Reinventing a literary magazine

The Oxford American, the 'New Yorker of South,' tries to stage a comeback.

The Oxford American magazine took shape, like a revelation, not many days after Marc Smirnoff's car broke down in Oxford, Miss. Ten years and a few cars later, like a soul-wracked Faulknerian character, he's desperate to prove that the South can support a literary magazine of national prominence.

In January, Mr. Smirnoff shut down the magazine he'd founded and edited, selling his majority shares to a glossy regional publisher in Little Rock, Ark. But now, ensconced in an old casket factory in the Arkansas capital under the aegis of the new owners, Smirnoff is intent on resurrecting the magazine.

"I think it's clear-cut that the South deserves an ambitious, literary-minded general-interest magazine, and now we just have to pull it off," Smirnoff says.

By all accounts, the Oxford American – nicknamed the "Southern New Yorker" by some – should have little difficulty in doing so. Readers and writers have long been drawn to the South by themes of redemption, reckoning – and the often tragic, sometimes hilarious – rhythms of rural norms and abnorms. True, the era of Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty is over. But today's bestseller lists are graced by acclaimed Southern authors such as Fanny Flagg, Kay Gibbons, Jim McManus, and Charles Frazier.

Yet the Oxford American hasn't been able to capitalize on this literary tradition, despite Smirnoff's vision of a magazine that would focus on Southern fiction, poetry, and essays. That inspiration took shape when the Northern Californian, then just 29 years old, found himself stranded in Oxford. He realized that there wasn't a popular magazine for the literature of a region that has come to define both America's hope and its shame.

It was also an opportunity to fulfill an ambition: Smirnoff has been an "editing freak" since third grade. "I copied stuff from books and changed the words slightly – just like a real editor," he says. After borrowing thousands of dollars from "nice old ladies," Smirnoff was up and running.

Prospects looked bright. The editor met John Grisham at a local bookstore, and the novelist not only became a regular contributor, but also took on the role of a benefactor, bankrolling the magazine for nearly eight years.

Yet, despite pulling off coups such as printing unpublished stories by Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, and Walker Percy, the magazine began to flounder.

Broadsided by a slump in the ad market, the publication ran out of money and new readers. Some in the industry speculate that Mr. Grisham was told last year that he could no longer write the magazine's substantial losses off his taxes.

"After all that's happened, I'd have no reason to be bitter if John wanted to wash his hands of the whole thing," says Smirnoff.

Indeed, the editor freely admits that he struggled with managing the financial side of the business. The magazine's previous setup didn't even have a proper business office.

"He's no good at business; in fact, it's painful to talk to Smirnoff about money," concurs Tony Early, a former Oxford American contributor and the author of the bestseller "Jim the Boy."

Through its travails, though, the Oxford American's base of 35,000 subscribers remained loyal.

"The Oxford American was the best-kept secret in America," says Mr. Early.

Still, the question remains whether a magazine that features a mixture of lore, myth, and storytelling can survive in a magazine rack crowded with lifestyle and fashion publications. Most other literary publications in the market have private foundations that back them.

"The Oxford American is a fatal combination of literary idealism and commercial reality," says Bernie Reeves, who founded the Raleigh Spectator news and arts weekly.

But a surprise suitor from Arkansas, a burgeoning publishing empire known as the At Home Media Group, is confident there is an untapped market for the publication. The result is a "lifestyle" magazine group holding a "literary" brand.

Certainly, Southern literature nonfiction as a genre remains vital. Today's Southern writers – like Sue Monk, Haven Kimmel, and Jim McManus – are often as exciting as the previous generation of writers.

But to succeed, one observer sasy that the new Oxford American needs to be "useful" to modern readers. That might mean focusing less on publishing articles like "Unvanquished: William Faulkner at 100." To some, those pieces invoke visions of the South of old.

"What Smirnoff might ultimately need to do is run stories like, 'The South's Top 10 Axe Murderers,' " says Mr. Reeves, the Raleigh publisher.

Starting in January, At Home plans to publish eight OA issues per year, two of which will be "special issues" focusing on music and culture.

As for the publishing group's first reform: they've given Smirnoff the backing of a business team. Perhaps emboldened by his new challenge, Smirnoff has just hired a "hotshot" editor from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette – and has even poached New York talent for his new gambit.

Smirnoff is optimistic about the magazine's recovery. "I think they value how our readers continued to love us no matter how often we let them down."

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