Book Reviewing in the Age of Aliens: A Fond Farewell to Marla Johnson

July 6, 2015

Last week, we said farväl to our beloved book review editor, Marla Johnson, who retired after working at World Literature Today since 1992. For more than twenty years, Marla worked (mostly) quietly behind the scenes, indefatigably shepherding—or golden retrievering—the book review section of the magazine. Over the years, WLT would publish upwards of three hundred book reviews annually, and Marla always efficiently and cheerfully coordinated the entire process, from her contacts with publishers in the US and abroad to her perusal of seasonal catalogs for new releases, correspondence with hundreds of reviewers around the world, and timely orchestration of the review section with the rest of each issue’s contents.

In recent years, Marla also took on an active role in the broader work of editorial acquisitions and issue planning as well as the creation of award-winning illustrations that enhanced the design appeal of the magazine (see gallery, above). In particular, she was the impetus behind our issues devoted to graphic literature (March 2007) and international science fiction (May 2010). Marla was every bit a team player and truly indispensable. 

Throughout her time at the University of Oklahoma, Marla also helped cultivate WLT’s on-campus relationships with students, staff, and faculty. Each semester, we often have over twenty student interns working in our office, and she always gave them meaningful work and helpful guidance. And in 2010, Marla took over as sponsor of WLT’s student book club and did a fantastic job of providing direction and inspiration to the many students who would crowd into our conference room for lunch and conversation. 

Marla also worked closely with faculty members in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics and elsewhere on the OU campus who serve as contributing editors or book reviewers and was always a terrific ambassador when representing WLT at literary conferences, from Lawrence, Kansas, to New York City, Gothenburg, and beyond. She also played a key role in helping host the Neustadt and Puterbaugh festivals and other literary events that WLT sponsors each semester. 

Perhaps more than anything, we’ll miss Marla’s sense of humor. The following piece appeared in our July 2009 issue

A Book Review Editor’s Apologia

Marla Johnson

Have you ever wondered how the book review editor (evidently that would be me) of World Literature Today goes about selecting a particular group of titles to appear in each issue? Perhaps an alien mother ship hovers over a tamper-proof chute anchored to our building and on command rapidly ejects (in alpha order by author, of course) the chosen lineup. Or do groups of sleep-deprived authors with coffee stains on their shirts surreptitiously leave advance reading copies on WLT’s doorstep? I often trip over piles of them (the books, not the authors) as I negotiate the narrow passageway to my office. Surely these volumes have been carefully chosen through a process of meticulous sifting through endless waves of publishers’ catalogs, literary periodicals, websites, blogs, and so on. A certain amount of this sort of obsessive activity necessarily goes on, but in reality I have long since given up on an anal literary flowchart-like attempt at plucking the absolute best of each season’s crop. Considering the sheer numbers of books published (more than a thousand books every day in the US and UK alone, according to UNESCO), it would be lunacy to think it possible—short of a computer program written by an MIT wunderkind and an army of compliant interns entering relevant data—to make a quantifiably justified set of choices.

And so, with a deep sigh, I do admit to often using a combination of educated guesswork, what’s this on the shelf, close-your-eyes-and-point methodology. The mathematical scheme would not only prove unsatisfactory on a practical level, it probably would not be much fun. Nor might it retain that peculiar glow of magic which sometimes hovers over the best books. Discovering a beautiful piece of writing can be akin to unearthing a buried treasure; the aha! moment, the second glance, the settling into a comfortable chair to fully savor the experience—choosing books tends more toward serendipity than science. There will always be a number of excellent books overlooked (and for that I apologize) as well as a few less-than-extraordinary included (at least for some tastes). For each book chosen, thousands must be excluded. But in the end there may well be that rare gem that will inspire or provoke, lead the reader home, or become a guide to new and unexplored territory.

Marla, as you enter unexplored territories without us, we hope all those bookish aliens will keep you in good company!

Photo by Alba Simon

Daniel Simon is a poet, essayist, translator, and WLT’s assistant director and editor in chief. His 2017 edited volume, Nebraska Poetry: A Sesquicentennial Anthology, 1867–2017, won a 2018 Nebraska Book Award. His most recent edited collection, Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (Deep Vellum/Phoneme, 2020), was a Publishers Weekly starred pick. Under a Gathering Sky, his third book of poems, is forthcoming from SFA Press in spring 2024.