A Rumpus Meditation on Editors, Ambition, and Angry Dependence (in 33 loosely jointed parts):
1. On July 30, the managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, Kevin Morrissey, took his life. His note stated that he “just couldn’t bear it anymore.” His sister – from whom he was estranged – assumed “it” was his long-standing depression. When she talked to colleagues at the magazine, they claimed Morrissey had been deeply troubled by his relationship with his boss, editor Ted Genoways. Phone records showed Morrissey contacted officials at the University of Virginia (which houses VQR) seventeen times in the last two weeks of his life. Police descended on the VQR offices. Reporters arrived shortly thereafter.
2. The national media’s take on the story was exemplified by a Today show report which cast Genoways as an unrepentant “workplace bully” who drove his underling to suicide. It was rich with innuendo and tabloid gravitas, which was how you know it aired on national TV.
3. Genoways’ defenders insist he is an editor of rare talent and vision, who worked relentlessly to transform a smallish literary journal into a nationally recognized magazine and, in the process, made some enemies.
4. I basically agree with this characterization.
5. For the record, Genoways asked me to write a humor column for VQR back in 2004. He also asked to see my fiction. It was an odd experience. After soliciting work, Genoways would often fall out of touch for months. Eventually, he would send an apologetic note, accept my work, and solicit more. At which point the cycle would start again. It was sort of like having a bad boyfriend.
6. I stopped submitting to VQR after Genoways informed me that he was taking the magazine in more serious direction, and that my recent stories struck him as too familiar, and sub-par.
7. He was right – both about his magazine and my stories.
8. Still: the way he did business generated a lot of unnecessary drama. His last note to me, for instance, came only after I sent him a series of increasingly confused and distressed emails. The subject line of the final one was: You Are Behaving Like a Bully.
9. Treating Kevin Morrissey’s death as some kind of lurid whodunit is degrading conduct, as is maligning Genoways from afar, or anonymously. It’s interesting in precisely the way Fox News is interesting. It provides aggrieved people an excuse to feel angry rather than feel sad.
10. But it is sad.
11. It’s sad that Morrissey is dead and that his death will haunt Genoways. It’s sad that people will (at least for a while) associate VQR with this mess rather than the remarkable work published therein. It’s sad that Genoways’ talent as an editor has been overshadowed by his alleged conduct as a boss. And yes, it’s also sad that certain editors, endowed with so much power by a growing army of insecure writers, don’t exercise that power more responsibly.
12. My own sense of Genoways is that his ambition outstripped his empathy. He had the drive to put VQR, and himself, on the map. But as he rose to prominence, the demands on his time overwhelmed him. Here were all these writers and underlings demanding his attention, sending him needy, guilt-provoking notes (like mine) and so he punished them with neglect. Most of this, I suspect, was unconscious. He lost touch with how he was making those around him feel.
13. This happens all the time. It’s happened to me. And to you.
14. Earlier this year, Genoways wrote an impassioned piece for Mother Jones lamenting the decline of the literary journal. He expressed disgust for the ranks of newly minted MFAs who want to write but don’t bother to read, and for those authors who “seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues – as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.”
15. As cri de ceours go, this was right in my roundhouse. But there was also a curious impatience in his tone. “Stop being so damned dainty and polite,” he concluded. “Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.”
16. It was almost like he was angry at the people who submitted to him.
17. Then again, it must be incredibly stressful to edit a large literary magazine, to have to scrape for funding, to have an army of neurotics ready to blame you for not anointing them, to dash so many hopes every day. To become, in effect, a figure of transference to thousands of angry dependents. You’d have to be a saint not to get resentful at some point.
18. Then again (again), I’m not sure Genoways is firing at the right cultural perpetrators. What of the masters of Hollywood, who boil our lust and shame and aggression into a kind of pornographic gruel, and call it entertainment? Or the media companies who routinely place profit above a serious investigation of our global predicaments? Or the politicians who refuse to face the moral imperatives of our age? Or even those of us with the “right values” who continue to vote foolishly with our time and money every day?
19. I have a hard time begrudging anyone trying to make literary art. It seems to me the rise of MFA programs is mostly about people going in search of themselves, people who feel the emptiness of our historical moment, who feel unmoored from family, adrift in a sea of marketing, who seek to find a cure in storytelling.
20. Are some of us needy, entitled narcissists who are in it for the wrong reasons?
22. But we’re all in it for the wrong reasons, at least some of the time. We’re all weaklings when it comes to our ego needs. The question is whether we have the patience to outlast these needs, and the doubts that energize them.
23. This is why agents drive me nuts. They feed on the ego needs of writers. They set themselves up as the folks with the tickets to the golden kingdom of Success. They love writers, but too often it’s an erotic brand of love, one that’s about possession, about having power over someone whose creative power you envy. The worst of them take real pleasure in the angry dependence of their clients.
24. I once had an agent say to me, after failing to sell a book of mine, “I sometimes think I take it harder than my writers.”
25. When you think about it, that kind of solipsism is almost poignant.
26. I’ve worked with a few editors, by the way, who behaved in ways that struck me as cruel. These were the same ones who, years ago, harbored dreams of writing.
27. And then sometimes I think about C. Michael Curtis, the former fiction editor of the Atlantic. That guy sent me countless rejection letters over the years, each with some vague and vaguely passive-aggressive dismissal. A few strong moments here, but we remain unconvinced. Stuff like that. These notes used to drive me crazy. I had the guy pegged as some bitter old vampire, who got off on blue-balling aspiring writers. And maybe he was. But probably, he was just rooting for me to write that one story he couldn’t dismiss.
28. That’s what most editors and agents dream about – that one story or novel or memoir they can’t dismiss. And we all want to write it. We all want to summon within ourselves such a voice, such courage, such attention to pain and beauty. But most of us fail. Our days rank as failures. And so we send out work that – as Genoways did me the great favor of pointing out – doesn’t honor our talent. And who do we blame? We blame the editors and agents, who are often merely stand-ins for the parents and siblings who thwarted us long ago.
29. But the blame rests with us.
30. To a lesser but crucial extent, it rests also with those fellow travelers who have turned away from the necessary pleasures of art, and retreated into the frantic enticements of screen addiction, into false narratives designed (actually) to keep the turbulence of their internal lives at bay.
31. Our job, then, is two-fold: to focus on our own failings as writers. But also to speak more forcefully as advocates for literature. Books are a powerful antidote for loneliness, for the moral purposelessness of the leisure class. It’s our job to convince the 95 percent of people who don’t read books, who instead medicate themselves in front of screens, that literary art isn’t some esoteric tradition, but a direct path to meaning, to an understanding of the terror that lives beneath our consumptive ennui. It’s hard to make this case, though, if all we do is squabble with each other and lament our obscurity.
32. I am talking to myself mostly.
33. Please don’t pollute this comment thread with garbagio about VQR. Go somewhere else for that. Seriously. Genoways isn’t the point. We’re going to destroy ourselves as a species if we lose the capacity to imagine the suffering of others. One way to do this – the best way – is via our imaginations, via storytelling. It’s our job to help spread that particular virus, in our work and our lives. The point isn’t to take sides. There are no sides. There’s just the one side. And we’re all on it.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.
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