Before the pandemic hit, I met Emily Nemens on a frigid New York City day—far from the humidity of Baton Rouge, where Nemens had spent seven years, first as a MFA student at Louisiana State University and then as editor in chief of The Southern Review. She came back to New York in 2018, and has just published her first novel: The Cactus League, set among a baseball community in Arizona during the high-intensity weeks of spring training. Nemens said she didn’t want to write another drama about the game itself—she wanted “to see where the drama could be in baseball” beyond the ninth inning. The book follows baseball wives, groupies, rookies, owners, managers, and keyboardists as they struggle under the weight of various expectations. Nemens started writing her book years before the current pandemic, of course, but its close quarters, strained relationships, and uncertainties about the future will be familiar to the self-quarantined. With the baseball season delayed indefinitely, the book is also a salve for fans, and a reminder that the game is more than what happens on the diamond.
Nemens returned to New York to edit The Paris Review. Founded in 1953 by Peter Matthiessen as cover for his work for the CIA, which partially funded it, and with George Plimpton and Harold Humes on board, the magazine aimed to provide a space for creative work unburdened by the criticism that dominated the literary-intellectual world at the time. It has since published short stories and interviews by many of the greatest postwar writers, and continues to launch the careers of emerging poets and authors. We spoke about Nemens’s book, the state of American baseball, and the future of The Paris Review.
Nawal Arjini: Does writing about baseball stem from your personal interest, or did it come from an aesthetic or intellectual interest?
Emily Nemens: I was a fan first. I grew up in Seattle, and I was 6 when Ken Griffey Jr. was a rookie. For baseball fans of a certain generation, he was this really charismatic, graceful, acrobatic centerfielder. And when I was getting an MFA at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, for the first home game for LSU football, I think 200,000 people came to tailgate—the stadium holds 102,000 people. Looking at that from a sociological standpoint was really fascinating. As for the aesthetics of it, I think that’s the art historian in me. I have a double degree in art history and studio art.
NA: The book is more interested in hardcore fans and groupies than more casual watchers like yourself. Did you think about writing about them?
EN: It was the interest in football tailgating that sparked this whole inquiry. The other thing that happened right when I moved to Louisiana was that I wrote a 78-word short story about remodeling Yankee Stadium, very gimmicky, for Esquire’s 78th anniversary party. It was one of the 10 finalists from around the country. You know, the first thing I wrote about baseball, Esquire said this is exciting, come to New York read it aloud in front of all these people. It really sparked this fire.
NA: Could you talk about how you think about America’s relationship with baseball?
EN: It’s lost its primacy in terms of being America’s pastime. Viewership numbers are down, and the general interest in those eight guys, it’s not where it was. I think that’s okay. In terms of writing about baseball now it gives me an opportunity to acknowledge that and think about aging characters who took it for granted that it would always be in the middle of things.
NA: It’s still really profitable. Its cultural primacy isn’t directly tied to its economic growth, at least for the owners.
EN: It’s lost its primacy to football. It was too late for my book research, but the architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s book Ballpark came out last year—this tremendous history of the stadium. He talks about how baseball isn’t the right metaphor for America, but the baseball stadium is. And Paul talks about the configuration of different stadiums. For football stadiums, you actually want to be somewhat farther removed from the field of play so you can see what’s happening. Whereas baseball, the intimacy of being very close to the field and near the foul lines gives more, there’s more intimacy there. The way we interact with the sport is an interesting hand mirror for what’s happening in America generally.
NA: Part of baseball being a changing sport is that the demographics of the players and the people who come to the games are changing.
EN: I was in Seattle when Ichiro came, and the idea that athletes could make the jump from the Japanese leagues to Major League Baseball was a really interesting shift. Teams “discovered” Dominican baseball, and the infrastructure that’s come up around recruiting athletes from there is complicated and fascinating. The shifts in the way the sport is played, from cities to other communities, where baseball was taught to kids, where it was competitive, where competitive athletes were supported enough to get to good collegiate programs—what that means for the pipeline of kids playing, what Major League rosters look like. They became a lot whiter in the last 30 years. I wanted to talk about race and baseball [in the book], but I also knew that I could talk about race and baseball for another 500 pages, if not more.
NA: When you got to Louisiana for grad school, is that when you started editing?
EN: I had worked for my 20s in New York City editing at different arts institutions, and realized I really wanted to be in literature. I went to Baton Rouge and had a graduate appointment at The Southern Review, working 20 hours a week there. It’s a three-year program, but after my second year at The Southern Review, the co-editor quit. I was like, “Hey, I know I’m 30, I’m still a grad student, and you’re doing a national search, but I really want this job.” So I got it. And as I evaluated and improved more fiction, I could look at my own work a bit more objectively and solve problems that a lot of writers find challenging.
NA: Did you come into your job having an editorial vision?
EN: I mean, I had a viewpoint. I have my favorite kinds of writing. But when you take over a legacy literary publication, there’s a certain amount of humility and stewardship involved, which means acknowledging your personal tastes and recognizing there are a lot of other spices in this pot. It’s a lot of work, but it gave me time to evolve the tastes of the magazine. I’m not a burn-it-down [kind of person]. Part of that exchange, of getting those reins, was understanding that I respect its legacy.
NA: How would you describe the direction you took The Southern Review?
EN: The first step for me was going back into the slush pile, not relying on my own network of writers. That was a meaningful way to get new voices into the magazine and not be overly directive of where the magazine would go. I got a lot of great work that way. It’s of course more complicated at The Paris Review, and there are more relationships and different elements, but it’s really valuable to see who wants to be a part of the community and meeting them there.
NA: There must be a massive slush pile at The Paris Review.
EN: There is, and we’re going through it all. If you can believe it, up until now we’ve had mailed submission, like vertical feet of manila envelopes underneath the intern’s desk. At The Southern Review I read all of them. I still dip into it, especially into the second-reads pile.
NA: What do you think the importance of getting through the slush pile is?
EN: I have such a gift in running a quarterly. People will subscribe or pick it up off the newsstand because they know and trust the taste of The Paris Review. They don’t need to know or trust the author, they just need to trust that we know what we’re giving them. That is a really important entry point for so many writers. The joy of the anthology format, particularly at The Paris Review, where you have a big name on the interview, is you can complement that with emerging writers.
NA: What are the biggest differences between The Paris Review and The Southern Review, in terms of your role in it but also what direction you’d like to see them take?
EN: For a magazine as fiercely a print magazine [as The Paris Review], we’ve evolved and adapted to the Internet. The Southern Review didn’t have that bandwidth. So that’s probably the biggest difference. And there are a lot more publishing parties here. I’m never going to be as social as George Plimpton, but I don’t want to entirely be a wallflower, right?
NA: Are there ways in which you feel like The Paris Review is the only magazine doing X or Y?
EN: We started in a moment  when the magazine story was at a vanguard. You could make a living selling stories to magazines, and obviously that is no longer the case. That we are still publishing short fiction feels really important. People still need to read fiction and poetry, and understand the importance of art, and think about how art can help us understand the world during a major election season, but I know a lot of people will just be looking at their smartphones for news updates. As people working in literature, you just have to bang your drum a little louder against that.
NA: The Paris Review has always emphasized the writer over the critic. Has that dynamic changed since its founding?
EN: I don’t think that’s changing. We’ve doubled down on that. In the ’50s, when William Styron talked about emphasizing the writer over the critic—that was all really important, pushing against magazines like, actually, The Southern Review, and all the New Criticism that was elevating the critic above the author. In our contemporary moment, criticism isn’t exactly doing so hot. But there’s still the importance and the imperative to go to the writer and give them a voice and the space to talk about their work, against the more superficial experience of social media, against the primacy of politics. I think there still needs to be room for art and people making it.
NA: Isn’t there an argument for displacing the writer’s voice? That criticism can help bring in ideas about politics or the reception that might be helpful to the reader?
EN: Oh, I love a thoughtful critical essay, we’re just not going to publish it. James Wood’s selected [essay collection] is on my nightstand right now. I think criticism is an important way of seeing the world, but that The Paris Review created a space apart from that, and has to retain that separation, is something I’m proud of.
NA: How critical or political can you get in interviews that are not about, like, the election?
EN: Well, the writers-at-work interviews are often the interview of record and are meant to be fairly retrospective. So there’s something kind of atemporal about that. That being said, it comes up all the time. I’m thinking of our winter issue—Rae Armantrout and George Saunders both talk about politics and how their writing is informed by it. Yeah, so it’s there all the time.