Friday, September 26, 2008

Scholarly and Literary Journal Experiment: In VQR's Living Room

I strode into the living room of the Virginia Quarterly Review this week to have a look around. No, I didn't drive to Charlottesville. Instead I sat down with the Fall issue and a cup of coffee and read. For all seven of you who follow this blog regularly, this is part of a journal experiment where VQR is the first victim of my scrutiny.

"Reading" in this instance involved more than the actual literary content, although that was crucial. I did read each article, story, and poem, but I also read the masthead and looked up people there whose names I didn't recognize; I read the bios of every contributor; I looked at the artwork (so much a part of this journal's unusual affect); and I even considered the advertisements, all telling a story in themselves. I further read about VQR's history online, to get a sense not just of where it is and where it wants to go, but also where it has been. I read even an appreciation/ obituary for its longest-serving editor, who stepped down in 1975 after 33 years.

Knowing a journal is like tasting a wine or appreciating a color or a texture. Once you get a sense of it you can think about what might pair well with it. You establish quickly a sense of whether or not your writing style is compatible with its editorial vision (or could be), and what sort of work would make sense to share. Think of this exercise as planning a dish to bring for a meal in someone's home. Every dish doesn't work in every gastronomic context. What work will you offer not just as a sampling of who you are and what matters to you, but of who those editors are and what would enhance their overall vision?

The journal does feature writing by women, but its overall tone is decidedly masculine with a global focus. It almost feels like the literary companion to a newsmagazine. Its emphasis remains on the stars that it naturally draws through the stature it has built over time, but it appears open to less-glittery contributors as long as they share what I perceive as dual characteristics (neither taking precedence): great writing, and a journalistically slanted global perspective. Sebastian Junger's current forays in Afghanistan would offer perfect core material, but so would your experiences working in an AIDS orphanage in Senegal.

VQR appears to reflect the precise editorial vision of its current editor-in-chief Ted Genoways in as specific a way as Harper's for a long time reflected Lapham, or The Paris Review reflected Matthiesen and Plimpton. I can't imagine a poem, story or essay appearing here that would work equally well in other literary journals, so the exercise of sending your stuff around to see where it sticks would seem futile in this case. I think to hit VQR you've gotta know -- and savor -- the target.

All of this is my opinion, not VQR's words, so I'd be interested to hear from anyone at the journal with thoughts either way.

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