The piles of awards handed to The Virginia Quarterly Review since Ted Genoways took the helm in 2003—as well as all the press—and, most importantly, the singular experiences provided by each new issue of VQR are very nearly unprecedented in literary publishing. Truly: it’s a marvel. Ted was kind enough to lend me his time this week to discuss the changes he’s already made at VQR—but also some of the bigger shifts that are coming as blogs and broadband become more popular and the entire magazine industry is starting to wonder: what’s next?
JT: The Virginia Quarterly Review might best have been described as “venerable” when you took it over: you’ve kept the best of the old seriousness, but added a lot to the new mix: photos, comics, even pull-out posters and art. You even garnered a Best American Comics award for Art Spiegelman’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@#*!” this year. Is this new look and feel something you did because things like photography and comics and other visual arts are essential to our culture—or was it also an attempt to make each VQR into something more than just the traditional “book” of quarterly journalism: something as strong as an event and artifact as it in in words and ideas? Is this something print quarterlies are going to have to do to survive?
TG: The short answer on why the magazine is so (comparatively) heavily designed is that we’re a bunch of booklovers, typophiles, and out-and-out design nerds. We love what a beautiful design can do. Gideon Mendel’s photographs of people living with AIDS in Africa, for example, were amazing when paired the testimonies of their subjects—they were no longer just words on a page; they had faces. In this way, the physical object is more than just a vessel or delivery device for the ideas it contains, but it’s also clear that more and more of our audience is finding us online. So we have to have an equally compelling and attractive web presence. Our site has to be as rich and complex as the print issue, and it has to burst with interesting content—and not just words, but also video, audio, additional photos. Like I said, we all love print—and champion it—but we always realize that things change and new possibilities emerge. I won’t be surprised if my son only reads in electronic media when he’s an adult. If that happens, I won’t be as sad as a lot of book people. To me, the magic is in the words, the way they leap from the page. You know, I’m a Whitman guy, and old Walt was a printer himself but hated the obstacles of printing. “I was chilled with the cold types, cylinder, wet paper between us,” he wrote. “I pass so poorly with paper and types, I must pass with the contact of bodies and souls.” If the web allows us to be in contact with more readers—more souls—then how could we not be thrilled by its infinite promise? I think any magazine that doesn’t recognize these new possiblities—or willfully ignores them—does so at its peril.
JT: I don’t know that I’ve paid that close attention to it, but it seems like more and more of your content is online for free—in addition to an increasing amount of online-only content. You used a Google map as an alternate Table of Contents for your latest issue, on South America in the 21st Century. How important is Web traffic to VQR? It seems like the Internet and, specifically, blog conversation is a huge opportunity for the old print quarterlies—most of whom only have a circulation of four or five figures. Do you get a lot of incoming links from online articles and blogs? Has it changed what you see as your mission? Let’s talk possibilities here.
TG: Web traffic is paramount—even more important than it was a few years ago—and for exactly the reasons you suggest. For a print magazine with a total press run of 7,000 copies, the only way to be part of the larger discussion is by using other media. In some cases that has meant getting our authors on NPR or partnering with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to produce news segments for PBS. But people who consume the news through those other media often aren’t big readers, so they’re not likely VQR subscribers. But the people on the Web are still primarily readers, so a recent brief mention on kottke.org of an article that we published in our current issue brought in 25,000 visits, whereas a full hour on NPR’s Fresh Air for another author hardly generated any traffic at all.
So the Web affects the way we do things—we’ve recently hired a full-time Web developer, for example, a real rarity among journals of this kind—but I don’t think it’s changed our mission per se, because it hasn’t changed what we publish. But it has certainly changed the way we approach promoting our material. It’s encouraged us to be a little more expansive, a little less buttoned-down. The Google map adds a little wow factor to our content and hopefully encourages younger readers to tackle our long pieces. This sort of thing gives us the chance to show that our material is serious, but at heart we’re just a bunch of lit nerds who still geek out over new technology.
JT: The New York Times, I’ve noticed, is offering more and better interactive content with its articles—especially their series pieces. For your South America in the 21st Century issue, you’ve put up a fantastic feature on the Urban Virgin paintings of Ana de Orbegoso, accompanied by Odi Gonzales’ poems, each of which is translated into and read in English, Spanish, and Quechua. Can we expect more of this?
Likewise, we see the videos as opportunities to tell our stories in different ways for different audiences. It’s also another perspective, a slightly different angle that adds to and often enriches the print version. In that way, the audio and video is no different than adding photographs.
JT: OK, this last one is a bit tricky, but let’s run with it: is there any possibility for art to crop up on blogs? Have you ever read a blogger and said, “I want that guy!”? I was talking to a friend the other day and she said, “Oh, I don’t want to read blogs for essays and fiction—I just want them to point out the good stuff.” Jason Kottke is a great curator of what’s fascinating: is that the best-suited mission of blogs? Or are there as many ways of blogging, to paraphrase Thoreau, as there are radii in a circle? Pound’s Cantos were pretty ranty—would they have worked as a blog?
TG: This is a fascinating question—and I think the answer is: yes, art is cropping up on blogs. I especially feel this way about bloggers from other parts of the world. It has provided a venue for writers who normally would never have found an American audience. The Iraq war showed us that bloggers like Salam Pax and Riverbend could produce vital records of events as they happened. Riverbend, for example, wrote about meeting someone who had been abused in Abu Ghraib weeks before the story broke in The New Yorker. That blog will be an important record of this war. Does that rise to the level of art? Only time will tell for sure, but I can tell you that there are blogs—from Africa and India, in particular—that have made me aware of writers I never would have found otherwise, and some of that work (fiction primarily) is absolutely outstanding.
But I also continue to be amazed by the incredible small publications around the world. It’s not just Granta anymore. It’s also places like Etiqueta Negra and Caribbean Writing Today. The Web makes those publications readily accessible to anyone with the interest.
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