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The Virginia Quarterly Review, part 2: Forging a future, now in jeopardy

September 2, 2010 | 10:04 am

Vqr_bw 

A different path

In the universe of literary journals, the Virginia Quarterly Review became something of an outlier: It invested resources in long-form narrative journalism. "I believe in the work," editor Ted Genoways told The Times. "I want to spend my time on long-form stories that are important."

The VQR has stepped into the void left by mainstream newspapers and magazines facing reductions and curtailing international coverage.

That’s why it was for the VQR, rather than another outlet, that Elliot Woods was hot, dirty, wearing a plastic helmet and feeling slightly claustrophobic, 500 feet under the Afghan desert.

Woods went to Afghanistan to dig into the country’s mining complexities for the VQR, following up on a Pentagon-sponsored study revealing that $1 billion in mineral deposits lie under the country’s difficult terrain.

"To write the kind of stories we produce, you really need to be on the ground," Woods said. "You need to be spending a lot of time invested in the subjects you’re writing about, getting to know them, drinking tea with them, going fishing with them."

The amount the VQR spent to send Woods to Afghanistan for the story -- $6,000 -- has come under criticism from media outlets writing about the journal. The Hook, a local paper in Charlottesville, Va., called it "hefty pay."

New York University’s Robert Boynton, a former editor at Harper’s, doesn’t agree. "That’s extravagant?" he said after he stopped laughing. "Work it out -- that’s probably less than minimum wage." He said it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a big glossy magazine to spend two to 10 times that amount for a long, reported piece from an international conflict zone such as Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, the rate seems high compared with what traditional literary journals spend on the poetry and fiction they publish. 

At the University of Virginia, the VQR had spent more than 70 years under the sheltering umbrella of the president’s office. But this year, when John Casteen ended two decades as the university’s president, the journal had to find a new academic home. "We were on a tight timetable, set mutually by outgoing President Casteen and incoming President [Teresa] Sullivan," Genoways told The Times, "which sometimes made the pace of change a bit dizzying."

In the president’s office, like other VQR editors before him, Genoways had access to a generous budget line and minimal supervision. Hundreds of thousands of dollars set aside by the previous editor had enabled Genoways to underwrite the in-depth international reporting that has become the VQR’s hallmark.

In searching for a new home, Genoways might have moved the VQR to the university's journalism department -- but it has none. Its prestigious English department -- which counts among its faculty Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove and Deborah Eisenberg, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant -- was not the best option.

Genoways had other ideas.

Talks developed between Genoways and Michael “Nick” Nichols, the founder of LOOK3: The Festival of the Photograph, based in Charlottesville. Nichols, an award-winning environmental and nature photographer, is an editor-at-large with National Geographic. "We were in the midst of forming a partnership …" Genoways said, "to eventually form a new center for innovative reporting that would not only serve as an umbrella for our two organizations but would also begin offering instruction to UVa students interested in long-form narrative journalism and photojournalism."

Genoways’ plans included supporting emerging writers and photographers, and integrating the center into the university’s student community and the Charlottesville community at large.

What Genoways was doing, aside from making big plans, was embracing the very change that was threatening other literary journals. His goal was to make the VQR entrepreneurial, responsible for its own financing, combining support from the university, the leftover funds, foundation grants and private-donor support. This new fiscal model led him to the office of the vice president for research, a division of the university that manages projects with external funding.

It also led him to hire Alana Levinson-Labrosse as development officer and assistant editor. Levinson-Labrosse spent months volunteering before being hired. "I welcomed working with one of the best editors out there," she told The Times in an e-mail, "one of the most intellectually generous people I’d come to know." Levinson-Labrosse is the only member of the staff that remains on the masthead with Genoways.

Levinson-Labrosse was in the office in late July, when the fall issue of the VRQ was almost complete and as the transition to the new university division moved into its final stages. So too were Web producer Waldo Jaquith, associate editor Molly Minturn and managing editor Kevin Morrissey. Associate editor Sheila McMillen had just returned from vacation, and Genoways was on leave for an elite Guggenheim fellowship.

Profound concern of the fate of the Virginia Quarterly Review

On Friday, July 30, the last day that the VQR was to be under the auspices of the president’s office, Morrissey killed himself, setting in motion the events that have led to the magazine’s current uncertain state.

The reasons Morrissey killed himself will likely never be fully understood. But the effects of his action are clear: It has put the future of the Virginia Quarterly Review in jeopardy.

The university has put the winter issue of the VQR on hold until it concludes an investigation into the journal’s management and finances. One staff member has a new job; the others are on paid leave. Genoways waits to be allowed back in the office and to be given the green light to start working as editor again.

"I want to express my profound concern of the fate of the Virginia Quarterly Review," prominent cultural critic Lawrence Weschler wrote in an unpublished letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education. "There are so desperately few such readerly outposts left with its creative vitality, open curiosity and high editorial regard -- fewer every month, it seems. How catastrophic, for all of us, if this tragedy were to bring about the magazine’s demise as well."

The story of the Virginia Quarterly Review is not over. Will it be?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

To read part 1 of this post, go to: The Virginia Quarterly Review: A suicide rocks the esteemed literary journal

Photo: The Virginia Quarterly Review. Credit: boboroshi via Flickr

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