The Virginia Quarterly Review, part 1: A suicide rocks the esteemed literary journal


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On July 30, Kevin Morrissey printed a note, gathered his identification and called the Charlottesville, Va., police to report a shooting at the coal tower, a local landmark. When they arrived, it was Morrissey they found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, his papers laid out neatly beside him.

Morrissey was the 52-year-old managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, an award-winning literary journal published by the University of Virginia. He had worked at the journal since 2004, handling accounting, payments, contracts and other administrative details. ‘Kevin’s job was his life,’ said co-worker Waldo Jaquith.


Morrissey’s death might have affected only his small circle of friends and colleagues, but it has also had an unexpected impact, spurring the university to conduct an audit of the finances and management of the VQR. And now, a month after Morrissey’s death, the Virginia Quarterly Review is on indefinite hiatus.

The move follows a stream of reports and extended online discussion about Morrissey’s suicide. Those reports have focused on the VQR workplace and have been critical of the magazine’s editor, Ted Genoways. Genoways, who has been locked out of the office by university officials since Morrissey’s death, has been labeled a “workplace bully” in media reports with few actual details. The ‘Today’ show reported that Genoways was “under investigation for allegedly driving one of his employees to suicide.”

But although contributing editors, writers and associates found Genoways “professional, tactful and respectful” -- as two dozen wrote in an August letter of support -- it is clear from comments after Morrissey’s death that most of his five-person staff was, to some degree, unhappy. It is their complaints that have dominated media accounts of Morrissey’s death and the subsequent cloud over the VQR.

Belatedly, Genoways supporters -- including impressive literary figures such as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey, Guggenheim Fellow Tom Bissell and prominent cultural critic Lawrence Weschler, who directs the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University -- wrote a joint letter praising the VQR editor.

“Under his expert management, and thanks to his excellent interpersonal and communication skills, VQR attracted a loyal community of writers and journalists, of which we are proudly a part,” they wrote in the letter sent to the president of the University of Virginia and to media outlets.

When Genoways took over the reins of the VQR in 2003, it was a decades-old, typically quiet literary journal. Under his leadership, the VQR moved beyond the traditional mix of short stories and poetry to become a showcase for long-form journalism, presenting complex international stories and prize-winning photography. In 2006, it was nominated for a stunning six National Magazine Awards, unheard of for a literary journal, competing against far larger, better-funded commercial publications including Esquire and Gourmet.


‘VQR has played a vital, increasingly important role as a venue for original journalism,’ said Jon Sawyer, founding director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. With the journal in hiatus, that role going forward is now in question.

As the University of Virginia conducts its investigation into the finances and management of the VQR, the journal’s staff is scattering. Jaquith, its former Web editor, has found another job. Associate editor Molly Minturn and Sheila McMillen, another associate editor and circulation coordinator, are on paid leave. Genoways is at the top of the masthead, but he still doesn’t have access to the office. The magazine is on hiatus, the production of its winter issue put on hold. This week, media reports reflected the New York Times ArtsBeat blog’s headline: ‘Esteemed literary journal closes after suicide’ -- the story is that the office is closed down, but the implication is much larger. Can VQR survive?

They all lose money

Founded by Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia is located in Charlottesville, a city steeped in history. Jefferson is evident in the architecture and art, the traditions and even the drinking cups. He remains the city’s most revered Founding Father.

The Virginia Quarterly Review offices are located in a place of honor, dating to the school’s earliest construction. “It used to be the dining room,” said McMillen. At the VQR, she sat in an outer room with three other staff members; two interior offices were occupied by Morrissey and Genoways. ‘It wasn’t a cubicle kind of office,’ she said. ‘Fourteen-foot ceilings, a lovely old building on the grounds of the University of Virginia, which is quite beautiful to begin with.’

The rarified locale of the VQR offices speaks to the historical prestige of literary journals in colleges across the country. During the early and mid-20th century, a literary journal was an investment in the country’s cultural capital -- and some of the best were housed at smaller institutions trying to make their mark. The Kenyon Review, based at Kenyon College in Ohio, was one of the best; it published Robert Penn Warren, Bertolt Brecht and Flannery O’Connor. Another top journal, which published T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell and Katherine Ann Porter, was the Sewanee Review, from Sewanee, the University of the South in Tennessee.


Recently, however, university-based literary journals have seemed less vital, and have been targets of university officials making budget cuts. ‘They all lose money; that’s just the nature of it,’ said Robert Boynton, professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. No matter that they fill an important role in giving young writers a place to publish and grow; they no longer carry the same cultural weight.

‘They all have tiny circulation,’ Boynton explained, and yet ‘they’re all subsidized.’ Louisiana University’s Southern Review came under threat of closure last year. The editor at Middlebury College’s New England Review was told the magazine would have to become self-supporting by 2011.

To be continued...

-- Carolyn Kellogg