What’s the Story #43

Last year, the provost of Southern Methodist University abruptly announced the suspension of operations at SMU Press, a cost-cutting measure. The press had an annual budget of approximately $400,000 and three employees who had worked together for years: Keith Gregory, Kathryn Lang and George Ann Ratchford.

Together, they had edited and published books of the highest quality, and were a joy to work with. (At the time of the announcement, Creative Nonfiction had published three books with SMU Press and was under contract for two more.) Negotiating with Keith was a gentlemanly affair; as with any university press, there wasn’t a lot of money involved, but Keith was generous with review copies. George Ann produced beautiful books, and Kathryn was one of those editors who annoyed you to death in the best old-school tradition. No detail was too small to get past her—and, of course, the more annoying and nitpicky she was, the better the book became. The provost rewarded the trio for their loyal and dedicated service by giving them 30 days to clean out their desks.

After being deluged with letters expressing outrage and support, the provost backed down, sort of, and allowed the press to finish the books it had in process. Now, all three are gone, as is the press. But the story is not over. When the fate of SMU Press was announced, Barry Kitterman, an excellent short story writer, contacted some of the writers who had worked closely with the press to suggest a panel at the next annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, which would acknowledge the work the trio had done over the years and begin a conversation about what the loss of the press might mean to the literary publishing community. Not surprisingly, a lot of folks were interested in participating. Barry submitted the proposal (“SMU Press: A Last Hurrah?”) and waited for acceptance.

This was a no-brainer. If any organization in the United States would understand how sad and unfair it was that SMU Press was shut down—especially when SMU had money to build the George W. Bush Presidential Library and support a football program losing millions of dollars each year—it should have been AWP. And yet, the panel was rejected.

I will resist the urge to poke fun at or criticize some of the other events that were accepted. If you’re curious, you can go to AWP’s Web site and see what the program judges considered more important than discussing the slow disintegration of literary activity and life in America and thanking three people who worked so long to maintain a quality of excellence that is lacking in the trade publishing world these days. But since the theme of this issue is anger and revenge, and since the AWP meeting in Chicago is just around the corner, I want to go on record as saying this was a cold and completely inconsiderate act by an organization that supposedly represents the spirit and soul of the literary world.


Of course, there’s a lot to be angry about in our world, as a glance at this issue’s essays demonstrates. Among other things, they are concerned with war and its costs not only on those who participate actively in battle but on all of us; with the trauma of rape, of abuse, of divorce; and with the difficulties of wishing peace on all living things. It may surprise you to know that some of them are also quite funny, at least in parts.

Finally, for this issue’s Encounter, I interviewed Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights and a frequent contributor to magazines like Vanity Fair. Buzz is known for standing by his beliefs and speaking out with honest and biting directness, despite the consequences. Anger (and certainly revenge) is often portrayed as inappropriate, but Buzz and the writers in this issue remind us that anger in the service of a good cause has its place.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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