Oxford American readers will see more pages devoted to fiction and poetry in future issues of the literary magazine as recently appointed Editor Roger D. Hodge seeks to put his stamp on the 20-year-old publication.
Hodge also says he intends to publish more "long-form, deeply reported, character-driven, highly descriptive feature articles," pieces that he feels have appeared too infrequently in the Oxford American in recent years.
Hodge, 45, says the Oxford American has always been a strong magazine but he sees "enormous potential for improvement."
The magazine's founder and former editor, Marc Smirnoff, was fired in July following claims of sexual harassment (Smirnoff denies any wrongdoing). Hodge, a former editor of Harper's magazine, was hired to replace him effective September 1.
The magazine is headquartered at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and is published quarterly. According to the profile featured on its Web site, the magazine is "dedicated to featuring the very best in Southern writing while documenting the complexity and vitality of the American South." With a staff of 10, the magazine has a circulation of 55,000.
Roger D. Hodge
In 2007, Dwight Garner, writing in the New York Times, described the Oxford American as perhaps "the liveliest literary magazine in America."
Selecting Hodge as the magazine's new editor was not a difficult task, says Publisher Warwick Sabin. Besides looking for someone with experience editing a major national magazine, Sabin says it was important that the editor have the respect and admiration of writers and others in the national literary community.
"Roger certainly has an impeccable reputation among writers, and during my due diligence, I found a unanimous appreciation for Roger as an editor and his care and thoughtfulness with writers," Sabin says.
"We also wanted someone who was familiar with the Southern region of the United States, since that's our focus, and Roger certainly has that, being a native of Texas and having graduated from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. So, really, there were very few people who would have fulfilled all of those requirements, and that's why Roger vaulted to the top of my list very quickly."
Sabin says any new editor's sensibilities and instincts will have an impact on a publication, and so it's likely that changes are on the horizon. "However, the Oxford American has a very strong character and personality that its readers have come to expect, and I think Roger is very familiar with that character and intends to respect and sustain it," he says.
"I don't think any of the changes will be very radical, but certainly this is an opportunity for the magazine to improve and expand and mature."
Hodge began working as a freelance writer in 1989, and joined Harper's as a fact-checker in 1996. He started working in the Readings section of the magazine the following year, and edited it from 1999 to 2003. Hodge became deputy editor of the magazine in 2004 and served as top editor from 2006 until 2010.
Hodge's work will likely be scrutinized by those in the industry, as many believe Smirnoff left some very big shoes to fill.
Samir "Mr. Magazine" Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi and the nation's best-known magazine maven, previously served as a consultant for the Oxford American. He says Smirnoff was such a major part of the magazine that any new editor will face quite a challenge.
"Part of the DNA of the magazine is Marc Smirnoff.. and the people who don't know Marc or who just know Marc from the pages of the magazine may not know the attachment and the mingling between the DNA of the ink and paper of the magazine and Marc's blood," Husni says.
Comparisons between Hodge and Smirnoff are inevitable, Husni says, and the new editor will have to earn the loyalty of the Oxford American's readership. "He may create a great magazine, but it's not going to be the Oxford American like we knew it for the last 20 years," he says.
"It's not going to be easy. I mean, even people who follow the magazine, who subscribe to the magazine, cannot see the magazine without Marc.... A lot of people in these Southern United States equate the magazine with Marc."
Husni also wonders whether Hodge's origins may be an issue. "Texas is not Mississippi, and I don't know.. if Texas ever thinks of itself as a Southern state," he says. "It is going to be very hard for anyone, let alone somebody not from the region, to create the same limited circulation, high impact, Southern literary magazine like the Oxford American."
Husni acknowledges that Smirnoff was a transplanted Californian, but says he cultivated a true Southern perspective. "He managed to put all these Southern ingredients in that magazine. I don't know if there's anyone out there that is going to be able to replicate that."
Hodge, who plans to commute back and forth from his home in Brooklyn, seems up for the challenge, although he says his latest incarnation was unexpected.
"When I left Harper's in 2010, I didn't know if I'd ever work in magazines again. I was tired, and I welcomed the opportunity to devote all my creative energies to my own writing," he says. But when Sabin contacted him in mid-August about the opening at the magazine, Hodge was intrigued; the Oxford American had long been one of his favorites.
Hodge's book "The Mendacity of Hope," a tough critique of President Barack Obama, was published in 2010. Hodge is currently working on another book, which will document his family's migration from Missouri to Texas in the 1850s.
Despite print's much-publicized travails in the digital era, Hodge has hope for magazines. For one thing, he doesn't believe the public has lost its taste for great writing. "I'm no literary prophet, but I suspect that quarterlies featuring the best fiction, poetry, essays and literary journalism will continue to grow and to reach new audiences. But circulation growth is not an end in itself," he says.
"Smaller publications that have something unique to offer, especially if they are regionally defined, are probably better positioned to survive this ongoing media extinction event than conventional glossies that read like they were all written by the same callow hipster."