The Highbrow

The Virginia Quarterly Review

The literary dark horse.

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Over the past two days, New York media gossip turned away from its usual concerns—like Graydon Carter’s latest hairdo—to consider an improbable question: What is the Virginia Quarterly Review? On March 15, the nominations for the annual National Magazine Awards—the Oscars, if you will, of the magazine world— were announced. To the astonishment of glossy magazine types everywhere, a small journal in Virginia garnered not one nomination, as is sometimes politely handed down to such journals, but six. This made the Virginia Quarterly Review the second-most-nominated magazine, behind the Atlantic, which received eight, and ahead of The New Yorker, Harper’s, New York, and National Geographic, all of which received five. It was as if a scrappy farm team had demolished the Yankees in an exhibition game.

I first heard about VQR two years ago, from my friend David Baker, a poet and critic, and got a subscription soon after. The issues arrived on my desk, thick and fat and glossier—also more colorful—than I’d expected. Many New Yorkers assume that journals with the words “quarterly” or “review” in the title have the stuffy predictability of a baked potato, and perhaps unsurprisingly VQR’s most vocal champions to date have been poets, critics, and novelists who live in the world beyond New York. So far, ithas received only a sliver of the media attention devoted to The Believer or N+1, to name two small magazines to have made an impression recently. (Disclosure: I’m a poetry editor at the Paris Review, so I’ve left the magazine—which is under new editorship—out of this discussion entirely.) But, in its new incarnation, edited by Ted Genoways, VQR is easily as good a magazine as its hipper peers—a journal that makes a practice of emulating the best on offer in the Atlantic and The New Yorker, while publishing lots of poetry and fiction.

The Virginia Quarterly Review was founded in 1925 by James Southall Wilson, at a time when a few universities in the South and Midwest had come up with the idea of creating magazines to serve as an extension of their educational mission. There was, too, a notion that Southern literature was largely ignored by New York publishing. (Faulkner, for example, had difficulty staying in print.) In the early days, VQR distinguished itself by adopting a progressive stance and opposing the segregationist policies of fellow Southern journals.  At a Southern Writers Conference sponsored by VQR—attended by Faulkner and Allen Tate, among others—Wilson apparently insisted on putting up the writer DuBose Heyward, who wrote sympathetically about blacks, at his own house, over local protests. * In 1939, the magazine published an essay by Eleanor Roosevelt titled “Keepers of Democracy,” addressing the role of democracy in the world and the sacrifices Americans would need to make if the country was drawn into World War II. Even so, for most of its existence, VQR enjoyed a pleasant obscurity that is the peculiar right of small journals, fated to wind up on dusty library shelves.

In the summer of 2003, Ted Genoways took over. Genoways, who is now 33, had put together a student-run magazine, Meridian, while getting his M.F.A. at the University of Virginia, after which he worked in book publishing briefly. At VQR, he strove to make the quarterly more relevant, emulating the example of the early Granta. To the mix of historical essays, fiction, and poetry, Genoways added graphic novels, investigative reporting, photography portfolios, and cultural journalism; the magazine is visually lively. Unlike the majority of literary journals (even Granta), it’s full of well-reproduced color photographs and illustrations. Each issue has a focus, with a portfolio of loosely related essays. A forthcoming issue about evolution contains two essays on the historical Darwin, by David Quammen and Niles Eldredge, and a piece reflecting on the intelligent design debate, by Michael Ruse. Genoways did all this on a small budget, relying, as he puts it, on a lot of “hustle.”

Most literary journals seem charmingly out of time. What makes VQR distinctive is simply that it has the immediacy of the Atlantic or The New Yorker, but its longer pieces (upwards of 10,000 words) appear alongside 20 pages of poetry. (It received, accordingly, two ASME nominations in the essay category, two in fiction, one in criticism, and one for general excellence.) Inside, the magazine has none of the coyness of the current crop of small magazines, like McSweeney’s, The Believer, or N+1. It is more playful than its old-school peers, like the Southern Review. Its literary preoccupations are hardly avant-garde—a recent issue contained a thoughtful essay about John Keats and a section of a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman—but its essayists and contributors are among the best in the Americas (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lawrence Weschler, Tom Bissell, David Quammen, Charles Simic, Marjane Satrapi, William Logan, Deborah Eisenberg). In particular, Genoways has shown a gift for pursuing writers whose star may have dimmed for one reason or another but who have plenty of good writing left in them, judging by the work here. Meanwhile, the quarterly’s politics are thoughtfully liberal, with the stress falling on surprising details rather than on overarching polemical argument.

The Fall 2005 issue, for example, contains essays about the anniversary of Hiroshima and the fall—or “liberation”—of South Vietnam. The topics may sound earnest, but the writers are allowed to wander down peculiar paths, and into rabbit holes. Writing on the anniversary of Hiroshima—in a piece notable mostly for its matter-of-fact approach—Lindsley Cameron digresses to report on a dream vision of a Hello Kitty toy as a Hiroshima survivor, in a move that seems more characteristic of Hunter S. Thompson than John Hersey. The effect is at first jarring but ultimately indelible—even if it robs the essay of tidy shape. “Ironing out too many of those eccentricities leads to a certain monotone,” Genoways says, and this, too, is part of what makes the magazine distinctive (if also uneven). The piece on the anniversary of the fall of Saigon, written in alternating sections by two journalists, Tom Bissell and Morgan Meis, devolves into a description of an Ecstasy-inflected night of debauchery on the night of the anniversary celebration. The results are mixed—the piece kind of trails off—but surprising. Their photographer shows up wearing a POW/MIA shirt; they have a long, strange interview with former South Vietnam leader Gen. Nguyen Cao Ky (who plans to play golf in Hanoi on the day of the anniversary), and, ultimately, they get kicked out of the country, after a frightening interview with the Vietnamese secret police.

There’s little that feels dutiful about the writing in VQR; nor is there anything musty about its dedication to the long-form essay (which is ever harder to find). Curiously, the challenge of being a quarterly in the age of the Internet—when news cycles spin ever faster—has come to look, in Genoways’ hands, like a kind of blessing. As he put it, it gives him time to ask, “Will we really care about this in six months?” Perhaps most refreshingly, VQR isn’t respondingto anything but its own sense of curiosity. It’s not espousing ironic attitudes, or inveighing against capitalism. VQR doesn’t believe; it scrutinizes, and does so with enjoyment.

Correction, March 20, 2006:This article originally suggested that DuBose Heyward was an African-American writer. In fact, he was a white novelist who wrote about African-Americans. (Return  to corrected sentence.)