Media Clippings: Designing Fiction

Of the plump literary quarterlies that now dot the magazine horizon, none is more consistently interesting – even downright surprising – than the reconditioned Virginia Quarterly Review. With editor Ted Genoways at the helm, the magazine has stocked up on pages, and been redesigned with an emphasis on glossy illustrations and spirited layouts. It has also published new and famous writers you might not normally expect.

VQR, which originates at the University of Virginia, was recently honored with two National Magazine Award nominations, in the categories of general excellence and fiction. It didn't win either, but the nominations are recognition enough of the considerable success the quarterly has had since it headed in this new direction.

The last two issues have been particularly noteworthy. The spring issue devoted all of its 276 oversized pages to examining Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass on the 150th anniversary of its publication. There were essays by such well-known critics and poets as Diane Ackerman, Robert Creeley, Galway Kinnell, William Logan and Charles Wright. A monumental compilation, it was enhanced by old photos and engravings of Whitman, who was shown at different stages of his life, and was the perfect companion to the nearly simultaneous reissue by Oxford University Press of Leaves of Grass in the form Whitman first gave it in 1855.

The summer issue features new work by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cormac McCarthy and Isabel Allende.

But more interesting still are three separate essays on books of Jewish interest: Sven Birkerts re-examines Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift; Sanford Pinsker looks at recent novels by Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick; and Jack Fischel examines a number of current books dealing with the phenomenon dubbed the "New Anti-Semitism."

Exponent readers may recall that both Pinsker, late of Franklin and Marshall College, and Fischel, still out at Millersville University, were longstanding contributors of book reviews and essays to the newspaper.

Fischel's long review is a straightforward, thorough look at five new titles on the recurrent problem of anti-Semitism.

But the Pinsker and Birkerts pieces are of a very different and more substantive nature. Pinsker considers the two most recent works by Roth and Ozick, The Plot Against America and Heir to the Glimmering World, respectively. The review-essay provides detailed analysis of both works – and surprisingly judges the Ozick better than the Roth, which has not been the conventional wisdom. The piece also manages to offer a comprehensive overview of both writers' long careers.

The Birkerts' piece takes the form of a personal essay, in which the critic tries to explain his love for the Bellow novel through what was going on in his life at the vulnerable moment when he first read it.

For lovers of Jewish American fiction, neither piece should be missed.



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