Thursday, December 6, 2007

Literature in the Americas

Literary magazines are often referred to as little magazines not as an insult, but to reflect the usual size of these magazine's readership and circulation. (Paris Review's George Plimpton famously detested the label.) It is a niche audience American publishers of literature must cater to, and this is even more true in the world of literary periodicals. Sure, many people read literary magazines, such as The Paris Review or The Georgia Review. Literary magazines, such as those mentioned, are even nominated for and win national magazine awards, plus they obtain attention from national newspapers. But compared to bigger commercial magazines, such as Time, Esquire, or The New Yorker, literary magazines are a very small affair.

Yet it is existence in this smaller world which allows them to not only get away with their expected diversity of literary content and general emphasis on less well-known authors--but these magazines' greater anonymity and slower publishing schedule also allow them to publish compilations of critical, in depth, and exploratory work, many times resulting in more lasting writing than other, larger, non-literary magazines. There is less pressure, monetarily, at least, in the literary production and editorial world. Some literary magazines take advantage of this fact. They use their medium to engage an issue along a broad array of information, views, and artistic forms. They spend months researching and probing into a topic, isolating particular works from the past and present that best address the issue. And many times the results are more than satisfying; they can even be illuminating.

And then there is Ted Genoways's Virginia Quarterly Review (I say "Genoways's" because under his editorship the VQR is a different, more engaging, and seductive publication than it was previously). VQR doesn't just offer you a literary magazine in the general sense. Genoways's concoction of VQR is like a happy tri-marriage of The National Georgraphic, Granta, and Harper's; a wide-reaching literary-political reflection of the world.

The latest issue of VQR, vol. 83 no. 4, focuses on South America. The United States has (to say the least) a complicated political relationship with South America, from Teddy Roosevelt's big stick policy for relations between the Americas to our prolonged enmeshment in Colombia's drug war to American Presidents' less than amiable relationships with many South American leaders. But it is not an exaggeration to say that most U.S. citizens are unaware of the goings on within our sister continent. As Daniel Alarcon described U.S. knowledge of Peru during the early eighties in the winter 2007 issue of A Public Space, "Peru a rumor, more or less." (Image at right by Simon Diaz is from that issue of A Public Space.) Much of the job of this issue of VQR seems to be to unpack rumors of South America in the way only literature can, which is with the subtle registering and questioning of a subject through both precise and figurative language.

It is "the literary journalism I guess we are getting to be known for," Genoways has said, describing the editorial direction of the magazine. This type of journalism is not new for the newly restructured VQR. Past issues have included in-depth features on AIDS in Africa, the United States/Mexican border, and the current Iraq war. What is different--and altogether impressive--about this issue is that the entire issue, from page 1 to 322, is focused on South America. In a radio interview available online, Genoways explains that the project of putting together the current issue began nearly two years ago, when VQR managing editor Kevin Morrisey noticed that, every time he opened the newspaper, South America was on the front page. Morrisey and Genoways got in touch then with Peruvian-American writer Daniel Alarcon, a regular contributor to VQR, to co-edit the magazine. Alarcon and VQR worked together with Etiqueta Negra (a high-quality Peruvian magazine where Alarcon is on staff) to get the best South American writers and photographers for the issue. And, eighteen months later: a thick, full-color issue of VQR, filled with 17 pieces, each highlighting a separate, important, and fascinating section of this large southern continent.

J. Malcolm Garcia writes in "The White Train" about a train in Buenos Aires, which transports the imporverished as they lug paper and copper across town to sell. A new translation by Chris Andrews of a novel from Roberto Bolano, "Nazi Literature in the Americas"--a fictional portrait of literature and fascism in South America--is excerpted at length. In "Soy in the Amazon," Pat Joseph covers one of the Amazon's most destructive crops. And much, much more is included in the issue--fearful albinos, transsexual prostitution, blind mayors, and portraits of Incan descendants on the islands of Lake Titicaca (pictured at left). This is the sort of magazine which not only sets a high bar for literary magazines--and for magazines in general--but makes one reconsider the distinction between magazines and books.

[Special note: For the first time in the history of VQR, the magazine has put the entire content of the issue online. "I just really wanted people to see this material," said Genoways. "I think it's a really important gathering of material and I just wanted people to find it." The content is available in the form of an interactive map, featuring current and past VQR pieces on South America and its people. Also included in the map are pieces that didn't make it into the issue. The site is well worth the time, if only to see a new step in connecting print literary magazines to the digital age.]

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