January 16, 2003

I Had Such High Hopes

I Had Such High Hopes

For the relaunch of the Oxford American, which once upon a time was my fave magazine. Of course, like everything else I enjoy, it tanked for awhile, but now it's back and we received our first issue this week. I was all excitement--I'd forgotten that I'd sent in my "resubscribe me in the event you get some cash" card, so it was like a happy mailbox surprise. Until, that is, I began to actually READ it.

Let me give you a little history--for a while, hublet and I had a subscription to The New Yorker. We thought, in our misguided youth, that it would be a useful way to keep up with new and interesting literature, film, etc., and that the essays and articles were well worth reading. Over time, though, I realized that the magazine was merely taking up space in my home, that reading it had become a chore, and that the content was predictable, insufferably smug, and not at all thought provoking. Reading The New Yorker was like hanging out with the same tiresome group of upper-crust snobs every night--eventually, all talk turned to how fabulous the club members were, and how idiotic, deluded and beneath contempt the rest of the world was. The stories were all the same--modernist pieces of angst exploration and navel gazing, with the occasional appearance of poorly written magical realism to "shake things up" and prove editorial hipness. The poetry, well, wasn't. And the overweaning attitude accompanying all of this was that if you didn't fall all over yourself raving about the annointed literary hoi polloi, you were a hick, a rube, and frankly, not worth thinking about.

I will admit that perhaps part of the problem was that I was approaching The New Yorker from an outsider's position. It's called The "New Yorker," after all, not "The Literary Magazine That Will Appeal to Southern English Majors Who Favor the Middle Ages and Who Only Visit NY Occasionally and Then Only for a Weekend." But really, that excuse didn't wash. Folks outside of NY read this magazine, not for the "goings on about town" section, but because The New Yorker touted itself as a cultural force. It had become the literary equivalent of the Emperor, and I could no longer escape the fact that it was quite naked (and kinda out of shape, now that I think about it). So, we let our subscription lapse.

Then we stumbled across The Oxford American, sort of a southern version of The New Yorker--fiction, music, essays--which was always a pleasure to read. The yearly Music Issue (with free sampler CD) alone was worth the price of subscription. Wasn't as pretentious, either. We were happy. And then the changes began.

At first, it was just futzing about with the design. The masthead went from folksy, friendly type to hard straight lines and bold faced sans serif type. The interior layout resembled that of Movieline magazine--slick and hip, and if things like legibility were impaired, well, it was a small price to pay for coolness. The content began a subtle swing, as well. I started to notice that most of the featured stories (which always had a flavor of the south that's hard to describe unless you're familiar with southern literature as a whole) were becoming southern fried versions of New Yorker stories, which is to say, they dealt with the south, but with an underlying contempt for the region--you could be a southern writer, but you had to be ironic and postmodern and kind of sheepish about it; I mean, they had slavery here, for chrissakes! The burden of being a good liberal writer in such a tainted atmosphere must have been ponderous, indeed. I wondered if the authors couldn't get published unless they had the good sense to be embarrassed about their southern heritage. Then the magazine went under, and I was strangely relieved.

And now it's back, with a "rant" (even so-titled, how very cutting edge) about the reverse racism of the term "white trash." Convoluted bizarre non-logic aside, I am beyond pissed off about the content. It's exactly the sort of thing a sociologist from NYU visiting Mississippi on a fact-finding mission would publish (after spending all of 5 minutes chatting with a waitress at the Waffle House) as proof that he "knows the region." Southern literature has grappled with issues of race, slavery, and poverty for well over 100 years, and in thought provoking, sometimes offensive ways. We have a handle on our history--we live it, sometimes relive it, every single day in all of its messy violent reality. We have been the battleground for civil rights since the Civil War, and I'm sorry, but the au courant white liberal guilt and southern self-loathing evident in "publishable" modern southern literature isn't gonna further debate, erase the sins of the past, or solve anyone's problems. It's kowtowing to post-modern lit crit sensibilties, plain and simple, and as a southerner, it just pisses me off.

We have a culture and a literary tradition all our own down here, and the fact that it isn't based on "What Would The New Yorker Do" is a POSITIVE. Otherwise, we're just watered down wannabes, which is what I fear the "new, improved" Oxford American may become.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at January 16, 2003 06:45 AM