Michelle Richmond

The Oxford American After Marc Smirnoff

Smirnoff & Fitzgerald (via KUAR.org)

It’s difficult to imagine the Oxford American without Marc Smirnoff. Smirnoff founded the magazine in 1989 in Oxford, Mississippi, and managed to keep it going for much longer than he probably expected when he printed the first issue in 1992. Every time it looked as though the magazine would not survive, Smirnoff got funding with a little help from his friends, including John Grisham, whose deep pockets famously brought the OA back to life in 1995. He also got weird, interesting material from a whole bunch of well-known and obscure Southern writers, and the magazine racked up a cult following, not to mention a few National Magazine Awards. I always looked forward to the OA music issue, and my CDs from those issues got a lot of play.

I don’t know what happened over there that led to the ousting of Smirnoff and managing editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald earlier this month. I do know that the allegations of inappropriate behavior against Smirnoff and Fitzgerald were made the day after Smirnoff fired senior editor Wes Enzinna, as well as an intern. I was never an intern for the OA, nor do I know any of them, so I don’t pretend to know their side of the story. Save for nine strange months in the mid-nineties that netted me a husband and a serious aversion to chicken coops and cold weather, I haven’t spent any time in Arkansas. What I do know is that I love the magazine, and I had only good experiences with Marc and Carol Ann the few times I wrote for the OA. I also know that I really enjoyed their company at Southern literary events, back when I used to go to Southern literary events.

At one such event–I remember neither the town nor the venue–I was supposed to take part in some Jeoapardy-style contest onstage with, if I remember correctly, other OA contributors, but I got sidetracked in the hotel lobby by my Scotch and a fascinating conversation with Ron Rash and Jack Pendarvis, who is, in general, the strangest and funniest person you will ever meet, and I flaked on the contest, but that was okay, because sometimes in the South, when you say you’ll be at a certain place at a certain time, you don’t quite make it, and no one really gets too worked up about it.

First issue of Oxford American, March 1992

Southern literary events, to my memory, frequently involved a good bit of drinking, and were fairly messy, not to mention warm and congenial. Literary culture down South is rarely a buttoned-up affair, and the OA is not a buttoned-up magazine, and when I get together with other Southern writers, I am less buttoned-up than I am pretty much anywhere else. Which is what I like about the South in general, and Southern literary culture in particular, of which the OA has long been a cornerstone–despite the fact that Smirnoff is from Marin, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from my adopted hometown of San Francisco.

But I digress, as the OA often did, which was what made it such an interesting magazine; you really never knew what you were going to get, and you always got something you weren’t expecting.

The bottom line is, there would be no OA without Marc Smirnoff. It seems odd to keep the enterprise going while stripping it of the very person who birthed it and managed to find funding for it through several near-deaths, as well as the managing editor who formed such strong relationships with contributors over the years. These things do happen, of course; magazines keep going long after their creators have moved on to other things. One thinks of course of Zyzzyva, which for decades was an appendage of Howard Junker, but which is thriving now under the auspices of Oscar Villalon and Laura Cogan. (Junker left Zyzzyva a few years after publicly dissing Stephen Elliott at a bar in San Francisco, in front of an Elliott-friendly crowd, resulting in the infamous beer-in-the-face episode; Junker is doing just fine, by the way, and blogging here.)

Carol Ann Fitzgerald

The OA story doesn’t end here, and I’m sure many of us will be watching to see just where it does end. As of this writing, Fitzgerald and Smirnoff plan to fight the termination. Update, August 8: On the website editorsinlove.com, Smirnoff has written a 52-page document, Our Story of Losing the Oxford American, with a timeline of events leading up to and following his and Fitzgerald’s dismissal.  He notes that, having been locked out of the Oxford American office and denied access to their computers and email accounts, they were prevented from properly defending themselves.

One of the stranger allegations is that Fitzgerald sexually harassed senior editor Enzinna. The fact that Enzinna sent hundreds of sexually suggestive texts to Fitzgerald. discusses trying to “bone married women,” trying to bed Fitzgerald, flirting with drunk interns, and all manner of scatological topics, seems to take some air out of that tire. Enzinna, to my knowledge, has not denied that the texts are his, nor has he publicly spoken out about what went down at the OA. Enzinna now appears to be running the Oxford American, under the auspices of interim editor and Arkansas politico Warwick Sabin. In his editorsinlove.com piece, Smirnoff also laments that the New South Journalism issue of the magazine will soon hit the stands with Enzinna’s name on it, and will include an article by Enzinna’s best friend and roommate, James Pogue. Smirnoff had rejected Pogue’s article–just one more bit of bad blood that passed between Smirnoff and his editor in chief before Enzinna made his allegations.

Roy Blount Jr., who contributed to the magazine’s first issue twenty years ago and who also wrote a column for the OA, spoke to The New York Observer a few weeks ago about the magazine and its founder:

It was Smirnoff’s baby, and nobody else has ever been able to keep such a peculiar and interesting magazine going in the South for anywhere nearly as long…All I know about the workings of the magazine is that they never messed with my copy or tried to talk me out of writing anything that would upset readers.

Peculiar and interesting it was. Will it remain so? I guess we’ll all have to wait for the next issue for the answer. I’d just renewed my subscription before this news came down the pipeline, but now I’m not so sure I’ll be quite so excited to see the OA in my mailbox. What I would hate would be to see it lose its strange joy, its utterly unique take on the South.

To digress even further, I remember when I was interning for Whittle Communications in Knoxville, TN, just out of college, and some of the locals complained about the New Yorkers coming down and running the show. Founder Chris Whittle was actually born in Tennessee, but he hired a lot of New Yorkers, and his wife was a glamorous Italian photographer, so people didn’t know what to think. The magazine I worked for at that time, Special Report, folded not long after I left, as did the whole Whittle Communications juggernaut. Whittle was Silicon Valley office life personified before anyone had heard of Silicon Valley–the interns got large, free, furnished apartments in the shadow of the Sunsphere (thanks, Chris!), there was free hot chocolate in the break room, there were parties with loads of food, and my boss played in a band in the courtyard during lunch. Joan Lunden’s face was everywhere, although in hindsight, maybe Anderson Cooper, who anchored  Channel One, should have been the public face of the company. My boss’s boss was a dead ringer for Harvey Keitel. All that, and it still didn’t last.

Sans Serif is the blog of New York Times bestselling author Michelle Richmond. A native of Alabama, Michelle has made her home since 1999 in Northern California. Her books include The Year of Fog, No One You Know, Dream of the Blue Room, and the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress.

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