Dwight Garner’s Critic’s Notebook: It was the New Yorker with hot sauce

December 4, 2012

I plane to wroite about the new music issue soon myself — though this isn’t the week for that. I’m glad the GDNYT came through for us.

By Dwight Garner in the New York Times

The new issue of The Oxford American, that estimable and disorderly Southern literary quarterly, flopped onto my porch the other day. I stared at it for a while before picking it up. The magazine had been on my mind.

This year I’d planned to compose a tribute to The Oxford American on its 20th anniversary. Among the things I’d wanted to say in print were these: that it was the best and most original new American magazine of the last 25 years and that its founder, Marc Smirnoff, was the most important editor out of the South since Willie Morris.

I wasn’t planning on holding back. It’s harder than it used to be to fall in love with a magazine, especially now that they’re collapsing around us like the virus-stricken in “Contagion.” When it does happen, you should raise your hand.

Things, however, got weird. In July, Smirnoff was fired after being accused of sexual harassment. Also, he admitted that he gave alcohol to underage interns. I can’t say whether these actions were closer to peccadilloes or closer to something much worse.

But I couldn’t see publishing my assessment any longer. It was a time to hang fire.

Four months later the air has cleared a bit. The Oxford American has installed a new editor, Roger D. Hodge, formerly the editor of Harper’s Magazine, as was Willie Morris. There have been grumblings that Hodge hails from Texas; Southerners have complicated feelings about Texas. But Smirnoff grew up in California before blowing into Oxford, Miss., where he started the magazine. The most passionate Southerners are often the ones who come from someplace else.
It’s far too early to say what Hodge’s tenure will bring. His name is atop the masthead of the new issue, the magazine’s 79th, though it’s unlikely he had time to influence its contents greatly. I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about the magazine’s future, though, and am willing to declare: “The Oxford American is dead. Long live The Oxford American.”

But it’s worth pausing to revisit why this quarterly matters, and why so many people, not just in the South, will be paying attention to the changes there.

The Oxford American’s first issue, published early in 1992, announced its ambitions. I happened to be traveling in Mississippi that spring. I remember discovering this issue, drawn by its fire-engine-red cover, on the newsstand at Square Books, Oxford’s excellent indie bookstore.

I scanned the table of contents and allowed my road-weary eyes to widen. Here were stories and essays by a rogue’s gallery of the South’s best writers and malcontents: Richard Ford, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, Florence King, Roy Blount Jr.
Blended in were provocations from John Updike, who contributed a poem about a bowel movement; William F. Buckley Jr.; Charles Bukowski; and Bill McKibben, as well as an interview with Pauline Kael. This was The New Yorker with a side of hot sauce, a tub of Duke’s mayonnaise and a bib. This was The New Yorker in muddy boots rather than penny loafers.

I walked to the cash register and asked, “Who puts this out?” The lanky kid behind the counter stuck out a hand and replied, “That would be me.” I’d just met Marc Smirnoff. (Full disclosure: I wrote for the magazine once or twice years ago.)
I repaired to the bar next door, issue No. 1 in hand. Smirnoff’s declaration of intent, printed up front, impressed me even more. “People here are bored and disgusted,” he wrote, “with the sentimental and cliched depictions of the South that are rerun in the so-called Southern magazines of record.”

He further declared: “We will not publish pieces about family reunions, or recipes, or beauty contests, or picturesque porches, or local anchormen, or picnicking, or interior decorating, or lovely gardens, or Southern soap opera stars.”

A few miscues aside, Smirnoff lived up to his promises. He raided university archives and printed unpublished writing by William Faulkner and James Agee. He issued first-rate work from young Southern writers like Donna Tartt, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Jonathan Miles and Tony Earley.

Earley explained how most bad Southern writing flows, improbably enough, from Eudora Welty’s classic short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” Tartt recalled how Willie Morris, when he was sad, liked to play a scratchy old recording of “Moon River” at great volume. You can find these pieces in a very good book called The Best of The Oxford American”(2002).

Smirnoff began publishing annual Southern music issues. These came packaged with remarkable CDs, filled with strange and lovely old blues, pop and jazz songs you couldn’t find anywhere else. These CDs practically belong in the Smithsonian. They are the greatest nonrap mixtapes of our era. If a fire broke out in my house, I would — after saving my family, pets, photos and favorite cocktail shaker — make a beeline for them. (The new issue is the 14th annual Southern music issue, devoted to the music of Louisiana.)

Part of what appealed to me and to many others about The Oxford American could almost be understood as a class issue. It has never been clubbable. Instead it’s been weird and raw and willing to appear uncouth. It’s been unconcerned with demographics. I’ve never felt as if it were trying to sell me something. It’s been the product of a personal vision.

The best description I can muster of the magazine’s voice, if it has one, comes from something the novelist Tom Franklin wrote recently in his introduction to an anthology called Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader. Franklin described the way many of the contributors sound: like “the sensitive guy at the dogfight.”

The Oxford American has published as many smart women as it has men. Find, for example, “The Last Wild River,” by James Dickey’s daughter, Bronwen Dickey, about revisiting the Chattooga River, where the film of his novel “Deliverance” was made.
I always supposed that Marc Smirnoff would die at the helm of the magazine he started from scratch and kept spinning, sometimes precariously, for two decades. That he didn’t doesn’t negate his achievements there. “If temporality is held to be invalidating,” Updike wrote, “then nothing real succeeds.”

My advice: Subscribe to The Oxford American and help support the reconstruction. The talented Hodge is going to need all the help he can get.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.