The VQR, the old Virginia Quarterly Review, which I remember in the old days as being exceedingly boring, is now 290 pages, too fat to hold. And it has color all the way through! And it’s sending writers on special missions to Africa and the Antarctic to do reportage. I admire this energy, but I think it’s misplaced. There are other formats better suited for journalistic confrontation. I don’t think a lit-mag should compete in the day-to-day arena. I think a lit-mag should be more like an old-fashioned museum: carefully curated, a rarefied atmosphere, a preserve for the elite.
This is the discussion I’m really looking to have—and the would-be mission of quarterly journals that I’m hoping to challenge.
First, what format is better suited for journalism? It’s certainly not television, or even radio. Commercial magazines with their obsessive focus on demographics and advertising? Newspapers that have ever-dwindling numbers of foreign bureaus? Our reporting from Iraq was nominated for a National Magazine Award this year (up against Mother Jones, The New Yorker, and National Geographic) and was last year a finalist for the Prix Bayeux-Calvados for War Correspondents (the only American publication nominated in the print category). And our special issue on South America won the National Magazine Award for best single-topic issue. Why shouldn’t we compete when we’re clearly capable?
Second, I’m disturbed by the notion of lit mags as “a preserve for the elite.” For one thing, that seems like the last place finisher who says he never really wanted to win anyway. It’s easy to justify your lack of success by saying you have smaller ambitions, but that just sounds like an excuse for mediocrity to me. But even if you’re going to set small goals, why make that goal “a preserve for the elite”? A preserve is just this side of a zoo, if you ask me, and I’d rather not accept my cage quite yet, if it’s all right with you. I’d rather run wild a bit longer with the people who prefer not to think of themselves as “the elite.” That’s too sanctimonious, too self-satisfied for my tastes. Elitists tend to like things the way they are. I’d prefer writers who have the power to imagine the world better than it is and the determination to use their talents and sweat to get even an inch closer to that ideal.
Maybe that’s what Howard Junker calls “pious, pompous, cliched ranting.” It’s what I call giving a shit. And I still do. If you think caring about the world is still the province of literature, then I recommend giving VQR a try—as a reader, maybe even as a writer for our pages. If you prefer your literature pickled in formaldehyde, then Zyzzyva may be just the journal for you.