From Tragedy to Trend Story: In Defense of Virginia Quarterly Review Editor Ted Genoways

It is very easy to see how this situation proved maddening for all involved. While Mr. Genoways could not fire his subordinates, his subordinates had considerable financial incentives to keep working for a magazine they no longer loved and for a man they increasingly resented.

The finances of VQR make no sense. But there was and is nothing like VQR: a tiny-circulation literary magazine with the audacity to publish dispatches from war zones and hot spots alongside fiction and poetry from the leading writers of our day. To envision this as any kind of commercial possibility, one has to be a kind of a maniac–which is, I must say, a side of Mr. Genoways I have never once seen him display.

As for the money, most of us who wrote long, reported pieces for VQR did so fully aware that we would lose money on the venture. I wrote one piece for the magazine on Loch Ness, for instance, in which I came out more than $1,000 in the red. A story I co-wrote about Vietnam left me and my co-writer with a collective $3,000 loss. We wrote for Mr. Genoways because we loved him, and had good reason to: I routinely submitted to the magazine sprawling, 25,000-word drafts that Mr. Genoways single-handedly turned into sleek, 8,000-word hot rods, several of which–thanks largely to Mr. Genoways–wound up in Best American literary anthologies. He suggested tense shifts, changed titles and cut entire sections, but you never felt as though you had been mistreated editorially. You trusted him.

I would like to believe that I know enough about human nature to be able to sense within someone to whom I am close a monstrousness capable of tormenting a colleague into the dark embrace of suicide. What I do sense in the VQR tragedy, unmistakably so, is a far more complicated story about people who grew to despise one another, worked terribly together and had access to too much money and not enough support systems, whether personal or official. But “workplace bullying,” like the “ground zero mosque,” is a narrative so easy and pleasing it practically fits you for your toga. (Mr. Genoways has, he recently told me, begun getting death threats.)

It is probably not possible to run a magazine if the editor in charge of the magazine is structurally unable to fire those beneath him. But the cartoon villain described by anonymous VQR staffers in the stories that have been published about this tragedy simply do not jibe with the experience any of Mr. Genoways’ friends or writers have ever had with him. There are two possible explanations for this. The first is that Mr. Genoways is a Machiavellian genius able to hide his true nature from everyone with whom he is close. The second is that the staff of VQR has an ax to grind in framing their side of the story for “experts” who have something, and perhaps much, to gain.

Mr. Bissell is a contributing editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is the author of five books, most recently, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.