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Yes, Virginia… There Could Be A Future for Literary Quarterlies

PUBLISHED: August 8, 2004

Eric Hansen, Staff Writer, Minneapolis Star Tribune

[Ed. Note: This article is a composite of the online and print versions]

Ted Genoways isn’t about to change the name of the Virginia Quarterly Review to something like, oh, the Minnesota Quarterly Review. But the quarterly’s editor, formerly of the Minnesota Historical Society Press, has brought a strong Minnesota presence to the 80-year-old magazine he was hired to remake last summer.
He named Kevin Morrissey, a coworker at MHS Press, to be the VQR’s managing editor. And a Minneapolis design firm, Percolator, is responsible for its sophisticated new look.

For the fall issue, which will be published in September and will focus on “the Bush administration’s response to Sept. 11,” Genoways has commissioned two pieces by Minnesotans: Sally Rubinstein, an editor at MHS Press whose brother was killed in the World Trade Center, and Joseph Margulies, the Minneapolis attorney who won a U.S. Supreme Court case on behalf of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

But it isn’t all the Minnesotans connected to the VQR that has people turning heads its way. It’s the new design, for one, which is colorful but not busy, and features galleries of compelling photos and visual art. And it’s also the contributors Genoways has brought to the table, including eyebrow-raisers such as Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize-winners Michael Chabon and Charles Wright, and National Book Award-winners E.L. Doctorow and Robert Bly. (Well okay, that last one is a Minnesotan.)

Genoways is taking the reins of the VQR at a somewhat ambivalent time for quarterlies. Stalwarts such as Story magazine and the Partisan Review, not to mention lesser known journals such as Ohio Review and Poetry Northwest, all have gone under. DoubleTake is on hiatus. The Oxford American was good for as long as John Grisham continued to keep it alive. Anyone remember Gordon Lish’s The Quarterly from the 1980s and ’90s? It was good – was.

But it’s not all bad news. Granta is still going, as are Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Tin House and others. The Baffler arose in 1988 and started to shake things up with a younger and edgier voice, followed in 1997 by Francis Ford Coppolla’s Zoetrope: All Story and a year later, Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and most recently, The Believer.

We spoke with Genoways from his office at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in July, the one-year anniversary of his editorship at the VQR.

You’re 32. Is that considered young for your field?

It is, especially for university-based literary magazines. But I don’t think it’s all that uncommon if you look around elsewhere – Heidi Julavits and Vendela Vida at The Believer are both in their 30s. Brigid Hughes [George Plimpton’s successor] at the Paris Review is in her 30s. And Chris Wiman, the new editor at Poetry, is in his 30s as well. At a lot of these magazines the former editors had been in their 70s, so suddenly the editor’s position just got 40 years younger.

Will that reinvigorate them?

Hopefully. That’s the goal.

It’s worked at your quarterly. You’ve bolstered the roster of contributors and made it more topical, and then there is the improved design and the new Web site. I doubt the old VQR would have excerpted a comic book by Michael Chabon. Are you looking to do more with graphic novels and the like?

We’re excerpting Art Spiegelman’s “In the Shadow of No Towers” in our upcoming fall issue. But we’re looking to do more with the whole range of graphic material. Like the sort of thing we did with [Griffin & Sabine author] Nick Bantock in the spring issue. [In that issue, the VQR published a gallery of Bantock’s “faux mail, dubious documents and other emphemera.”] What Bantock does is not graphic novels, but it’s definitely not just traditional text, either. I’m interested in all of the ways in which those things intersect. Plus, it makes for a better-looking magazine and offers some visual breaks, so that you don’t just see page after page of black text on white paper.

So, you’re named the VQR’s new editor and right out of the gate you get a Nobel Prize winner in Toni Morrison and a Pulitzer Prize winner in Roger Wilkins. I guess if you are going to aim high, you may as well aim really, really high?

That was certainly the idea. It was, “Let’s start with the people who we think would be the absolute best we could get.” I get things through a combination of begging and arm twisting, and that was certainly the case there.

Big names are obviously a key for appealing to readers. But one of the virtues of literary quarterlies is that they can introduce new writers, too. Do you think about the mix between the two?

George Plimpton [the late founder of the Paris Review] talked about this idea of having a couple of marquee names that would lure people inside. People might pick up VQR for Chabon or E.L. Doctorow, but if they don’t know Stuart Dybek, then they’ve been turned on to somebody who I think is a fantastic writer. And John McNally in that same issue, those stories stand alongside Chabon and Doctorow.

The magazine is connected to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. How are you liking the move?

Charlottesville is an incredible literary and book community. Obviously, you have the creative writers here on faculty: Rita Dove, Charles Wright, Anne Beattie, John Casey. But also this incredible group of historians: Ed Ayers, Julian Bond. And beyond that are people who live here but aren’t affiliated with the school, such as Rita Mae Brown, John Grisham, and Sam Shepard.

So what does the editor of the VQR look for, when considering what to publish?

I’m looking for things that are well-crafted, that show expertise and facility with the language. But I hope that our work does not simply become self-referential and all about language and wordplay, and doesn’t collapse into being merely an exercise. The pieces that always stand out are those that not only engage the head but also the gut and the heart. If a piece delights me, surprises me, or makes me think twice, then it has a home in the VQR.

Your circulation is 3,500, which is down from a peak of 5,000. Given that you are affiliated with the university and have an endowment, does circulation matter?

We don’t have to worry about circulation from an income standpoint. But the journal we produce is too good to be read by so few people. I believe that we will see strongly increased numbers of readers when people become aware of us. I want to make sure that we’re reaching more and different kinds of readers with every issue. If we get comic-book readers to buy VQR for the Chabon graphic novel, that’s great. If we get fiction lovers to buy us for E.L. Doctorow or Annie Proulx, that’s great, too.

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