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Roger D. Hodge: The Personality of a Magazine

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September 12, 2012

Newly minted Oxford American editor Roger D. Hodge discusses the role of an editor, finding a form, and the newsstand's allure.

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Image courtesy of Ed Winstead

Acclaimed Southern magazine The Oxford American lost its founder and editor, Marc Smirnoff, in July, following accusations of sexual harassment. This Monday the magazine announced that Roger Hodge, author of The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism and the former editor of Harper’s, will be Smirnoff’s successor. Hodge ushered Harper’s to two National Magazine Awards during his tenure, and the expectations for what he will bring to the OA are high. Over email, Hodge discussed the collaborative nature of a magazine’s voice, the appeal of literary journalism, and the OA‘s place online.

Ed Winstead for Guernica

Guernica: What creative direction do you see The Oxford American taking under your leadership? How do you see it evolving from what it was under Marc Smirnoff?

Roger D. Hodge: In a magazine, the editor’s point of view and aesthetic determine directions of inquiry, modes of presentation, choices of assignment, the tenor of headlines, the temper of the edited prose. Hundreds and thousands of decisions, both subtle and dramatic, enter into the production of every issue of a magazine. Naturally, different individuals will make different decisions. I don’t know how to sketch a recipe for such changes; I don’t follow an editorial formula.

Of course, as Harold Hayes, the great editor of Esquire, points out in an essay published for the first time in the current issue of The Oxford American, there are also limits to “the editor’s implied control.” One of those limits is the writer, both the writer’s voice and the writer’s general aesthetic stance. Hayes describes, by way of illustration and in highly entertaining detail, his editorial interactions with Norman Mailer, whom he eventually lost to Willie Morris at Harper’s. Hayes and Mailer were useful to each other, and Mailer helped define Esquire’s editorial style. Marc Smirnoff and I admire many of the same writers, and I have always enjoyed reading the magazine he founded, yet I have little doubt that our interactions with those writers will produce distinct outcomes, just as the articles Mailer wrote for Morris differed from his Esquire pieces.

The essential material of literature is human action, whether physical or emotional, and human action well described often conveys the world of politics and society better than any argument or polemic.

Guernica: You’ve said that you’d like to see more long-form literary journalism in The Oxford American. Something that’s made the OA unique is its dedication to writing on books, authors, music, and art. Can you expound a little on what kinds of journalism you’ll be pursuing? How do you keep the magazine from becoming Harper’s with a drawl?

Roger D. Hodge: The OA is certainly not alone in its dedication to books, authors, music, and art. Guernica shares that dedication, as do publications such as Harper’s, The Paris Review, and The New Criterion. Each of these magazines proceeds from its own editorial assumptions, and each embodies and expresses its own traditions. A new editor necessarily enters into a conversation with the traditions of the magazine he inherits. Something new results.

The Oxford American will naturally continue to publish essays and memoirs, short stories and poetry and criticism. The special music issues will continue, this year under the guest editorship of Alex Rawls in an issue devoted to the music of Louisiana. I do plan to run more literary journalism in the OA, because that is where I see an imbalance in the magazine as it has been edited. Even so, reporting is hardly an alien presence in the magazine, as J. Malcolm Garcia’s recent pieces attest, and one can obviously produce deeply reported narratives exploring all the subjects listed in your question.

Coming up with subjects is easy, but an abstract subject doesn’t make a story, and that’s why general descriptions of what kind of stories I intend to pursue won’t tell you very much about the pieces that will result. The challenge is to find the particular form. Writers (sometimes with an editor’s help) have to seek out the character who will drive the narrative, conceive the conceit that will sustain the arc. The best fiction writers do so through invention, but those of us who write nonfiction must get out of the classroom and the study and talk with the people who are shaping (or suffering) the world we inhabit. Whatever the form, and whether the genre is fictional or not, the essential material of literature is human action, whether physical or emotional, and human action well described often conveys the world of politics and society better than any argument or polemic.

Guernica: You weren’t an OA subscriber before getting on board with the magazine. Why not?

Roger D. Hodge: I’ve long been in the habit of walking into a bookstore about once a month and exiting with armloads of magazines. There’s something about discovering a new issue, even if I repeat the exercise month after month, that has always appealed to me. I didn’t subscribe because I’ve always bought the OA on the newsstand; the same goes for almost every magazine I read. I don’t think I’ve missed very many issues.

Guernica: As you put it in an earlier conversation with Guernica, “The newsstand industry is dying; direct mail is a failure; the Internet in all its gaudy diversity is the only hope.” With the OA still facing substantial debt, how are you planning to keep the magazine solvent? Are you satisfied with the OA‘s online presence?

Roger D. Hodge: Fortunately, worrying about the business side of things falls primarily to our very capable publisher, Warwick Sabin. My job is to make a great magazine, though of course I can’t be complacent about what that means. The publishing business has changed, and we have to change with it. Warwick has worked very hard to build a flexible and inventive publishing model, and that means exploiting everything the Internet has to offer without falling prey to the lures and snares of Net fundamentalism. I’ve witnessed at least three waves of Internet boom-and-bust publishing cycles since I got into this business. As the prophets at Suck.com wrote in 1995, “The Net giveth and the Net taketh away.”

So of course you can read the OA on the e-reader of your choice, and although I continue to believe that print is superior, I also read the magazine on my Kindle and iPad and my laptop. I suppose I could read it on my phone if I had no sense of shame. We have an excellent website, which recently won a National Magazine Award for Dave Anderson’s stunning video work, with a dedicated group of contributors and a very talented web editor. Beyond the scope of traditional publishing, the OA has been creative in reaching audiences through events and conferences. And in June the magazine received a major grant from ArtPlace to establish a restaurant and performance space in our new Little Rock headquarters, South on Main. The Oxford American may be the only magazine in America with its own restaurant and bar.

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

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