The Roast Issue
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Michael Bérubé and Janet Lyon

The Early Years:
An Interview with Jeffrey J. Williams

This interview took place in July 1994 and was conducted by Janet Lyon and Michael Bérubé, while playing pool in a bar on Hatteras Island, North Carolina.

Bérubé Jeff, you’ve done so much with the minnesota review in so little time. How do you manage it?

Williams Jesus fucking Christ, that’s how. It’s not like my department gives me any time off for this shit.

Bérubé What? But you’ve published nine issues in three years, taking a once-obscure journal known mainly to a handful of academic Marxists and making it one of the most widely-recognized outlets in literary and cultural studies.

Williams Yeah, well. Like I say, my department basically wishes I would go away and take the journal with me.

Lyon But didn’t they hire you to be a “theorist”?

Williams Yes. And then they found out what “theorist” meant, so they decided they didn’t want one after all.

Lyon Surely there must be some people in your department who—even if they don’t like your work or the work of the journal—are pleased that you’ve brought national attention to the place, and that the Chronicle and the New York Times are talking about stuff that you’re doing at East Carolina University?

Williams You would think so. But you’d be totally fucking wrong. Let me put it this way. My department building has this “no smoking” policy, right? So every time I want to light up, I have to go outside to do it. At first I thought this was some kind of health concern. Then I found out that the real reason we have a “no smoking” policy is that the department is so full of deadwood that we constitute a fire hazard.

Lyon/ Bérubé ...

Williams Yeah, it’s like that.

Bérubé So isn’t there anyone in your department who knows anything about scholarly journals?

Williams Funny you should ask that fucking question. Yes, yes there is. We have one guy who edits The Journal of Advanced Pedantry, Being a Semi-Annual Publication of the Society for Children’s Literature of the Early Twentieth Century.

Bérubé You’re kidding me.

Williams I am not fucking kidding you. He gets a two-course release and an office.

Lyon WTF?

Williams It gets worse. I checked out the entry for The Journal of Advanced Pedantry in the MLA Directory of Periodicals, okay? And according to its own editor, the journal receives ten submissions per year and publishes seven.

Lyon That’s...

Williams No, wait—I’m not complaining about the publication rate. That’s completely understandable. I’m complaining about the fact that the guy doesn’t even have the good sense to lie about the number of submissions he receives. I mean, he could say “fifteen” or “twenty” and it would still be a joke, right? But ten?

Bérubé How many submissions did you receive for “The Institution of Literature”?

Williams 385, not counting the nine essays you submitted, eight of which sucked, if you don’t mind my saying so.

Bérubé Not at all. I totally respect your opinion when it comes to essays of mine that suck.

Williams Well, they did. As did many of the 65 essays I accepted, 38 of which I had to rewrite.

Lyon That sounds like a lot.

Williams Yeah. I take editing seriously.

Bérubé Well, how much rewriting did you do? We’re talking line edits, right?

Williams Fuck no. I rewrote those motherfuckers from scratch.

Bérubé Really? What did their authors say about that?

Williams I didn’t ask them. Why?

Bérubé Well, because most of the time, when editors make substantial changes to a manuscript, they run them by the authors, that’s why.

Williams Fuck that. If I ran things by people, do you know long it would take me to produce an issue?

Bérubé No, how long?

Williams Too fucking long, that’s how long. There’s no way I have time to send editorial suggestions back to people who’ll only sit on them for four or five months and then get back to me with a bunch of bullshit complaints about what I’ve cut. Besides, do you think that guys like Leitch and Kumar give a shit either way? It’s not like they’re going to notice. Hell, I stuck three paragraphs from the Grundrisse into your first essay and you didn’t say a fucking word.

Bérubé Wait, wait. That whole bit about how “the question of the relation between this production-determining distribution, and production, belongs evidently within production itself”? That wasn’t mine?

Williams No. That was Marx.

Bérubé No shit.

Williams No shit.

Bérubé Well, thanks for letting me know.

Williams You’re welcome.

Lyon So you’re deluged with submissions, you rewrite essays from scratch, and you don’t have any material support from your department. What’s your publishing arrangement?

Williams What?

Lyon Who publishes the thing, and how do you work with them?

Williams I publish the thing. There aren’t any academic presses involved. There aren’t any presses involved, except of course for the one in my basement....

Lyon You publish the minnesota review from your basement?

Williams I have a steam-powered linotype machine and some binding glue, yes.

Lyon And you produce the entire journal yourself, in your basement?

Williams Not always. When it’s nice outside I do the binding and envelope-stuffing in my back yard.

Lyon Wow.

Williams Hey, Fred Pfeil did it all with a mimeograph machine. This is a step up.

Lyon That’s still pretty impressive.

Williams It’s hard work. But I love it.

Bérubé So after PC Wars and The Politics of AIDS, The Institution of Literature will be out next year?

Williams Yes, in three parts.

Bérubé The next issue will come out in three parts?

Williams Yep. We’ve got “States of Theory,” “From Literature to Culture,” and finally “Institutional Questions.” Each issue is 550 pages long and weighs twelve pounds.

Bérubé Congratulations. That sounds like quite an achievement.

Williams Thank you. I think it is. Of course, I don’t have any money to actually mail these huge motherfucking things to subscribers, so I’ll have to deliver them by hand over the next eight to twelve months.

Bérubé Good luck with that! It sounds difficult.

Williams It is difficult. But I always think of what Mike Sprinker used to say—“If it’s not difficult, and if it doesn’t involve a lot of rewriting and hand-delivering, fuck it.”

Lyon/Bérubé Words to live by. Jeff, thanks for your time.

Williams Any time.