“Inappropriate Conduct”

About two weeks ago, I saw it posted on a friend’s Facebook feed: the editors of Oxford American had been locked out of their offices and were under investigation for “inappropriate conduct.” At that point I didn’t even care what they might have done that caused it— my initial thought was a bewildered Well, I’ll be damned . . .

Having been an avid reader of Oxford American at one time, I am quite interested to know what’s going on with it. I don’t remember when I first started reading the magazine, but in my stacks of old magazines, I do have some of the older issues. It was founded while I was still in high school, yet at that stage in my life being Southern seemed like a curse and an affliction, not like an identity worth exploring. I did read it before it moved to Arkansas, first to Little Rock then to Conway; I know this because I remember wondering how those folks could move a magazine with that name out of Oxford, Mississippi.

Some of the details of the “inappropriate conduct” slowly became known to the general public over the course of about a week in mid-July, and in that media coverage, founding editor Marc Smirnoff first claimed not to understand the charges, then declared them baseless and vindictive. I don’t know anything about their office’s inner workings, but from afar I find myself wondering generally how an intelligent person gets fired and locked out of the office and still wonders, WTF? 

Yet, I have no doubts about the continuation of Oxford American‘s publishing legacy. The South doesn’t lack in great writers and editors who can pick up this fumble and run with it. If Smirnoff and his co-editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald aren’t re-instated, it becomes a matter who carries it forward— and if that happens, there won’t be a shortage of applicants. The magazine has a base of readership, a strong reputation, institutional support, and in one article from the Log Cabin Democrat (the local newspaper in Conway, where the magazine’s offices are located at the University of Central Arkansas), publisher Warwick Sabin was quoted as saying:

“The staff is very positive and motivated and confident about the future,” Sabin said. Morale among remaining staff is high, he said.

But it won’t be that simple. On Monday, July 16, the first work day after the firings, Marc Smirnoff was already fighting back publicly. An article in the Arkansas Times reported that he and Fitzgerald were hiring lawyers to combat what was happening to them. By the end of the week, the Log Cabin Democrat was reporting about Smirnoff’s campaign, his insistence that he was not given adequate to prepare a defense against the board’s charges (which he claimed didn’t make sense), and his anti-establishment assertion that this situation “pitted [them] against  ‘fancy, rich, powerful, sharply dressed people.'” His explanation for the situation: “Smirnoff is convinced three people turned on him after he told them to stop a drinking game during a July 4 retreat.”

However, in an article that ran on July 19, also in the Log Cabin Democrat, this excerpt from an e-mail sent by Smirnoff to UCA’s president Tom Courtway appeared:

“I consistently noticed disturbing or suspicious behavior but I always allowed his acts to fit in the category of ‘isolated events,’” Smirnoff said in the email. “My failure to see what was truly in front of us is how I failed The OA and UCA.”

For perhaps some measure of clarity about why the Board took this action, Rick Massey, chairman of the Board of Directors for the Oxford American Literary Project, the magazine’s non-profit support organization, released this statement in the wake of the firings. It provides a few details about the problems the Board has with Smirnoff, Fitzgerald, and their defense.

Like I said, I wasn’t there, don’t know what happened, and don’t even know the people involved. Marc Smirnoff obviously disagrees with the Board’s attitude and actions regarding his work or his management style, but these objections may or may not change anything.

One mild lamentation I found regarding the lock-out came from a writer for Chicago Reader, Sam Worley, who wrote about the ongoing business, calling it a “bummer” that Smirnoff was removed. Worley gave the magazine some glowing blurb-like praise for its stature and appeal:

It was attractive swag, and out of the heavy pile I took home that day it’s the thing that’s stayed with me—I am totally in love with it, and have bought every issue since.

On the flip side of Worley’s response, Arkansas Times blogger Max Brantly wrote a pretty scathing post on July 19 that sums up a naysayer’s perspective. He begins:

First let me say:

Marc Smirnoff, the obsessive founder of Oxford American, wore out my patience years ago.

and near the end proffers a foreboding summation:

Under Arkansas law, the board can fire Smirnoff and Fitzgerald for no reason at all, without due process, without regard to alibi or defense. Smirnoff can obsess on this and create media maelstroms for as long as someone will listen and report. It won’t help him . . . [ellipses mine]

I’ve only been around Marc Smirnoff once, when he came to the Alabama Book Festival to speak. I went to hear him simply because I thought I might gain some insight into his editorial thought process that might help me prepare submissions. To be frank, I mainly remember him cutting himself off mid-thought a lot, and I had a hard time following what he was saying. I made one more submission to Oxford American after that experience, for their Education Issue, and received no answer despite paying handsomely for priority shipping and delivery confirmation. I didn’t bother writing to the editors to inquire why I didn’t get answer, because the special issue where the piece might have fit had already come out.

Because of its substantial readership and prestigious national reputation, I would have been glad to have seen my work in the pages of Oxford American, which never happened— and probably never will, since I don’t submit to them anymore. Yes, I have submitted my work to them a few times, and those works were rejected (or ignored) every time. However, as a working writer who understands this business well enough, any bitterness that I have toward Oxford American comes less from being held out of its pages than from having my submissions rejected and ignored – who knows which? – while still receiving constant renewal reminders. Frankly, that got under my skin, I’m only human.

As a writer who lives in the South and who writes about the South, though, I believe that I – and all of us who do what I do – have a reason to care about Oxford American. It’s the place to be if you write about the South with any degree of swagger. That writer from Chicago Reader put it best: Oxford American is “The New Yorker‘s rowdier cousin.”  Southern Living certainly has a wide readership among certain groups, and Garden & Gun has an up-and-coming presence as a new Southern magazine with some sharp content and imagery, but Oxford American . . . is IT. The magazine holds that undisputed-heavyweight-champion status within a certain niche, which just happens to be my niche as a writer. I care about what happens at Oxford American for the same reason that a national political writer would care what happens at the Atlantic or National Review.

Like I said, I see the magazine continuing on, with or without its founding editor. After July 21, the news coverage of the firings at Oxford American was fading fast. A few bloggers have been writing about it here and there. The New York Observer ran an article on July 25, mostly about the legal scuffles and Marc Smirnoff’s reactions – a lot of it had already appeared in other articles – but in it came this tidbit about the future:

Mr. Sabin told Off The Record he has “reached out to several people about the permanent editorial positions” and “received inquiries from several well-known editors,” although he says he may employ guest editors beyond the music issue in order to “not rush the selection of a permanent editor.”

Last time I checked, the Staff page on the magazine’s website listed Warwick Sabin as “Publisher & Interim Editor.” Who knows how long it will stay that way.

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