won’t make us better writers.

Still, it’ll make the world feel a little less lonely.

And that alone is worth mounting on the wall.

//

Several years back, when I began my tenure as the nonfiction editor for Black Warrior Review, I did so with hesitation. After all, say it with me now: “What the hell does B.J. Hollars know?” On that occasion, all I knew was that I had big shoes to fill, shoes once belonging to none other than Colin Rafferty himself. Colin had just handed the torch my way, and all I was trying to do was keep from burning the place to the ground. The truth was, I had no previous experience as a nonfiction editor, and barely any as an editor. For my 365 days on the job, I claimed every day was my first day.

Perhaps my biggest regret occurred during one of our first selection meetings, in which the selection committee discussed the possible publication of an essay entitled “Whistling in the Dark” by Naomi Kimbell. Colin was in the meeting—nothing like having your predecessor in the room to make you sweat—and when we finally voted, I found, much to my horror, that the room was split.

All eyes turned to me.

Colin voted yes—he knew a fine essay when he saw one—but ultimately, with the conviction of a wilting flower, for whatever reason, I voted no. To this day, I can’t tell you why. It’s possible I just raised my hand at the wrong time, though maybe, in truth, some small part of me just wanted to be the pissing dog for a change.

I agonized over that vote, and put off sending the rejection as long as I could.

If memory serves, when I finally sent the rejection, I wrote something like this:

Dear Madam,

I am a hydrant that dogs piss on. Forgive me my trespass.

Affectionately yours,

Naomi forgave me my trespass, and not only that, she resent the essay with a few minor edits.

This time, we—by which I mean “I”—knew readily to accept it.

In the universe’s effort to rub it in, of course the essay went on to receive an honorable mention in the following year’s Best American Essays. And it deserved it.

What I deserved was a blow to my ego, and I graciously accepted that as well.

Though I’d probably put that essay through enough, I wasn’t done with it yet.

I re-solicited it for Blurring the Boundaries, and I’m proud to say that Naomi’s essay can now be found within its pages.

The moral of the story is this:

Sometimes an editor will reject your piece before publishing it twice.

//

All together now, one last time:

“What the hell does B.J. Hollars know?”

Thank you for asking.

I know this:

That when I set out to edit a nonfiction anthology, it was important to me that the work included wasn’t just a repackaging of what we’ve all already seen before. There is nothing wrong with the traditional essay, but I didn’t feel that the traditional essay needed my help. What I wanted to do was create a space for essays that subvert the essay form, essays that slipped out of their straight jackets and tried to outmaneuver Montaigne. I wanted essays that would allows readers and writers to think differently, essays anxious to deconstruct structure, break all the rules we’ve worked so hard to dream up. I wanted to create a place that celebrated possibility, a book that might blow minds.

I’m not sure I’ve achieved all that.

After all, what the hell does B.J. “The Hydrant” Hollars know?

What I know is that I learned a lot throughout the process. Most importantly, perhaps, that piecing together an anthology feels a lot like leaping stone to stone across a raging river.

There’s no promise of safety, and no guarantee you’ll make it to the other side.

But upon looking back, the view will look wondrous, even if you didn’t see it along the way.

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