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Ed Winstead: Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil

August 16, 2012

What's next for the Oxford American now that founder Marc Smirnoff has been fired?

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Image courtesy of Ed Winstead

A few weeks ago, editor-in-chief Marc Smirnoff and managing editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald of the Oxford American were both fired. The circumstances of their dismissals, despite my best efforts to understand them, are unclear. Smirnoff has been accused of sexual harassment, including touching and photographing an intern’s feet. What happened in Fitzgerald’s case is more vague, although it seems that senior editor Wes Enzinna, formerly on the staff of Guernica, may have accused her of sexual harassment as well.

In Julie Bosman’s New York Times piece on the affair, she mentions that the Oxford American “promised to help revive the great Southern literary tradition.” Whatever the state of the Southern literary tradition in 1989, the year the magazine was founded, it most certainly needs no reviving now.

What the Southern literary tradition needs is a forum, a mountaintop from which to holler, a gate to crash, a nephew at whom to smile and say, “Pull my finger.”

That tradition is alive and well, as anyone who has read the Oxford American can attest. Names like Tony Earley, Sarah Dessen, Ron Rash, Allan Gurganus, Wells Tower, Jill McCorkle, Clyde Edgerton, Rosencrans Baldwin, and Fred Chappell come to mind, and those are just from my home state of North Carolina. What the Southern literary tradition needs is a forum, a mountaintop from which to holler, a gate to crash, a nephew at whom to smile and say, “Pull my finger.”

For many years the Oxford American has served admirably in that role. Unmoved by the old dictates on polite conversation, politics, race, and religion are always under its consideration. If the genteel Southern Living and Garden & Gun, insouciant and highfalutin, were cats, the Oxford American would be their hot tin roof. But it was Smirnoff’s creation and, whether he will admit it or not, his actions have put it in danger.

What happens to the magazine now is anyone’s guess. Smirnoff has a few of his own up on his website, and if he’s right things won’t be good. He’s demanded a change of the magazine’s name, since it is “something else now,” and has criticized the incoming guest editor, Alex Rawls, as well-meaning but not a “literary writer.” Hopefully he’s wrong. I imagine that he is.

The person and the magazine, however tangled they appear, lead very separate lives. Lorin Stein may not be George Plimpton (nor, for that matter, is Marc Smirnoff), but The Paris Review endures.

An editor-in-chief, and a founding one in particular, inevitably shapes their magazine’s voice; the best ones imbue their pages with a personality that seems inseparable from their own. But the person and the magazine, however tangled they appear, lead very separate lives. Lorin Stein may not be George Plimpton (nor, for that matter, is Marc Smirnoff), but The Paris Review endures.

Magazines are curators of a culture, and the Oxford American is drawing from one of the richest and most vibrant—a storytelling culture, with plenty left to say. Marc Smirnoff is not the Oxford American, though he seems to believe that he is. That is not an insult; it is a testament to the good work that he did. It may have begun as Smirnoff’s magazine, but it is no longer in the hands of any single person. The gloss obscures the fingerprints but you can’t miss them if you know where to look. Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, Rita Dove, John Updike, Charles Bukowski, Richard Ford, William F. Buckley, Eudora Welty, Roy Blount, Jr., ZZ Packer, Wendell Berry, William Faulkner, they’re all there, and many, many more. Marc Smirnoff or no, they’re too ground in to the fibers of the thing to start slipping out now. 

Art is not self-sustaining, and Smirnoff’s replacement will have a lot of work to do. But the legacy, and the talent, is a lofty foundation on which to build. Whatever comes next for the Oxford American, I hope it retains some semblance of what it was before. I have a confidence in it. We don’t need another void to fill. Of voids, and of silence, we have plenty enough already.

Ed Winstead is fiction editor of the Washington Square Review and an editorial assistant for Guernica Daily. His work has appeared in Guernica and The Rumpus. He lives in Brooklyn.

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