On July 30, Kevin Morrissey, the managing editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review, one of America’s most respected and ascendant literary journals, took his own life, apparently unable to abide the pressures of his job. His suicide has since opened a debate on the issue of “workplace bullying” and called into question the integrity and morality of his boss, Ted Genoways, the editor of VQR, whom I have known, and for whom I have written, for the past seven years. This unrelentingly sad story saw only limited coverage at first but has now jumped the regional transom and been featured in many prominent media outlets, including, earlier this week, The Today Show.
It says something about the nature of the story’s initial coverage that while reading it over for the first few days, I felt as though I must not have known Mr. Genoways very well at all. A man I have never witnessed even raise his voice was, suddenly, an office Iago who shouted at his staff, sent traumatizingly cruel emails and singled out Morrissey in particular for what his sister described on The Today Show as “ongoing, daily assaults.” Many of Mr. Genoways’ writers have come to his defense, only to be told that the issue here is not Mr. Genoways’ editorial skills but rather his managerial competence.
In its coverage of the VQR tragedy, The Today Show did not waste time with pity–or accuracy.
Meanwhile, the comments on sites that have run pieces about this tragedy are now reaching into the hundreds, the vast majority of which are purely speculative, written by people uninformed as to the particulars of this situation. The most heartrending comments come from members of Morrissey’s family, from whom he had been estranged for some years, and who understandably want an explanation for how and why this happened. However, a disproportionate number of comments have been provided by workplace-bullying experts, who have a vested interest in stepping to the forefront to display their expertise and thereby control the narrative. Virtually all of these “experts” have concluded that Mr. Genoways is a hideous bully.
The facts that have so far emerged would appear to suggest the following narrative: Mr. Genoways, in elevating what had previously been a respected but quiet literary journal into one of America’s best magazines, went mad with power, antagonizing and belittling anyone who stepped in his way. He showered money on writers, draining VQR‘s once-sizable coffers. (Much has been made, for instance, of the $6,000 in expenses he granted the journalist Elliott D. Woods for the six unembedded weeks Mr. Woods spent reporting from Afghanistan. What those outraged by Mr. Woods’ gluttonous invoice do not understand is that $6,000 will get you a Kevlar vest, a plane ticket to Kabul, a visa and nothing else.)
Another frequently floated accusation holds that Mr. Genoways did not do much actual work for VQR, most of which was handled by his staff, none of whom dared cross him for fear of professional reprisal. An entity known as the Workplace Bullying Institute has proved the most enthusiastic promoter of this version of the VQR story, which it has covered with Gawker-on-LiLo ferocity. On its Web site’s fascinating FAQ section, the WBI explains why some workers are bullied: “You posed a threat somehow to a person who is not fully developed as a moral human being. … The fact that bullies are threatened speaks volumes about them, not about you. But don’t waste time feeling pity for them.”
In its coverage of the VQR tragedy, The Today Show did not waste time with pity–or accuracy. The segment’s reporter, Jeff Rossen, identified Mr. Genoways as a “bully boss” without so much as one decorously dropped-in “alleged.”
Six years ago, in a piece of media criticism on the 9/11 Commission, Mr. Genoways called into question Mr. Rossen’s journalistic acumen. He referred to Mr. Rossen as “the smarmy reporter in Bowling for Columbine who fixates on his hair between takes as he reports the tragic school shooting.” Mr. Genoways continued, “Like all young reporters, [Mr. Rossen] fairly exudes get-up-and-go, but he is driven by an insatiable thirst for the most vicarious thrill and an aching desire to be first, not a sense of duty to be most considered and most correct.” At no point in the six-minute Today segment did Mr. Rossen choose to mention this rather incandescent conflict of interest.
Mr. Rossen claimed that Morrissey’s suicide note specifically blamed Mr. Genoways for his decision to kill himself. The note, in fact, said no such thing. Mr. Rossen also mentioned a letter Mr. Genoways had written to “his staff” shortly after Morrissey’s suicide, in which Mr. Genoways described what had happened and attempted to preemptively defend himself against the storm he knew was headed his way. The letter, which the segment briefly threw up onscreen, was not written to Mr. Genoways’ staff. Subject-titled “Personal and confidential,” Mr. Genoways’ letter was written to his friends and family members. (Shortly after he sent this “Personal and confidential” note, his work and private email accounts were hacked, and Mr. Genoways believes the email was leaked to several outside parties.)
The segment concluded with a Matt Lauer-led studio interview of Nicole Williams, another workplace-bullying expert, who told Mr. Lauer, “Bullying is rampant. There’s no question about it.” The bullying meme is rampant, certainly, but how rampant actual, documented bullying is remains unclear, especially when the suicide of Phoebe Prince–the Dreyfus Affair of the anti-bullying movement–has been shown, thanks to Slate’s Emily Bazelon, to have involved emotions and behavior far more complex than the conceptual, schoolyard simplicity of “bullying” could ever hope to capture.
“This is a great opportunity,” Ms. Williams went on, “for us to reflect on why bullying is so rampant.” Well, it is great opportunity for her to reflect on that before a national television audience, clearly. It has been somewhat less great for Mr. Genoways’ friends and family.
Here is a different narrative of the VQR tragedy: Mr. Genoways, in elevating what had previously been a respected but quiet literary journal into one of America’s best magazines, revealed the basic incompatibility of the sinecure model of university employment with the high-pressure, emotionally tempestuous imperatives of commercial publishing. Mr. Genoways’ staff, including Morrissey, did not agree with the direction in which the magazine was going and moreover believed Mr. Genoways was spending too much money. Crucially, Mr. Genoways was bound by one extraordinary quirk of a university- and taxpayer-funded literary magazine. Morrissey, along with the rest of Mr. Genoways’ staff, were state employees first, VQR employees second. While Mr. Genoways could hire staff, he could not easily fire staff, which is the right and prerogative of, say, the editors of The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic, against whom VQR was attempting to compete in terms of content (if not circulation).
Mr. Genoways was thus forced to run his magazine in what were essentially and increasingly mutinous circumstances. Paradoxically, as the magazine pulled in National Magazine Award nominations and critical acclaim, Mr. Genoways’ relationship to his staff became increasingly toxic. Job productivity suffered and resentments accumulated, even though Mr. Genoways, Morrissey and Waldo Jacquith (the former Web editor of VQR, who told The Today Show that “Ted’s treatment of Kevin in the last two weeks of his life was just egregious
“) were drawing a combined compensation of $320,000.
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.