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Further Thoughts on Junker


PUBLISHED: May 21, 2008

In a recent interview, Howard Junker, editor of Zyzzyva, had this to say about VQR and the role of lit mags:

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.

12 Comments

Jade Park's picture
Hey. ZYZZYVA is in all caps, italics.
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Ted Genoways's picture
Ted Genoways · 10 years ago
All caps and italics? Does that mean I have to SHOUT THE NAME whenever I mention the journal in conversation?
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Elizabeth McCullough's picture
Well, I have to agree about the “color all the way through.” Give me my literature on six sheets of mimeographed typing paper with a single staple through it. Or a paperclip – stapling is just misplaced energy in these times of elitism in retreat. Oh, and could you make the title of the magazine more unpronounceable? That lets the common people know that you’re a literary magazine, and not, say, an over-the-counter sleep aid.
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Howard Junker's picture
In terms of “recent,” the interview you quote was given in 2006, which says something about your journalistic instincts. In any case, thanks for referencing my appearance on YouTube covering “Satisfaction,” which has not gotten the attention it deserves. As for my referring to my slush pile as a “barrel of crap,” in fact, I was inspired by Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo), in which he says “Don’t bail: the gold is always at the bottom of the barrel of crap.” Unlike you, I read every manuscript submitted to me; I get a lot fewer than you do, but I do my own screening and don’t rely on minions making nasty comments…. The bottom line is that I wasn’t “shocked” by your arrogance, self-importance, and misplaced Righteous Indignation, I said you should be ashamed of yourself. You should especially be ashamed of your pathetic performance as a writer. For example, “Maybe that’s what Howard Junker calls ‘pious, pompous, cliched ranting.’ It’s what I call giving a shit.” How eloquent.
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Scott Simpson's picture
If I still had a Trapper Keeper, “VQR” would be Bic’d all over it, each one framed in a valentine. And the “giving a shit” line is totally eloquent!
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Lee Rice Epstein's picture
Lee Rice Epstein · 10 years ago
Sorry to circle back around, but as one of the readers who disagreed with the posting of reader comments, I’m not sure at all how Howard Junker could possibly have my back. I don’t agree with a single word he wrote, and I agree even less with this characterization of the role of a literary journal. As anyone with Google can see, I spent a couple of years as a slush-pile reader and editor for McSweeney’s, a journal that has always excited me for its routine breaking of the apocryphal socio-cultural boundaries that, in Junker’s mind at least, define the role, content, look, and feel of a literary journal. I would suggest the same is true for VQR, which is my sole complaint about the original posting of reader comments. The comments weren’t in line with the quality of conversation I’ve come to expect from VQR. Posting them seemed, to me, self-satisfied, elitist, and petty, not as directly harsh as but still akin to Junker’s similar complaints. This isn’t about having “thick skin.” That’s a hack argument, and the snark and nastiness associated with it are a hack’s tools. This is about having respect and showing it, and Junker should know better, too, as San Francisco boasts a refreshingly communal literary scene. As for the journalism, Junker’s comments here are so far off the mark I can’t even tell what he wants from his journal or readers. I don’t read literary journals to confirm my status as a supposed member of the elite. I read because they can be a source of truly excellent non-fiction writing and thoughtful analysis, to say nothing of a liveliness that is missing from most publications. VQR’s success has been a thrilling and welcome confirmation that you’re doing something right. The time and space allotted to a journal piece allows writers to explore various angles and opinions we don’t often get to see in daily newspapers and weekly glossies. The delivery of a 300-page issue of VQR is cause for celebration in our house. It would be nice to see a few other print journals rise to the same level.
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howard junker's picture
howard junker · 10 years ago
how sad that you had to delete my comments. they were not flattering, of course, and perhaps you think only good things should be said about you. if only that were possible.
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
how sad that you had to delete my comments.
Your comment is right where it’s been all along. I suspect that either you overlooked it or you’re referring to another comment that you left on a different blog entirely. In my experience, this explains 95% of “where did my comment go?” complaints on blogs.
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Nick Johnson's picture
Nick Johnson · 10 years ago
I think that VQR should include the content it wants to include because the editors find that the authors are telling stories that are pertinent and touching. Competing with other journalistic publications isn’t all bad, however, I read VQR because I still want the literary bent. In the end, I trust the editors will make the right decisions to remain loyal to the literary side of things while finding new and interesting stories to tell. As far as the whole literary magazine as elite deal goes - unnecessary. That’s like saying we don’t want people to be a part of “our” community, nor do we want to be a part of theirs. Besides, I’d rather literary magazines be in all the grocery store checkout aisles for $2.50 a pop. Actually, maybe it’s better that way; then I get to get out of the store. And, oh yeah, God forbid VQR go the way of the Atlantic Monthly and make us go out and buy the “fiction issue” in 2010.
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Ricini's picture
Ricini · 10 years ago
Mr. Junker, I have some unwarranted and slightly condescending advice for you, Onward!
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John Stephen Lewis's picture
Deep beneath the folds of my smoking jacket, the clinched fist of my heart pittered and then pattered with those lovely lines: “Maybe that’s what Howard Junker calls ‘pious, pompous, cliched ranting.’ It’s what I call giving a shit.” I think I will call Mother.
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bacongirl's picture
bacongirl · 10 years ago
onward!
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