Quarterlies and the Future of Reading

By Core, George | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Quarterlies and the Future of Reading


Core, George, The Virginia Quarterly Review


A review is not measured by the number of stars and scoops it gets. Good literature is produced by a few queer people in odd corners; the use of a review is not to force talent, but to create a favourable atmosphere.

-T. S. Eliot to F. M. Ford, 1923-24

I am convinced . . . that the prosperity and distinction of the Sewanee Review is very important for our Review here; that we do not compete so much as we re-inforce the common standard.

-John Crowe Ransom, June 28, 1948

When Allen Tate wrote his classic essay on the critical quarterly, which appeared in the first volume of the Southern Review under Brooks and Warren, he provided a blueprint for the editing of a quarterly, which today remains the sine qua non on the subject. At that time-1935-he made the reasonable assumption that the literary quarterly had an unlimited future. Now, 70 years later, one must ask the question posed to me by the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review-whether the quarterly has a vibrant future beyond the short term-say a decade or so-that we believe we can foresee confidently and clearly. Anyone coming into the editorship of an established quarterly such as the VQR and the Southern Review must ask himself or herself, as the 21st century is getting fully underway, what the future holds for the quarterly. Winston Churchill observed that he did not become prime minister of Great Britain to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire, but that is what happened, even though he saved Britain in World War II from domination by the Nazis and Japanese. No one would want to assume the editorial chair at a quarterly only to find the job entails seeing the magazine in question out of business.

The persistence and durability of the given quarterly tells us a good deal about how its importance is understood by the given college or university, including its administration. That the Virginia Quarterly has now been published over 75 years and the Yale Review and the Sewanee Review well over a century is not the result of mere happenstance, no matter how much we can assign to simple good luck or sheer inertia. Each magazine helps secure its sponsor's place in the literary firmament and in the world of the humanities. The Sewanee Review focuses on literature, and its forays into music, art, and history are but occasional. On the other hand the VQR and the Yale Review cover the humanities in general. The VQR, which has a Southern ambience, also publishes articles on politics and political history. As George Garrett has pointed out, Staige Blackford has capitalized on his experience as a journalist in pursuing current affairs and politics in his magazine since 1975. At the same time he has published short fiction, poetry, and literary criticism, as is the case at the Yale Review. If the emphasis at the VQR has been Southern, the emphasis at the Yale Review involves New England and the Ivy League. The leading piece in the Yale Review for spring 2003-"Yale Students and Harvard Fellows 1969-70" by John Morton Blum, a distinguished historian-illustrates this point, which arises from the fact that any successful editor of a given quarterly must establish or continue an editorial program (that is largely based upon the history of that magazine) and hew to the line involved.

Some quarterly editors never figure out that basic premise. When the Kenyon Review, for example, was refounded by Ronald Sharp and Frederick Turner, they did not publish book reviews, even though the title of the magazine announced it as such, a review, and even though the original series (1939-1970) under John Crowe Ransom and others always published reviews. Stanley Lindberg during his long stint as editor of the Georgia Review never realized the importance of a critical program or the difference between compiling an issue and editing it. He did not study the essays of Ford Madox Ford, Allen Tate, Malcolm Cowley, Monroe K. Spears, Lewis P. Simpson, and other editors on what editing a quarterly entails. …

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