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The Spenser Review in Review
by Jane Grogan, Andrew Hadfield, David Lee Miller, Julian Lethbridge, Richard Danson Brown

Many will know of the origins of our online publication, The Spenser Review in the quarterly hard-copy Spenser Newsletter, serving International Spenser Society members globally since – it is hard to believe – the 1960s. All of the past editions since 1970 can be accessed on Spenser Online as PDFs, the makings of an enjoyable afternoon’s reading. For an outgoing editor of the online format, it is humbling to scan through the Fall 1970 issue. Boasting 324 subscribers (each paying the equivalent of $2), of which 105 are libraries, the co-editors A. Kent Hieatt and Elizabeth Bieman offer apologies for yet again offering an expanded issue –  but one which still involves postponing material, to manage the backlog and ‘to keep pace with current work’. Subscribers even have the benefit of an index to the issue, concluding its nineteen densely-typed pages. (They also note the appearance of an intriguing new journal called English Literary Renaissance …) In the years since, the Newsletter has had various forms, and a host of distinguished editors. For my own part, receiving a copy in the post during graduate study always made for a happy day, for the sense of connection it provided to a welcoming community of admired scholars it offered, however far-off.

Those figures changed significantly – subscriptions gave way to open access, and readers multiplied – when David Lee Miller and Julian Lethbridge took the Newsletter online and transformed it into the Spenser Review. They did so with the help of a host of scholars from Cambridge, Washington University St Louis, the University of South Carolina and of course the International Spenser Society. But many of the familiar features of the Newsletter remained – the census of abstracts, the sense of connection with members of the International Spenser Society, the collegiality and wide range of its interests, beginning with the Spenserian. At this moment of transition, we want to pay tribute to the generosity, dedication and sheer hard work of all the previous editors – among them, A. Kent Hieatt, Elizabeth Bieman, David Kaula, Donald Cheney, M.W. Copeland, Foster Provost, Cherie Ann Haeger, Hugh MacLean, Darry J. Gless, Jerome S. Dees, Theresa Krier, and Sheila T. Cavanagh – as well as the corresponding editors, editorial assistants and research assistants, and all the many supporters and wellwillers. And we count ourselves among them as The Spenser Review enters its next exciting stage.

 

Jane Grogan (and Andrew Hadfield)

 

**************************************************

The Spenser Review, 2013-17

David Lee Miller

 

I assumed the editorship of The Spenser Review in the fall of 2012, in part at the urging of our late friend and colleague Judith Anderson. My first priority was to put the journal online, and to take advantage of the opportunity for a complete redesign of the style and format. Our first issue appeared in 42.2-3 (Winter 2013), dedicated to the memory of Marshall Grossman in the first of a series of ‘In Memoriam’ features that remain on my short-list of favourite pieces. I bowed out at the end of 2017 with a brief note of thanks and appreciation: “Congé,” SpR 47.3.40 (Fall 2017). I said then, ‘It seems to me that the emergence of this born-digital venue has been very much a collective work of the Spenser community. I feel lucky to have been there to facilitate and see it happen.’

It was a special stroke of good fortune that Julian Lethbridge offered to serve as Book Review Editor. Julian’s energy and his network of contacts enabled us to take advantage of our new digital format to broaden the international reach of the journal. He recruited reviewers from all over, and we ran a few features in which global correspondents would report on work from China, Japan, Italy, Germany, and other countries. There was some tension between us because I was opposed to self-publication, but the partnership was highly productive.

We tried some experiments that seemed worth the risk: for instance, going to a dues-free scheme for financing the International Spenser Society. It was a nice idea that didn’t work. I implemented an “Editor’s Choice” feature, which published by invitation work I found especially appealing, on topics that I sometimes chose and then recruited an author; other times I’d hear a great conference paper and solicit the writer. The feature no longer exists under that name, but a glance at the most recent issue will confirm that it has rather expanded than vanished: I count half a dozen pieces on topics of major interest.

We also put the entire run of back issues for the journal online in PDF, and created a site (Spenser Online) where the ISS could cohabit with SpR and Spenser Studies, along with a menu of Resources that started with materials Andrew Zurcher had produced for an earlier site, and that has since grown impressively. The ‘Spenser and Performance’ podcasts, for example, are a wonderful addition.

I won’t repeat the thanks expressed in my 2017 farewell, but I will say that I’m very proud of the energy, initiative, and creativity we were able to pull in from so many talented students and colleagues, and I’ve been tremendously impressed by the way Jane Grogan and Andrew Hadfield have built on what they inherited from our team.

 

Julian Lethbridge, Book Reviews Editor 2013-15

Around about 1982 Hugh MacLean consented to a proposal of mine, that I could abstract UK and European articles on Spenser for Spenser Newsletter, on condition that I sent him an abstract or two to make sure I could do what was required (I was completely unknown to him). Having passed muster I abstracted papers for years. That first trial piece Hugh gave me was David Lee Miller’s ‘Spenser’s Vocation, Spenser’s Career’ (ELH, 1983). From abstracts to the odd book review, to thirty years later an email from Miller, would I make good on an old offer to edit reviews for the Spenser Review. A cute circle I cherish.

The SpR had fallen out of the limelight but online with a potent college of readers and writers it would make a splendid organ for detailled reviews centred on Spenser but branching out; and if hesitant at first, publishers would soon climb on board. The Review’s being a web journal by then meant that merely practical limits on the length of reviews were removed, and this offered opportunity for plentiful, thorough and detailled entries. I had in mind the patterns and standards set by the online Bryn Mawr Classical Review. Reviews are a scholarly duty that helps keep everyone honest and helps organise the heavy burden of reading the modern scholar has to work through. Reviews are part of our conversations together. So David and I tucked in and had some success. I was not satisfied with the quantity and eventually realised that with my resources, principally the lack of any student assistance, and other commitments (principally The Manchester Spenser), I could take the reviews no further and would have to give way to someone who could do more and better. Although he didn’t know it yet Richard Danson Brown was waiting in the wings, David would soon be retiring, and I felt it would be better to leave while he was still in charge so that the Review would not lose continuity.

We were hands-on editors. One of us read all or part of each book before suggesting reviewers, for matching book to reviewer is crucial; each of us read the reviews in detail, checking facts and trying our best to ensure that grammar was both correct and precise and, if possible, beautiful. Online reviews need to be organised slightly differently to the printed, and in such things the experience of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review editors in their Guidelines was indispensable. We considered tone, too, for a review can be forthrightly critical without being either so emollient that the criticism passes for praise, or cruel, ad hominem or unproductive; praise is part of productive criticism and that, too, can be done usefully or wastefully. We deliberately tried to keep our own views to one side, and tried only to help the writer do what they were trying to do, and not what we should have liked them to do – an important editorial principle not easy to get right, too often ignored. We encouraged longer reviews (publishers leapt at that), and review essays of multiple books. Although we were critical editors, I can’t remember any objections from reviewers to being handled in that manner – though naturally and healthily some debated this or that comment – most expressed thanks for it.

There was and is a need in the discipline for well thought-out, well-written and well-edited reviews that have space for detail as necessary to the book under review rather than as space dictates, and opening the Review to that is I think our most important work as far as the reviews section is concerned. We had marvellous contributions, but even though I say it myself it is true that a writer needs a good editor; I was not as good as I wanted to be, but it was not either for want of great effort, nor for lack of imagination, skill and patience in the editor to whom I reported. We also deliberately emphasised the international nature of the Review, and I admit to being proud of that, and to hoping it continues.

Friendships made is the main personal benefit of the job; many a professional contact mutated into lengthy exchanges in comradeship and on to friendship. But nothing compares with what it has meant to me to work with and for David. Allow me to say more: we didn’t know each other when we began, though our lives had crossed once or twice since David sent me a conference paper I had asked for (in the days of envelopes and stamps), with a cheery note enclosed. Our critical differences could hardly be wider and we’ve had some sharpish exchanges there. But our Review email correspondence veered from points of grammar and scholarship to animal stories or fitness post-50, holiday mails (‘I’m writing this while sitting … seeing … doing …’ – the Review never left your side), to most things under the sun and occasionally things above it, too. David is a great writer and generous to me. Those years were some of the sunniest and happiest of my academic career, largely owing to this late friendship, as well as to David’s sure hand in dealing with a sometimes wayward reviews editor.

As to the future of the Review? In short I trust it is understandable that I hope it will continue to do what we tried to do with the reviews, and do it more and better

 

Richard Danson Brown, Book Reviews Editor 2015-19

My main anxiety – at least at first – was having enough reviews to justify the title. Looking back at 44.3, I had inherited from Julian two or three reviews which were ‘in the bag’, as well as a large sack (no kidding) of unallocated books he handed over to me in a London club (again, no kidding, and a first for me). Julian was, as ever, a fund of useful suggestions and reassurance: this would be fun, and I would enjoy doing it. He was right on both counts. But as the publication date loomed, David prodded me gently, ‘Are you expecting a little more, Richard?’ I was, but what followed was two weeks of frantic begging and extortion to produce a reasonable edition.

This was useful experience in the arts of being book reviews editor: I learned quickly how to cajole, how to make a virtue of a need (I became oddly fond of Theseus at the end of The Knight’s Tale). And perhaps crucially, I realised when to give up. Everyone always makes promises they can’t keep, and with book reviewing being relatively lowly in the economy of academic work, not everything always comes to pass as you’d hoped or envisaged. On the other side of this pragmatism, the art of being reviews editor is to get the right book to the right reviewer. In principle that sounds easy, but often hard to achieve, largely because of other people’s busyness and the changing nature of academic careers and priorities. Some of the comments I most valued were from authors thanking me for getting the right expert to review their work.

As it happened, these were all good skills to learn, since my first couple of years as book reviews editor coincided with an eventful period as dean of faculty. The vagaries of colleagues in far-flung places were often more rational and congenial than the latest diktat from on high. A further thought about the role is a reflection on the changing nature of academic publishing: presses are now often reluctant to hand out review copies – ‘can’t you managed with a digital copy?’ – which complicates the role of reviews editor as a solicitor of favours. But if we don’t have detailed, knowledgeable reviews, how do we as scholars evaluate? The Spenser community is fortunate in the longstanding critical literature of informative, creative, sometimes off-the-wall reviews, and it would indeed be ‘tragicall’ if that were to fall into disuse.

What I hoped for always was that readers would come away from the journal enlightened, both by what was going on in the field of Spenser studies, as well as related pastures. My main ambitions were to have more medieval, more classical, more history, and more contemporary items. Particular highlights were pieces like Terry Krier’s brilliant review of Pullman’s oh so Spenserian La Belle Sauvage (48.3); Helen Barr on Alastair Minnis’s book on medieval paradise (46.2); or Deborah H. Roberts on Emily Wilson’s Odyssey translation (50.1). Some reviews I was pleased to have because they were so obviously wonderful, like Syrithe Pugh on classical kissing (48.3); Kathryn Walls on Spenser and biblical exegesis (47.2), or Katherine Eggert on Judith Anderson’s Light and Death (48.1). Others (which shall be nameless) live in the memory because of the amount of time the editors and I spent massaging the prose to our exacting standards.

Mentioning Judith, and with the recent sad news about her in mind, revives an exchange we over choices of word in one of her reviews. Though I had long been a huge admirer of her work, I felt that her use of ‘agential’ in a review was maybe just a little too recherché, so I went Britomart – be bolde! – and suggested something more in common usage. ‘Agential is part of my lexicon’, she replied, which was a useful lesson in the limits of the editorial writ. Be not too bold. Including scholars of the importance and stature of Judith and many others was one of the privileges and joys of the role. I also remember the delight of being part of an editorial team, first with David, and latterly with Jane and Andrew. Jane deserves a special tribute not just for the excellence of her work on SpR but for taking me and Andrew for a trip to see the prehistoric passage graves at Newgrange and Knowth in County Meath. These are magical places which I had longed to see for ages and had somehow missed on up until that point, and which I therefore fondly associate with the journal.

 

 

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52.3.7

Cite as:

Jane Grogan, Andrew Hadfield, David Lee Miller, Julian Lethbridge, Richard Danson Brown, " The Spenser Review in Review," Spenser Review 52.3.7 (Fall 2022). Accessed May 19th, 2024.
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