"A Small Good Thing" An Interview with John Wilson
Samuel Loncar in conversation with John Wilson
In the early age of COVID-19, I got to sit down with John Wilson to talk about his work as an editor and the remarkable magazine, Books & Culture, that he created. Over the course of a leisurely and enjoyable conversation, we explored what editors do, how annoying they can be, and what makes the magazine such a delightful form of literature, among other topics.
The joy of talking to John comes with some good news: he has agreed to join Marginalia as a Senior Editor. Because so many people know John for his outstanding work on his own magazine, we’ve created the Books and Culture Corner. You can grab a cup of coffee and head to John’s Corner to see his literary magic still at work.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Samuel Loncar: John, you edited Books & Culture for over twenty years. I’m one of many people who think this was the best magazine of its kind when it was around. Tell me about the beginning: How did you become the editor?
John Wilson: Early in November of 1993, I got a call in my office from Mickey Maudlin, the managing editor at Christianity Today. I had been working for Salem Press in Pasadena for about 12 years. He was the only person I had met who worked for Christianity Today, which I had been reading since I was about 12. Mickey and I first talked several years earlier, around 1989, when I had called him to pitch a piece for the magazine. We talked for probably 45 minutes and he said, “That sounds like a piece I’d love to read, but it really isn’t a good fit for us. Let me keep an eye out for something that might work, and I’ll get back to you.”
So, a while passed, maybe a year, and I hadn’t heard anything from him and I pretty much forgot about the conversation. But then he called me. (This was pre-email for me.) He said, “I have three books by Jacques Ellul that I would like you to review. Would you be interested in that?” I said, “I’d love to.” I think that came out around 1991 in the magazine. So that was the first piece I did for them. And they liked it a lot. In fact, I was totally amazed.
After my second piece for them, I got a two-and-a-half-page letter from the CEO of Christianity Today, Harold Myra. We talked about all kinds of things—you know, books and stuff. I really enjoyed our correspondence. We exchanged letters now and then, but I had no idea at all that I would ever work for them.
Mickey and I met up a time or two after that. Then he called early in November of 1993, and said, “We’ve just secured a big grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. We want to start a magazine that is kind of like a New York Review of Books for evangelicals, but also more broadly for Christians who would be interested in such a thing. We’re looking for an editor—would you like to interview for that?”
I said, “That sounds great!”
SL: An evangelical version of something like The New York Review of Books is one way to get at what Books & Culture was doing. I loved it as a young person, coming to it first as an undergraduate student; then Yale’s Religious Studies Department had a subscription, so the new issue was always in the lounge for students.
JW: Bless them.
SL: Yes! Yet, even as a reader coming to the magazine relatively late, I do think there was more happening. I want to push you a bit more on this because if we say it’s the evangelical NYRB, we then have to ask, what was [Silvers’] NYRB? It was completely imbued with the mindset of its editor. What I’m trying to get at is, what was the shape of your mind as it finally got to take form as a magazine?
JW: Well, one feature of it was that I wanted a variety of writers who wrote in different ways with different voices. So, part of it was simply putting a premium on individual voices, and I loved working with writers.
You know, some editors impose unnecessarily on not just the vision of the writer but the sentences. Just a day or two ago on Twitter, a writer I admire posted a link to a piece of hers, and there was one sentence that she included in a separate tweet. She said, this is what I wrote. Which was not the way that it appeared in the piece! So, I read the sentence in the finished piece. And her sentence was not just a little better—her own sentence was so much better. It had so much more vivacity—she’s brilliant, but she also writes with tremendous wit—and I thought, why in the world would an editor do that? And I’ve had that experience myself a few times, writing for some publications.
I always tell young writers to be prepared. Every magazine is a culture unto itself. Of course, there are commonalities, but you never know what’s going to happen until you actually work with them. You have to decide not to let editors put words in your mouth that you wouldn’t stand by. The published piece has your name on it. I’m talking about when it’s actually saying something that you really don’t want to say. That’s very common.
I’m making it sound like any editor who wants to change anything is bad. I don’t feel that at all! (And in fact, the trouble with a lot of pieces that appear on digital-only sites, even good ones, is that they haven’t been edited, even to correct obvious errors.) But every time I pick up a new issue of a magazine, I’m looking for variety. You know the word magazine comes from an Arabic word that means “a storehouse.” This suggests miscellany. I’ve written about this several times because for me this is the genius of magazines.
The essence of magazines is not to be all about one thing and to have one voice. It really has to do with how you see the world. For me, the overwhelming reality of the world is its many- sidedness—we can never grasp it. Multiplicity wherever you look. And yet Christians, along with people who are other kinds of religious believers, believe that somehow it all hangs together.
So when I put together a magazine, I delighted in miscellany and juxtaposition. I wanted things that would appeal to a lot of different readers—including some who would, I hoped, like almost everythingthat we published because they would relish this mixture. We had many writers who were evangelical, but don’t evangelicals come in a million flavors? There were Catholic writers. There were Eastern Orthodox writers. There were Jewish writers. There were some writers who were atheists who just happened to be contrarians, and they didn’t mind writing for the magazine. In fact, some of them really enjoyed it. They weren’t embarrassed, like most of their colleagues would be embarrassed to appear in a Christian review. They’d never do that.
John McWhorter comes to mind. I didn’t even know he was an atheist when he started writing for us. I just liked his writing so much! I found out that he loved music. He was a musician who put himself through college in part by playing piano at clubs. Everyone was always asking him to write about race. I asked if he’d like to write about musicals (he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject), and he wrote a number of pieces for us in that vein. He also wrote a lot about language, his scholarly field.
He was so much fun to work with. He has a great sense of humor, too. It wasn’t until he had written for the magazine for more than two years that he says, “I don’t know if you want to hear this, but I’m an atheist.”
I mean, McWhorter was an outlier. But the point is this is a quintessential magazine experience.
So you asked me for more than a one-liner about being the Christian NYRB. Well, most people—when I give this longer answer—start pulling back a little bit because I’m too worked up about it, and they think, this guy’s kind of crazy. Yet I believe that this intuition of plentitude is part of what draws true magazine-lovers, even if they wouldn’t ever articulate it that way.
SL: Well, really good editors make magazines that, in some sense, are a microcosm of their view of the world. I think your view is really beautiful. And it’s a profound way to get at what you were doing. I think what I hear you saying very much resonates with my own views as an editor. I’m not interested in my own opinions as an editor. What I’m really interested in is what can happen by getting really interesting, smart writers together and creating a shared world that they inhabit on the pages of Marginalia, and particularly putting together a kind of tapestry that I don’t see around us in the broader media culture.
A lot of people I think, would find the idea of an intellectual magazine for evangelicalism an oxymoron. And the reason they think that is because they’re prejudiced, whether they know it or not. And I think the simplest form of that prejudice is just cultural ignorance, which is that evangelicals simply represent “conservative America” insofar as they identify with Christianity. So “evangelicals” become the notional antithesis of the secular elite establishment, and I think that’s why evangelicalism is so often badly reported on in media.
In 2016, the New York Times executive editor admitted that they don’t get religion. And then just last year, they published an article about Easter in which they didn’t understand what the holiday celebrated. Even Wikipedia knew better than the New York Times in that case.
At the same time, as Mark Noll pointed out in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, evangelicals themselves are often anti-intellectual, and here you were creating an intellectual magazine.
So, I wonder if you had any blowback within evangelicalism itself. How did you experience Books & Culture’s beginning, which seems close to the release of Noll’s book and the debates surrounding it?
JW: It came out in ’94, and the first issue of Books & Culture came out in September of ’95.
My own sense of faith is that it has many streams, and evangelicalism is one of those streams. I used to teach adult Sunday school. I haven’t done that for some years now, but I used to do that a lot. I sometimes taught a course that went over some of the history of the church, and I would say you can look at it from one angle, and you can say it’s such a terribly disappointing story.
And then on the other hand, you can say, despite all these failures and so on, God is still at work in the church. Whatever evangelicalism is—something people can’t seem to agree on—I would never defend it as some kind of ideal. There is a very strong anti-intellectual tradition within it, but this is true more generally of America on the whole. And while this anti-intellectual strain may be pronounced in evangelicalism, it also exists to some extent, for instance, in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and Pentecostalism and so on.
SL: Did you think you were taking part in a culture war?
JW: Early in the magazine’s history, there was a guy who was doing fundraising for us, and he was retired. He said to me that he was going around telling people how Books & Culture was going to change the culture. I said, don’t say that! Whatever “the culture” is, we’re not going to change it.
I had this phrase, a small good thing. You know, what we were doing was really good. We didn’t have to make these sweeping claims for our work. It’s just something worth doing and we should be glad that we can do it. I felt this way from the start to the end. I was very sad when we had to stop. But, you know, that’s life.
When the magazine came to an end, I didn’t think it meant somehow it had been a failure, and I didn’t think it expressed some global truth about evangelicalism. As I was working on the last issue with our wonderful art director, Jennifer McGuire—we worked together for maybe fifteen years—we never thought about those questions. Not for a moment.
SL: Books & Culture had a great run for over 20 years. You’re working with the Englewood Review of Books as Contributing Editor, and now in addition you’re joining Marginalia as a senior editor. You’re also going to have a little section, the “Books and Culture Corner,” where anything that you edit or commission will show up, so that in addition to your own pieces, which will be part of everything else we publish, people can see the kind of work you commission to populate that corner in the coming years. You obviously have a long experience with evangelicalism, which is something we cover, but I think we’ll cover it much better with you. Yet, at the same time, your interests are very catholic—you’re a promiscuous reader. So more generally I’m excited to have your editorial sensibility working in conjunction with the magazine. Let me ask you, just as a last question, what are some books that you’re reading, that you’re really excited about?
JW: Well, one is The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, a novel by Christopher Beha, the editor of Harper’s. He’s a wonderful writer, and it’s only his third novel. That’s a book I would highly recommend.
One of my favorite contemporary writers is Marly Youmans. She’s both a novelist and a poet, and she has a new novel out from Ignatius Press called Charis in the World of Wonders. It’s a historical novel set in the Puritan context of the seventeenth-century villages of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Marly is an extraordinarily gifted and imaginative writer.
SL: These sound great, John. Thank you for your time. I’m looking forward to seeing what you have in mind to review for Marginalia. I’m sure it will prove surprising.
JW: People used to say, wasn’t it hard for you to decide what books you were going to review? I always said, no, it wasn’t hard at all, because you could have 10 parallel universes, and in each one, there could be Books & Culture, but there’d be very little overlap among them. Because there were just so many things worth doing!
There’s always more, and that gets back to what we were talking about in the beginning—the idea of a magazine as a kind of microcosm, pointing to the inexhaustible richness of the world. Sometimes I’m surprised—irritated, in fact—when I go to a publication that has some very good people writing for it and some good editors and so on, but the range of things they’re doing seems to me much narrower than it should be. Sometimes you go to three different publications and you wonder, are these people reading each other’s mail?
They’re just too narrow—there’s no reason for it! But bless you that Marginalia is very much counter to that. Long may it thrive.
John Wilson is Contributing Editor for the Englewood Review of Books and Senior Editor at the Marginalia Review of Books. His essays and reviews have appeared in Books & Culture (which he edited for its lifespan, from 1995 through 2016), Christianity Today, First Things, The Lamp, Commonweal, The Christian Century, National Review, The American Conservative, The Weekly Standard, the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and other publications. He and his wife, Wendy, live in Wheaton, Illinois, where they are members of Faith Evangelical Covenant Church.
Samuel Loncar is a philosopher and scholar of religion and editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, and the host of Becoming Human Podcast. He has taught at Yale Divinity. His work focuses on integrating separated spaces, including philosophy and poetry, science and religion, and the academic-public divide. His speaking and workshop engagements include the United Nations, Oliver Wyman, and Trinity Wall Street’s retreat center. His website is www.samuelloncar.com. Tweets @SamuelLoncar.