The Bellevue Literary Review is turning twenty this year and the time has come for me to step down as the Senior Editor for Nonfiction. As a nephrologist, I wasn’t exactly sure what it was that literary editors did, but in the fall of 2000, I could not refuse the offer from Dr. Martin Blaser, the Chair of NYU’s Department of Medicine, to become one of three founding editors of the Bellevue Literary Review, which he and Danielle Ofri had just created.
The first calls for submissions brought in close to a thousand manuscripts—everything was paper in those days—and we spent many hours reading piles of prose, both fiction and nonfiction, as well as poetry. Each time I cleared my desk, a new stack of submissions would appear. Some dealt with terminating dialysis treatment, others described coping with chemotherapy, or how it feels to be psychotic. A few were lighter, like the story of a medical intern called upon to repair the gurgling toilet in his landlady’s upstairs apartment.
We, the editors, spent months winnowing down the great pile of submissions to 35 or 40 from which we would make our final selections in time to get our first issue to the printer in August of 2001. The final decisions were to be made while I was on vacation in Maine, but I wasn’t worried because I would have my new laptop with me. As always, I’d planned to use my month in Maine as a time to write, but I figured that generating lists of “must publish,” “okay if we have space,” and “reject,” followed by a brief e-mail to my co-editors, would not seriously disturb the rhythm of my writing efforts.
Then a strange thing happened. Clusters of messages began to crowd my inbox. My co-editors were now emailing furiously back and forth about the editing changes that would be necessary to help get the manuscripts into their best possible form. Of course I should have known that this is what editors do, but somehow my initial conception of the editorial process had focused on the selection of the stories, essays, or poetry, rather than the editing of them.
If editors find it challenging to work with a single author, and I expect that they do, the task of editing twenty authors’ submissions to the BLR was truly daunting. I put aside my own writing and started reading the BLR manuscripts again and again in order to make constructive suggestions to the author, or to fend off the at-times-overly-enthusiastic efforts of my co-editors which, I felt, sometimes distorted the author’s voice.
Each new voice I worked with, now as an editor, became one more voice in my head, and the number of e-mail messages escalated. Two or three times during the day and again in the evening, after gazing up at the star-filled night sky, I logged on to my computer to be greeted by AOL’s now quaint: “Welcome, Jerome. You have mail.” It would have been easy to disable the internet —totally or temporarily— but much as I relish the peace and quiet of our Maine coast, I’m not a Luddite. Plus I recognized my responsibility to the BLR and my co-editors, and if not to them, then certainly to those authors who like me, were finding their voices in the stories they submitted. I spent hours and days listening to a chorus of voices – some strong, some soft, some with great sadness – and I edited. Gradually I came to see that each of the writers whose work I edited was teaching me about “voice.”
The reading of our first issue was scheduled for early October in 2001, not long after the attack on the World Trade Center. Was it appropriate to be celebrating the creation of a new literary journal? After considerable discussion, we decided to go ahead, and the overwhelming response of attendees in the rotunda of Bellevue Hospital confirmed our decision. We have held readings of every issue of the BLR over the subsequent 20 years. Now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we have our readings online, but the voices of our writers are still heard.
After twenty years, I’m ready to step down as editor and an excellent replacement, Dr. Damon Tweedy, has already been recruited for this role. In my two decades of BLR editing, I have learned a great deal about writing and voice. In fact, I have come to depend on hearing the voices of other writers. So rather than bid farewell, I’ll just say, “see you soon,” as I intend to continue as a BLR reviewer, and look forward to our first post-pandemic reading, when we can all gather in person again.