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  VIRGINIA QUARTERLY REVIEW  
 

Circulation: 6,000
Date of Birth: 1925
Frequency: Quarterly
Price: $11.00
Natural Habitat: In a poet’s canvas bag with a Chris Ware comic and a Hemingway novel

By Laura Legere

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On the last leaf of the Summer 2005 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, a certain Texan in a political cartoon grabs the wheel of a Model T labeled “Social Security” and yells, “Hang on by your eyelids, old timers! I’m takin’ this jalopy off-roadin’!” It is a holler that could have been shouted from the magazine’s editorial offices when Ted Genoways, then a thirty-one-year-old poet, took them over in 2003.

Seventy-eight years after the founding of the staid literary review with a penchant for politics, Genoways reimagined it in Technicolor. Since then, the University of Virginia quarterly has run startling contents for a school-based journal: full-color excerpts from graphic novels, first-hand dispatches from Africa. It has also gotten noticed. The VQR was nominated for six National Magazine Awards last year—more than any other magazine but the Atlantic Monthly. The number stunned observers, considering the journal’s meager circulation (around 6,000). It won two, for general excellence and fiction. “At a time when magazines are rushing to embrace the digital age,” the general excellence award citation read, “Virginia Quarterly Review reimagines and reenergizes that old-world form—the literary journal.”

The VQR fared better than other small magazines with literary sensibilities and young editors—the Believer, n+1, McSweeney’s—perhaps because it balances earnest investigations of topics somehow timeless (say, an illustrated essay on viewing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch) with articles that retain their immediacy despite spending three months on a shelf. Genoways, who founded a University of Virginia student literary journal and spent a year pursuing a Ph.D. at Iowa before he took over the VQR, also has a way of summoning stars. He opened his first redesigned VQR in Winter 2004 with a photo-essay about school desegregation captioned by Toni Morrison. And gone were the cover’s washed-out photos and skimpy, diagonal “VQR.” Now, the covers feature peach or rose, sometimes blue or yellow—never the antique shades of the old VQR—with a large “VQR” in blocks at the top. The images are stunning. On the front of the Winter 2007 issue, a young Nigerian man raises a scarred arm far in front of the burning oil gas flare that burned him.

Inside, the VQR has maintained its tradition of poetry and book reviews as well as its devotion to cultural and political articles, but the tone has changed. Essays are less dryly academic, and more playfully egocentric. There are more writers venturing off into the world to see it for themselves, or testifying about a world they know intimately. The VQR’stwo Ellie-nominated essays last year were cases in point: one, by a transplant surgeon named Pauline W. Chen, described the mushy consistency of a dead brain; the other, by a Chicago cop named Martin Preib, recounted corpses he’d recovered on his police beat. There were no novice glances in either article, just experts who wrote like they were accustomed to probing at death with a scalpel or a club.

Like prior editors, Genoways scatters the genres throughout each issue of about 300 pages. Critical and cultural essays are dispersed among pieces of fiction; poems arrive in a thicket. To this Genoways has added the idea of the portfolio: essays on a single topic that sometimes spill over into fiction and poetry. A 2005 issue that featured monsters, for example, ran essays on horror films, complete with screen shots of a space monster/Frankenstein hybrid, followed by a short story starring aliens and a poem about watching Martians on an antique TV set. The VQR also includes irregular features, such as drama—it has run Tony Kushner plays—and translations. In Spring 2005, it dedicated an entire issue to the 150th anniversary of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

The cover of Genoways’s precursor’s last issue asked, “What May Be In the Future for Journals?” George Core’s article, “Quarterlies and the Future of Reading,” was both nostalgic and foreboding. In Core’s opinion, the atmosphere necessary to encourage new talent and good literature is specifically textual and material and is direly threatened by a computer age that pushes publishing toward “fragmentation.”

“It is the screen, especially the computer screen, that is choking civilization,” he wrote. When Judgment Day comes, he predicted, “[o]nly a few will be reading an old-fashioned magazine or book, relishing the odor and feel of the paper, the typeface, the design and production features of the artifact in hand.”

Genoways has figured out a way to make an artifact that is both modern and material. He has also embraced the journal’s web presence and used it, among other things, to make the VQR’s history more available through an extensive archive. Genoways’s VQR may not be the future of reading that George Core envisioned, but it is a dynamic and thoughtful attempt to keep it alive.

 
 
 

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