Reprinted from Cantaraville, September 2010.
Many years ago when I was a copywriter at one of the big New York publishing houses I used to regularly read the Virginia Quarterly Review during lunch hour at the newsstand; its plain covers and intriguing titles appealed to me after a morning of candy-colored paperbacks and mind-numbing prose. To be, even for a few minutes, in the presence of vigorous and imaginative writing was enough to get me through the rest of the day. Standing there at the newsstand I managed to read essays on the Soviet Union, on escaping Nazi Germany, on Orwell in Spain, on Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. Joyce Carol Oates was a regular contributor of poetry and stories; I got my first taste of her in the VQR.
For this lunchtime feast I have a man named Staige Blackford to thank. For twenty-nine years, until he retired in 2003, Blackford was the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, which is published and chiefly funded by the University of Virginia. I understand that Blackford was so backward that during his tenure the VQR offices never had the internet, but so great was his concern for the well-being and the future of the magazine that he managed to consistently reserve a portion of his annual half-million-dollar budget as a hedge against the uncertainties of university administration that he must surely have seen lay ahead. When he retired, this reserve fund amounted to over $800,000.
In 2003 a young hotshot named Ted Genoways replaced Blackford as editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, bringing with him a longtime older colleague named Kevin Morrisey as managing editor, and here the story that recently made national news begins. As we all have read, Genoways took this venerable publication and within eighteen months turned it into a sexy vehicle for international political photojournalists. The result of this change was overnight fame and a hefty salary increase for Genoways, as well as larger salaries for his staff and a larger annual budget to play with, not to mention stellar publicity for the university as a whole. All it took was raiding the reserve fund to pay sizeable fees to young hungry journalists for lengthy articles as well as taking the unprecedented step of paying their travel and living expenses for a product Genoways himself called "long-form narrative journalism".
That the Virginia Quarterly Review garnered so many accolades and won so many prizes for being an "innovative" literary journal is ironic, because by 2004 the VQR had ceased in fact to be a literary journal. You need to take only a cursory glance at the table of contents of the issues published under the Genoways regime—if you can get past the gaudy new covers—to see that clearly fifty percent of the content has now been given over to these so-called long-form journalistic narratives which are concerned with timely issues such as Somalian terrorists, drug mules in Peru, and oil in North Africa. Fiction and poetry have been relegated to mere afterthoughts.
Now here's the thing. I don't blame Genoways for taking the reserve money and gambling wtih it to try to push the VQR into a higher sphere. My God, what editor wouldn't be tempted to try such a gamble if a pile of money like that were there for the taking? I don't blame Genoways for accepting a salary that amounted to over one-quarter of the budget of the magazine he was in charge of. And if the university turned a blind eye to Genoways spending wild sums of the rest of the magazine's budget on luxury "literary" travel and lavish "literary" parties, well, more fool they.
I don't even place Genoways at fault for the suicide of his managing editor, Kevin Morrisey—the single event that made national news and helped to expose the staff of the VQR's discontent and the suspicious irregularities in their office.
For me, this is Ted Genoways's one and only sin: He took a nearly century-old literary magazine of high integrity and elegant quality and tricked the fuck out of it. For that, every editor of every struggling literary magazine, like mine, should be entitled to string him up. Because editors like us need publications like the old Virginia Quarterly Review in our ranks. What we don't need is another two-bit quasi-political blowhard rag like the VQR has become.
UPDATE 16 Sep 10:
Dear Ms. Christopher,
As Staige Blackford's daughter, I just wanted to thank you for your piece in Open Salon. My sister, mother and I have tried to stay out of this whole mess, but it's been painful to read the constant narrative of the old-boring-stapled-together-claptrap that was the old VQR compared to the shiny brilliance of the new one. (Particularly galling was the Washington Post article which said that Genoways had attracted Joyce Carol Oates, possibly Dad's most regular contributor!) You provided a much-needed counterweight; we can debate if having Toni Morrison write a page and a half on integration is worth how many thousands she was paid, but if that money was supposed to ensure the VQR's survival, not its speedy ascent and subsequent downfall.
I hope the VQR will continue. If not, Ted Genoways can add one or two more sins to his list.
Thanks for your insights,