What a Magazine Should Be

Posted: Aug 23, 2013 12:01 AM

What a difference a publisher can make. Like the difference between a publication that's going down fast and one that's back on its feet and showing every sign of life. And maybe becoming not just a magazine but an institution, one that reflects the literary tradition -- as well as the music and art -- of a whole distinctive American region, like the South.

Of course the magazine would have started at Oxford, the one in Mississippi, Faulkner's Oxford, in the heart of the heart of the South -- but by the time it made its peripatetic way to Arkansas, it was like the last survivor of The War crossing the river and wanting only to rest under the shade of the trees, like any other dying dream.

I'm talking about the Oxford American, which has always been the magazine of the future in these fascinating parts, and, alas, looked as though it always would be, never coming into its own in the here and now. Which is why, when one Warwick Sabin was recruited as its publisher -- indeed, just about conscripted -- there was an air of desperation about the decision. Like the last gasp of a drowning man reaching out for anything or anybody that could keep him afloat.

By that time, some six years ago, the poor bedraggled thing had more problems than either the Delta or Appalachia in hard times. It needed some guiding light to straighten out its finances, get it a decent editor at last, keep its circulation up, and generally put it back on track. Or maybe even fulfill its original promise, which is just as great as it ever was. The vision of a great magazine that would somehow capture the spirit of Southern life and letters is still there, always has been. It's just that this quarterly has never been able to fulfill it. Dreams can be elusive.

Now, almost six years later, the magazine is breathing steadily. Warwick Sabin found a bankrupt publication deep in debt and put it on a businesslike basis. He got rid of the two editors in love who made a spectacle of themselves and, worse, of the magazine. He found a former editor of Harper's -- Roger Hodge -- whose taste and discernment is now showing in issue after issue. The quarterly is alive again, and so is hope at the Oxford American.

I don't ask for much when it comes to a Southern magazine. Just a simple quarterly that sounds like a combination of Barry Hanna, Florence King, Walker Percy, the wisest old waiter at Galatoire's, the best country song you ever heard and the smartest old duck hunter who ever taught you anything, especially how to hold your bourbon and withhold judgment, keep your temper and shoot to kill. Oh, and maybe how to apologize with dignity, grace and, above all, brevity. (Talk about a lost art!) Also, how to love and yet not be blinded by it, and generally cut through the fog of life -- and at the same time admire it early on a frosty morn, like all the other grace notes of life.

It would also be nice to have a journal that, issue by issue, could instruct me in how to believe but not preach, to run and not grow weary, and accept the inevitable disappointment but never despair. And do it issue after issue.

No, I don't ask for much in a magazine, just something worthy of the South. The last lady and the last gentleman may be gone by now even in these latitudes, and may have been mythic to begin with, like the ivory-billed woodpecker, aka the Great God Bird, but a great magazine may still be possible. Heck, by now I'd settle for even a reasonable facsimile. Warwick Sabin has done his part to revive that dream. More no one could ask, less no one should accept.

And now still young Mr. Sabin is moving on, duty done, next assignment ahead. He's the new executive director of something called the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, an outfit dedicated to promoting "entrepreneurship" hereabouts. I'm not sure what that means exactly, or even generally, but I do know that if Warwick Sabin does as well with that organization as he did at the Oxford American, then its future is bright, too.