Algonquin’s Legendary Editor

Shannon Ravenel began our interview full of apologies: she had been stuck in a book-launch meeting at Algonquin, so she was a few minutes late, and she had wanted to pick me up at the airport, so she felt she’d been terribly rude; at the very least, she said, let me take you to lunch. Her Southern accent was beguiling, the way Southern accents are. She was beautifully dressed and gracious and completely disarming. We lunched at a chic hotel restaurant in Chapel Hill—two glasses of wine, a chocolate dessert—and returned to the house she shares with her husband, Dale, to get down to the business of talking books.

Ravenel’s long and distinguished career as an editor and publisher emerged slowly in conversation, as if it would be slightly improper to discuss professional ambition too directly. But the furnishings of her house gave ample evidence of her work: behind the living room furniture, a wall crammed with books; on the coffee tables, week upon week of New Yorker magazines stacked evenly. Behind the door and against a chair, tote bags stuffed with manuscripts. As the editor of the Best American Short Stories series from 1977 to 1990, Ravenel likely read more short fiction than did anyone else during the time of the American short story renaissance engendered by Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and a handful of others. Ravenel, as the editor responsible for selecting 120 finalists from among all the stories printed in every literary magazine each year, played a powerful if discreet role in the development of the short story in American literary culture.

Yet her legacy as an editor lies equally in her devotion to writing from the South, though she’s loath to generalize about what constitutes Southern writing, except perhaps to say that one knows it when one sees it. She and Louis Rubin co-founded Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill as a house committed to the development of Southern writers. The press is renowned for the care with which it treats its authors and has published a wide range of Southern talent, notably Larry Brown, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, and Robert Morgan. Ravenel, now well into her sixties, handed off the reins of Best American Short Stories and another series, New Stories from the South, but continues to work with writers who have published with Algonquin for years.

Looking back over her life, Ravenel speaks as often about her family as she does about her work, testifying to the varying pressures on a Southern woman trying to break into a largely male, largely New York–focused industry in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. We sat for the interview at an old wooden table in her kitchen. The refrigerator was covered with photographs of her two daughters and grandson. The fireplace was lit. The ancient and sweet golden retriever begged for cookies, the black-and-white cat moved across the countertops, the teakettle whistled, the phone rang, some housepainters tromped through, needing direction. She spoke modestly about her accomplishments as an editor and publisher, saying simply that she did what she loved.

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