BuzzFeed Launches Emerging Writers Fellowship: An Interview with Literary Editor Saeed Jones
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BuzzFeed is going literary. The ever-growing media company launched BuzzFeed Books in December of 2013, and this year it is launching several projects under new Literary Editor Saeed Jones. First up is the BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellowship program, which has a “mission of diversifying the broader media landscape by investing in the next generation of necessary voices.” The four-month fellowships “give writers of great promise the support, mentorship, and experience necessary to take a transformative step forward in their careers” and also include a healthy $12,000 stipend. (Check out the full information and application procedure here.)
I talked with BuzzFeed Literary Editor Saeed Jones about the fellowship program, journalism in the internet age, and the need for diversity in publishing.
Lincoln Michel: It seems like you’ve had a whirlwind of things happen in the last year. Your poetry book, Prelude to Bruise, was published by Coffee House in August to widespread (and deserved!) acclaim. You were just a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. And now you are becoming BuzzFeed’s Literary Editor. What prompted the move and what else are you working on?
Saeed Jones: My hope was to write the kind of book I very much wish I’d been able read when I was a teenager growing up in Lewisville, Texas. The only books in the public library about “homosexuality” focused on AIDS or “dealing” with your gay kids. So to have my work recognized on this scale has been truly stunning and a bit overwhelming. Last winter, Shani Hilton, BuzzFeed News’ executive editor, challenged me to think about what I wanted the next mountain to be. I launched BuzzFeed’s LGBT vertical two years ago. I’ve had the tremendous honor of editing work by a team of five brilliant writers and reporters who I believe are among the best in their respective beats. I’m so proud of what we’ve built together and what they will continue to do as a team. But I’m most excited when I’m creating new spaces and projects. When I first pitched the fellowship and the literary magazine and the answer from Shani and Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, was an enthusiastic yes, I actually teared up. What an amazing opportunity! In retrospect, working as BuzzFeed’s LGBT editor while promoting my book and planning these projects has made for a really intense few months, but I’m so excited I’m literally cackling at my desk right now.
The fellowship is just the beginning of what I really like to think of as a kind of literary movement coming to BuzzFeed. In addition to the fellowship program, I’ll be launching a literary magazine — about a year from now — as well as a reading and salon series. We’ll also be hosting creative writing workshops. I have so much to learn and an incredible amount of work ahead of me, but this feels like an organic shift for myself. BuzzFeed has never asked me to choose between my life as a literary writer and my life as an editor here; this new promotion grows out of that relationship. The first time I met Ben Smith in person during the interview process for the LGBT editor position, he said, “I loved the essay you published on The Rumpus. I wish we’d publish it here.” So, in a way, this feels like we’ve come full circle. Isaac Fitzgerald — who edited that essay — set us on this path when he launched BuzzFeed Books over a year ago. He’s been publishing essays by writers like Mac McClelland, Lev Grossman, and James Hannaham alongside hilarious and entertaining posts that celebrate reading as a way of life. I think it’s fair to say there were a few skeptics initially about the idea of book culture and BuzzFeed culture coming together, but it totally works. I’m excited to push us even further and publish new fiction, poems and lyric essays by writers we adore and writers we will soon be obsessed with. Oh, and I’m pretty stoked about being able to pay them for their work.
LM: Let’s talk about money. The four-month fellowship includes a $12,000 stipend. For a long time, the publishing world has shied away from talking about the financial realities of writing and editing, and the world has often been limited to people who could afford unpaid internships to get in the door. Why was it important for you to provide your fellows with a stipend?
SJ: One day, centuries from now, a famous historian — I’m picturing a sharp-witted black woman because I sincerely believe black women are from the future — will look back and say, “I can’t believe they used to expect young writers to move to one of the most expensive cities in the world and work for free so they could learn how to become better writers.” When we expect young writers to get experience via unpaid internships, we’re actually saying we want only wealthy people writing about American culture in an influential way. That’s what we get, right? Or rather, that’s what we’ve gotten used to accepting as normal when in fact, it’s a kind of fiction. Diversity is reality. So, in order to do my part to support being in step with reality, I’m really excited about creating an opportunity for emerging writers to get experience and mentorship while also receiving financial support. You can’t expect someone to do their best work if they’re exhausted and broke. Well, maybe you can expect it but doing so strikes me as a bit cruel.
You can’t expect someone to do their best work if they’re exhausted and broke. Well, maybe you can expect it but doing so strikes me as a bit cruel.
It’s important to add too that I’m keeping a very open mind about “emerging,” which, I guess, typically is read to mean young. Sure, I look forward to giving young writers a shot, but I’d also like to see all kinds of writers of great promise apply: writers who are transitioning out of academia, for example, and have published a few essays but are struggling to get a foothold in this new field; writers from marginalized communities who so often aren’t given an opportunity to tell their own stories, etc. Writers will have from now until October to apply to the fellowship and the program will start in January 2016.
LM: The fellowship program sounds really ambitious. The fellows are not only practicing pitching and writing different types of work, but also attending workshops and panels with established writers and editors. Can you elaborate on how that will work? What kind of writers and editors will you be bringing in?
SJ: My hope is that the fellowship will be joyfully rigorous for everyone involved. I’m designing a curriculum that balances learning opportunities with time to write. Everything we’ll do in the fellowship will be aimed toward positioning the writers to thrive after the four-month program is over. They will write for BuzzFeed, of course, but also will be encouraged to pitch to other publications because navigating the industry as a freelancer is a wild and sophisticated process. Toward that end, I look forward to introducing the fellows to amazing writers and editors like Jenna Wortham at the New York Times Magazine and Kai Wright at The Nation. Establishing relationships with future colleagues and mentors is so important and, I’ve found, very difficult for emerging writers who don’t have a clue where to begin. So we’ll work on that together. I’m also going to be hosting a salon series in NYC that will bring together writers, artists, and thinkers along with the fellows. I think this is going to be a transformative experience for the fellows as well as myself.
LM: Do the fellows pick a field (say politics or entertainment or the arts) to be mentored in? What else should potential applicants know?
SJ: Part of the applicants’ statement of purpose will need to address the two following questions: “If given this opportunity, what are three to five reported stories/personal essays you would pursue? And how do these stories reflect your drive and personal mission?” So, yes my expectation is for applicants to have a sense of what aspect of culture they’re most excited about engaging and interrogating. They’ll come with a sense of direction and my job will be to help get them there.
LM: Publishing and journalism are frequently — and correctly — critiqued for being very white, as well as very male and middle/upper class. However, for all the gripping about the new media outlets, they have been doing a much better job of hiring diversely. Do you think things are improving in the industry overall?
SJ: I’m cautiously optimistic. On one hand, we’re seeing media organizations like BuzzFeed, Fusion, and others actively working to create diverse newsrooms. I suppose we could consider The New Republic an example of this shift too, though it seems TNR didn’t change until it was finally and rightfully shamed into doing so. Meanwhile, based on last year’s Publishers Weekly survey, the publishing industry is basically 89% white. How many black literary agents do you know? How many major publishers are run by women? So, maybe there is a shift happening right now. We’ll see. Creating meaningful diversity in media will take time and tremendous effort. When I say “meaningful diversity,” I’m talking about hiring brilliant people from diverse backgrounds, covering or publishing work that speaks to a multiplicity of experiences, as well as having diversity throughout the company from the interns up to the board room. A newsroom that has zero people of color one week then five people of color the following week is a better newsroom. But better isn’t the same as good.
LM: The journalism landscape has changed more drastically in the last fifteen years than perhaps any other industry. What do you think young writers who are just starting out should know?
SJ: Jazmine Hughes just joined the New York Times Magazine as an editor. I’m so excited to see what she does there. Rallain Brooks — one of the hardest working young writers I know — has such an intelligent heart. He has been doing work with Adult Magazine, Guernica, and The Audubon Society. (It’s amazing, isn’t it? How hard writers in NYC work. We take it for granted, I think.) He just joined Huffington Post as a features editor. And, let’s be real, where would we be without Ashley Ford’s essays? I think we’re all better for every essay of hers we read. And forgive me, but I won’t lie: I get to work with so many brilliant writers at BuzzFeed. Matt Ortile, Heben Nigatu, Alanna Okun, and Arianna Rebolini are just a few of the writers here whose work astounds and delights me. Oh, and if people aren’t reading Durga Chew-Bose’s essays, they aren’t living life to the fullest.
LM: In addition to the Emerging Writer Fellowships, I know that you are working on a BuzzFeed literary magazine. What can you tell us about that? Any idea when that might launch?
SJ: I’ve been working on the developing the concept for the fellowship since last year. It’s so important to get it right when we’re tasked with creating new spaces and platforms for writers. And yes, I’m in the early stages of creating a literary magazine featuring short fiction, poetry, and lyric essays for BuzzFeed’s readership. My goal is to figure out what a literary magazine could be in the 21st century. We’ll launch around March 2016. Established magazines like Poetry as well as new publications like The Offing and Winter Tangerine Review are publishing absolutely wonderful work and embracing the social web in a way that’s really exciting to watch and learn from. Combining BuzzFeed’s tremendous platform and technology with a deep appreciation for original, creative writing is going to be wild in the best sense of the word.
art is not the enemy of everyday life; rather art exists to color and clarify everyday life.
But, you know, I’ll say this: I can already tell you BuzzFeed’s literary magazine will be rooted in the idea that diversity is reality and should be reflected in the work we publish as well. An idea I keep returning to as I continue to work on the magazine’s vision is that art is not the enemy of everyday life; rather art exists to color and clarify everyday life. The Paris Review published “The Ballad of Ferguson” by Frederick Seidel — a native of St. Louis, born in 1936 — on Nov. 25, 2014. That’s the day the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, decided not to indict Darren Wilson. Seidel’s ballad opens with the line “A man unzipping his fly is vulnerable to attack” and closes with “Martin Luther King is dead.” It struck me as a real missed opportunity on the part of The Paris Review. Seidel, of course, is a talented and award-winning poet, but were no black writers of a similar caliber available that week? Were any black writers even asked if they’d be interested in writing a poem about Ferguson? I’m going to learn from that mistake and try my best not to repeat it here at BuzzFeed.