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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

New York Times literary critic reflects on Oxford American

Posted By on Tue, Dec 4, 2012 at 12:37 PM

Dwight Garner
  • Dwight Garner

New York Times literary critic Dwight Garner shared some of his thoughts on the Oxford American in today's edition of the paper.

There's probably no need to rehash for Arkansas Blog readers all the particulars about the magazine's troubles this summer with founding editor Marc Smirnoff, who was fired in July. Garner (who has been published in the OA) wrote that he'd been planning to pen a gushing tribute to the magazine 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."

High praise. But then, as Garner notes, things "got weird." He doesn't dwell on the weirdness, noting only that he "can’t say whether these actions were closer to peccadilloes or closer to something much worse" and that he decided to hang back a bit on the approbation in light of the summer's developments.

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 Mr. Hodge hails from Texas; Southerners have complicated feelings about Texas. But Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Among Garner's reasons why the OA matters:

Smirnoff published "first-rate work from young Southern writers like Donna Tartt, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Jonathan Miles and Tony Earley"

The compilation CDs that accompanied the Southern Music issues, which Garner declares "the greatest nonrap mixtapes of our era"

The fact that the OA "has published as many smart women as it has men"

Its all-around pluckiness and idiosyncratic charm: "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."

He ends with an entreaty. "Subscribe to The Oxford American and help support the reconstruction. The talented Mr. Hodge is going to need all the help he can get."

As of 12:35 p.m., Editors in Love had not weighed in on Garner's column.

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