And the winner is … Charlottesville-based VQR steals the show at National Magazine Awards
Story by Chris Graham
Odds are that you haven’t heard of it, so don’t feel bad.
OK, so maybe the fact that you didn’t know that one of the top magazines in the country is published in your backyard is worth at least a playful smack on the forehead.
“The attention has helped bring in actually hundreds of new subscriptions over the phone and over the Web site – people who have read about VQR in one place or another and decided to subscribe. For us, that’s exciting – because it means more readership, and that means greater impact for the writers, that there’s greater influence,” said Ted Genoways, the editor of the Charlottesville-based Virginia Quarterly Review, which took home two Ellies at the 2006 National Magazine Awards earlier this month.
The showing tied the periodical for top honors with the likes of Time, Esquire, Harper’s, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker – all of which have some multiple of VQR’s 7,000-copy quarterly circulation.
Quality writing has little to do with numbers, of course.
“What I would hope the attention that we’ve received for this means is that even if our circulation is comparatively small, that there will be greater attention paid to the pieces that we’re publishing – and that people will be aware that there’s something worth paying attention to,” Genoways told The Augusta Free Press.
Genoways, 34, took over as editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review in 2003. He arrived armed with some ideas for tweaking the approach and appearance of the magazine – but he was also careful not to want to risk messing up a good thing at the same time.
“The main thing is that I loved the mission that the journal had had since its beginning – which was not to be simply a literary magazine, but as the motto of the journal implies, to be a national journal of literature and discussion,” said Genoways of VQR, which was founded in 1925 and has featured the works of literary giants including H. L. Mencken, Bertrand Russell, Katherine Anne Porter, Peter Taylor, Robert Penn Warren and Marianne Moore.
The discussion part was “something that I wanted to expand, and try to make that discussion as current as possible,” Genoways said. As the editor concedes, though, it can be a battle sometimes trying to cover current-events-type topics in a quarterly format in a way that is timely and relevant.
“Our idea of covering the news is, here’s something that’s just happened, we need to find a writer who can take a month to work on this, and if the timing is right, we put it through production and printing, and four months from an event to the time that it hits somebody’s mailbox is as short as we can pull off – and it’s usually more like six to nine months. So if that’s the case, we have to be careful in that way, too, that we’re not choosing subjects that by the time that four months have elapsed that no one is concerned with that topic anymore,” Genoways said.
“It’s funny – because we often have a certain amount of envy for daily reporting in that respect,” Genoways said. “Though the constant grind of it would likely be difficult, we often feel frustrated that there are issues that we would like to take on, but we think, is this still something that people will be talking about in six months? And if the answer is no, we just have to resign ourselves to the fact that there’s probably not much that we can contribute to that discussion.
“I see our role as being the occasional appearance of some more in-depth analysis to help make sense of the news that has gone on in the recent months in between issues,” Genoways said.
The finding-writers part of the job for Genoways and his staff – he has a staff of four, “and that includes me,” he notes – should be easier with the attention from the National Magazine Awards.
“For a lot of the writers that we’re working with, especially on nonfiction pieces, these are people who have a great deal of skill as writers and a great deal of enthusiasm for their subjects. And oftentimes they’re as excited to have a venue, any venue, as they are for being selected for these things – especially if we’re approaching them and say, We want to provide you space,” Genoways said.
“One of the things that we can offer that a lot of the larger magazines don’t is plenty of room for people to explore subjects. It’s unusual for some place like Time or even Newsweek to give more than maybe 2,000 words to a subject. It’s unusual for us when we commission an essay to have it be less than 5,000 words,” Genoways said.
“As a result, I think that the nonfiction pieces tend to be much more nuanced, have greater depth to them – but because they’re longer, there’s a higher standard for the quality of the prose, that if you’re going to hold a reader’s attention for that length, there’s a greater burden in terms of having to be sure that the writing is lively and engaging, and that the pieces are well paced to keep the reader from straying elsewhere,” Genoways said.
With two Ellies to point to as an indication of the quality of writing being presented, you wouldn’t think too many readers would be straying – though Genoways, significantly, is of a mindset that The Virginia Quarterly Review has to go out and prove itself all over again each and every issue.
“Ultimately, what a journal like ours hopes for is not to win awards or make money or to sell a lot of advertising – our goal is to stimulate cultural discussion, to direct discussion toward topics that we think are not being covered in the mainstream media, and really to do what we can to contribute to the larger debates that we think are important to the country and to the world,” Genoways said.
“That’s a pretty difficult goal to achieve for a magazine with such a small circulation – but hopefully these awards will make that possible, by getting attention through some of the media outlets that have readerships much larger than ours,” Genoways said.