VQR’s Future in Doubt After Tragedy

Kevin Nance
From the November/December 2010 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Since 2003, when Ted Genoways took over as editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) at age thirty-one, the magazine’s solid reputation as a respected literary journal has taken a quantum leap forward. To the traditional lit-mag mix of poetry and fiction, Genoways added hard-hitting (and relatively costly) reported pieces on contemporary topics such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These ambitious innovations won the journal a pair of National Magazine Awards, and Genoways was viewed as a rising star in the magazine world.

Now VQR’s future is in doubt, as is that of its editor. Already facing a period of uncertainty in the wake of the retirement of its principal supporter, University of Virginia (UVA) president John T. Casteen III, the magazine was rocked by the July 30 suicide of its managing editor, Kevin Morrissey, who had long been suffering from depression. More recently, he and Genoways, once close friends, had been in conflict over various issues, which fueled several national news reports that Morrissey’s death was the result of workplace bullying by Genoways. The charge was supported in news reports by some members of the magazine’s staff and Morrissey’s family, but vigorously disputed by dozens of VQR contributing editors and writers.

The university’s new president, Teresa Sullivan, has ordered a review of the situation, to include analysis of whether officials responded properly to calls Morrissey made to various university departments in the weeks before his death, a financial audit of VQR, and an examination of its management. (As of this writing, the review is ongoing; visit www.pw.org/magazine for updates.)

In the meantime, the university closed the journal’s offices on the UVA campus and canceled the winter issue. Most members of the staff, angered by the university’s decision to print a version of the fall issue prepared by Genoways, removed their names from the issue as well as from the magazine’s Web site. Some online commentators have speculated that the university may choose to shutter VQR, make it an online-only publication (as Northwestern University did last year with TriQuarterly), or otherwise relegate it to a lesser status.

In an e-mail exchange, university spokesperson Carol Wood denied those speculations. “The University of Virginia remains strongly committed to VQR,” she wrote. “Rumors of the journal’s demise are just that: rumors.”

Sullivan apparently does not intend to continue Casteen’s practice of overseeing VQR directly from the president’s office, however. “Discussions had already been under way about the reporting line of VQR,” Wood wrote. “We have been exploring whether it should report to the provost’s office or that of the VP for research, among others. No decision has been made.” As for whether Genoways might continue as editor of the magazine, Wood said that no decisions about the management of the journal will be made until the review is concluded.

It’s the fairness of that review that worries supporters of Genoways (the editor did not respond to repeated requests for an interview). “With lawsuits hovering, the easiest thing for the university would be to make Ted the scapegoat,” says author Lawrence Weschler, who was friends with both Genoways and Morrissey. Weschler sees Genoways as the victim of a character assassination reminiscent of the one in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), in which a distinguished scholar is branded as a racist after using the word “spooks” (referring to ghosts) in class.

“I would hope that the university administration would understand that they have one of the great institutions in American literature under their wing,” Weschler says. “And I’m not talking about the Virginia Quarterly Review over the years; I’m talking about what’s been happening during Ted’s tenure as editor. Before that, it was an extremely distinguished but fairly sleepy magazine, and under Ted it became something much more than that, with the potential of becoming something more important still.”

If Genoways doesn’t survive at VQR, Weschler says he wouldn’t be surprised if the editor finds a similar position elsewhere. “Once he clears his name, he’s absolutely a premier candidate for all sorts of editorial slots,” Weschler says. “When you think of his skills, his drive, and the incredible stable of writers who are devoted to him, he’s exactly the kind of person that magazines like Esquire and Vanity Fair used to look for. We’ll see.”

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.