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The Oxford American Winter Reading Issue

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Just got a copy of the new Oxford American Winter Reading Issue and this thing is packed with great writing on every page. I was going to write an overview of the entire issue, but there is simply too much to cover in one post. The magazine’s website provides a great overview of all the fantastic contents.  

For now, I’ll focus on two pieces: editor Marc Smirnoff’s discussion of working with J.T. Leroy and Allan Gurganus’ description of selecting the best in Southern short stories.

In Smirnoff’s Editor’s Box entry, he examines the magazine’s interaction with J.T. Leroy and offers some candid criticisms of their performance. Leroy wrote am article entitled Coal Miner Mother for the annual music issue that eventually generated considerable controversy; even before the true identity of Leroy was revealed. Included in Smirnoff’s piece are emails Leroy sent the OA staff.

At one point, Smirnoff questioned Leroy’s description of record stores in Nashville with shotguns hanging on the wall. The staff asked the writer to change the reference, but Leroy declined. “As to what folks do or don’t believe, that ain’t my issue to take on. I like the way the language falls. I publish all my stories as fiction anyways. Everything I do or say is fiction even if I just did something in front of you and then described it to you accurately in your perception. I never trust anything I do or say.”

Just as an aside… when I read that line, I couldn’t help but think of the continuing steroid scandal that surrounds baseball slugger Barry Bonds who once famously remarked “I don’t really believe half the (stuff) I say.”

Smirnoff details the failings of his magazine’s fact-checking with the Leroy story and he also goes into a feud he had with John Lomax, music editor of the Houston Press over the controversial piece. The OA boss also talks about the difference in magazine fact-checking and the cursory vetting that is performed by commercial book publishers. He makes a good point when he says that although publishers claim fact-checking nonfiction books would be prohibitively expensive,

When you consider the low wages doled out in publish, a firm could probably hire a full-time checker for somewhere between $25,000-$40,000–a fraction of what it costs to have the Fab Five or the latest Survivor write diet books. And though editors like the two quoted above are, no doubt, underpaid, I wouldn’t be surprised if the CEOs of their companies own summer houses. Is that a cheap shot? Maybe–but I’m not kidding. Before rewarding themselves with generous salaries, publishers must give readers what they deserve: trustworthy books.

All in all, Smirnoff’s piece is candid, sincere, and thought-provoking. He takes the blame for how the Oxford American dealt with Leroy, he raises interesting points about publishers and fact-checking, and he also reveals how journalists can manipulate their presentation of the facts. It’s a great read.

In The Rebellion Continues, At least in the Southern Short Story, Allan Gurganus recounts his experience selecting the short stories included in the latest installment of New Stories from the South, which will be released in September 2006. Wading through all those country-fried stories is a chore that unleashes both despair and delight. In the course of his piece, Gurganus does have some interesting comments on the nature of Southern writing and the reason it is such a major force in literature.

Southerners respect a joke, having been cast too long as the Hick in all Traveling Salesman tales. Flannery O’Connor, asked why Southern writers specialize in portraying freaks, answered with some pride, “Because we’re still able to recognize one.” Often at family reunions.

Feared for playing break-neck Bear Bryant hardball, Southerners remain championship grudge-bearers. That’s excellent training for staying the world-class rememberers we are. It’s an odd recipe but the proof is in the stories. Take our itch for feuds and duels. Mix in our family pride over… well, over our family pride. Add history, acreage, the witch’s brew of slavery, start–then really lose–a war, stir with 20-20 memory: flavor to taste. Hang over a hickory fire. Then age it good.

I’m sure that other regions–stretching West to Easterly–take better care of their picket fences. Certainly their small-town papers devote fewer column inches to downtown gunplay, to property-line disputes leading to the use of contested fence posts as cudgels. More orderly record-keeping might go on in those distant lands of conifers and frostbite. But as for their impenitent brilliant lying? As for their in-depth knowledge of codes, tricks, sacraments, and livestock? As for their feeding fat into the blue campfire called Fiction?

Naw.

The articles from Smirnoff and Gurganus are outstanding reads. But they’re just two of many. Check out the Oxford American now for a literary magazine that you’ll savor through every word on every page.