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VQR Who?

How the tiny Virginia Quarterly Review made such a big splash in the magazine industry.



It's true, Genoways loves fiction and poetry, but he's a fan of the graphic novel and a confessed news junkie too. Readers of the Virginia Quarterly Review (, a literary magazine based at the University of Virginia, can see how this 33-year-old's tastes have changed the look and the feel of VQR since he took over as editor three years ago. He's turned a university-bred literary journal into a full-color general interest magazine that draws contributions from the same authors you see in The New Yorker.

The makeover hasn't gone unnoticed. Last month the American Society of Magazine Editors awarded VQR two of its highest honors. When the nominations were announced, Slate culture editor Meghan O'Rourke reported that "New York media gossip turned away from its usual concerns — like [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter's latest hairdo — to consider an improbable question: What is the Virginia Quarterly Review?"

O'Rourke considers the Ellies the Oscars of the magazine world — they come complete with an awards ceremony and celebrity presenters. This year Meg Ryan and Martha Stewart helped hand out trophies. VQR took home one for fiction and one for general excellence, putting it in very good company. In its size category, the magazine beat out ReadyMade and McSweeney's sister publication The Believer to join Harper's, Esquire and Time, general excellence recipients in the larger-circulation brackets. Not bad for a university journal that weighs in at 360 pages per issue, about three times the size of its peers.

The New York publishing world may not have been aware of VQR, but a quick glance at the contents page yields familiar names: Novelist Joyce Carol Oates and short story writer Alice Munro contribute fiction; political analyst Larry Sabato is an advisory editor and contributes political analysis; Tony Kushner, Tony-winning playwright of "Angels in America," has work in there too. Which isn't to say that Genoways is opposed to giving new writers a chance — two of VQR's six Ellie nominations went to first-time writers.

The magazine has always attracted big names. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Albert Camus have appeared in VQR's pages when it had a more academic bent under editor Charlotte Kohler from 1942 to 1974. The next editor, Staige Blackford, brought in noted political writers and historians. Editorially, Genoways is gunning for a middle-ground unique even among general interest magazines. VQR maintains the same mix of nonfiction, fiction, poetry and criticism, but it has shifted away from essays that argue a point and moved toward pieces that capture a mood.

Blackford, Genoways' predecessor, was a speechwriter for former Gov. Linwood Holton. Under his direction, the journal's writing was clear and engaging enough that the reader didn't have to be an expert to follow the arguments, but the subject matter was weighty: historians evaluating the work of other historians, what the federal government should do to fix the mental-health care system, My Lai.

Genoways' interest in younger writers has some contributors loyal to the previous editor grumbling. "I know that a lot of the writers that worked for Staige no longer have the key to the door," says George Garrett, professor emeritus of creative writing at UVa. (and younger brother of Style's copy chief). "It's caused a little anger, some angst that people who have been contributing for years no longer have a shot at it."

Some writers think it's a change for the better. "It was forever this very staid, button-down, dry, boring journal. It wasn't evil; it just wasn't particularly interesting," says Lawrence Weschler, a former staff writer at The New Yorker and the new art consultant — "art wrangler," he prefers — for VQR.

If VQR's writers used to labor over rare butterfly collections, Genoways has sent his writers back to the field with a net.

Genoways talked to Style the day after American forces killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the alleged leader of the Taliban in Iraq. The journal's summer issue had just gone to press, so the soonest VQR would be able to address Zarqawi's death was about six months away, allowing writers to take that medium view of events that have cooled off from being news but haven't yet settled into history. As a quarterly, VQR has "freedom from the 24-hour news cycle," Genoways says. "It's a luxury not to have to look at timeliness in that way." He's trying to create strength in his advantage over magazines whose tighter deadlines require frantic, instant analysis.

The magazine gets its primary operating budget from UVa., but it also has a stash of its own. The previous editor set aside money and invested it for the magazine over three decades, cultivating a sizable fund.

Genoways has been spending down the principal on the account in order to produce the highest-quality publication he can, he says, in hopes of attracting donors to start a larger and more stable endowment independent of the university.

"I hear he's paying about the same as The New Yorker," Garrett says. "More than Esquire or Harper's or The Atlantic — that's a pretty big-time salary for writing." Payment for writing is oftne a closely gaurded secret. But VQR now pays $100 a typed page up from $10 a page under the previous editor.

Other notable literary journals that are housed at universities have seen their funding threatened or killed completely. Even literary powerhouses have a hard time making ends meet. The New Yorker has always been in the red and relies on the huge Condé Nast publishing family to keep it afloat.

Genoways emphasizes that UVa. President John Casteen could not be more supportive of VQR, but who knows what the future holds? Casteen's contract is up in five years, and he will be 68 by then. Genoways is hoping VQR's splashy new look will translate into a fund that ensures VQR's survival no matter who follows Casteen. It's a bold move that could backfire if no one ponies up.

Thank heaven for those Ellies.

So Genoways is spending. Looking at the shift in the magazine since he took over is like watching Dorothy land in Oz. Recent issues have been stocked with magazine candy. One essay that discusses a 24-by-8-foot painting comes with an extended color pullout three times the width of the magazine.

"That piece was originally for The New Yorker, but they killed it," Weschler says. VQR is "basically trying to do what The New Yorker once tried to do: to take a piece you don't know anything about, and bacause of sheer narrative energy, about halfway through you realize it's about the most important thing in the whole world."

The philosophy seems to be working.

Subscribers are up to 7,500 from 4,500 two years ago. Quoting VQR's first editor, Genoways says the point is still "to publish work that treat[s] any subject seriously." That doesn't mean they're looking for any serious subject, Genoways points out.

Where does Genoways go from here? Despite the glory of the Ellies, the public — even the reading public — is a long way from investing in literary quarterlies en masse. "It's hard to look at The Atlantic and not envy their half million readers," Genoways says. He wants to bring VQR into the big league. The magazine may be scoring writers who run in bigger publications, but Fortune, Vogue and National Geographic all have circulations of 1 million-plus per issue. VQR's subscription rate of 7,500 doesn't compare. "That's the thing more than anything else I would love to see changed," Genoways says. S

Freelance reporter Willa Paskin contributed to this story.

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