- Editor’s Notes
Spread the word and shop for the birthday gifts! River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative is a teenager no longer! Our nineteenth volume closes with the issue you hold or are reading onscreen. And so we stride into our twentieth year by publishing what we believe to be the best and most consistently interesting journal dedicated to nonfiction: essays, memoir, literary reporting, craft and critical monographs, and all those delicious nonfictional variations too interesting to pin down.
Of course we feel that way; otherwise, why do this?
Anniversaries are a useful time to look back, to test oneself against the ideals and promises with which a love affair begins. Some historical context here: Early in River Teeth’s debut year, President Clinton (no, that one!), having been impeached a month earlier, was acquitted in a U.S. Senate trial gaveled by U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist. John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard; shots rang out at Columbine High School and robbed a generation of its innocence. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was television’s hottest show; SpongeBob SquarePants was all set to debut. At the movies, American Beauty vied with The Sixth Sense for audience and critical buzz. Pamela Anderson divorced Tommy Lee that year; most of us would have to [End Page vii] use a dial-up modem to surf the sordid details. But better act quickly and start that surf dialing before Y2K crashes us all!
Meanwhile two professors at a small university in Ohio, both ex-journalists and devotees of fine writing, had an idea. What if there were a journal focused exclusively on nonfiction, especially a journal that published the best of literary journalism as well as first-person essays and memoir? We looked around and could not find the exact one we loved, so why not start one ourselves? We had no one to tell us no, and so we did it. Somehow we convinced writers like Nancy Mairs, Sydney Lea, Kim Barnes, Philip Gerard, and others to join our inaugural editorial board. David James Duncan lent us our name and wrote a bang-up inaugural essay, explaining the “River Teeth” conceit, which we still feature at the head of our website. We published three Pulitzer Prize winning writers in that very first issue and matched John Reed’s peerless reporting from Serbia in 1915 with Philip Smucker’s vivid, groundbreaking dispatches from then-contemporary Kosovo.
“Here the river widened out and poured thunderously over an immense dam; and looking down, we could see the clear water running above a mass of sodden cloth and bodies bloated gray… . In the light of blue electric arcs, long chains of Austrian prisoners were unloading flour to feed the desolate country, until the harvests could be sewn and gathered. And as we waited on the platform, I thought with wonder of these Serbians, their origin and their destiny.”– John Reed, 1915
“As we descended into a pine forest, a cluster of some one hundred homes became visible in the valley. On a ridge, overlooking a hamlet, we squatted with a pair of tiny yellow binoculars looking six hundred feet down into the village for anything that moved. A few cows [End Page viii] meandered in the main street. Then, suddenly, a patrol of some eight Yugoslav soldiers, special forces in black, emerged from behind a house. One soldier backed along a brick wall and turned in a 360-degree circle as he moved. ”– Philip Smucker, 1999.
Here’s the thing: Twenty years ago we knew we were swimming against a pretty strong critical tide. In the postmodern academy, the rush to expose false binaries was all the rage, and one of those false binaries was fiction and nonfiction. All knowledge is representation, the thinking went; all is culturally and ideologically produced, no fact can be solid, and the very idea of truth is a conceit. While we would never argue that the notion of truth was fixed and innocent, we nonetheless wanted to insist that the distinction between truth and invention mattered. What made nonfiction interesting was the very difficulty in pinning it down. What counted was...