In recent weeks, a number of stories with a Minnesota angle have been circulating in scholarly publishing circles, including this one, published by the Chronicle of Higher Education. The piece explores the ramifications for literary journals of the July suicide of the managing editor of the University of Virginia’s celebrated Virginia Quarterly Review, better known as VQR.
Kevin Morrissey was the Minnesota Historical Society Press’ marketing manager from 1999 to 2004, when he accepted the VQR post. Several jobs before that, he was the marketing manager at St. Paul’s late, lamented Hungry Mind bookstore. (Hat tip to MinnPost’s “Second Opinion” writer Susan Perry for catching this story.)
During his time at the MHS Press, Morrissey was responsible for tremendous growth, current Director Pamela McClanahan told me. He tripled annual sales to some $1.3 million, helped to created the Borealis imprint and to launch several lauded writers, including Joel Turnipseed and Jane Trenka.
According to a MHS Press blog entry noting his passing, the 52-year-old “knew bookselling inside out. He learned the backlist in a flash, then transformed our marketing office — overseeing a warehouse move, hiring sales reps, rolling out the Borealis imprint, and using his extensive connections to take our books into new venues.”
Morrissey’s family has alleged that workplace bullying by his boss — another MHS Press alum, onetime acquisitions editor Ted Genoways — played a role in his decision to end his life. After taking over editorship of the then-sleepy VQR in 2003, Genoways recruited Morrissey to be his right-hand man.
At the time of Morrissey’s death, the University of Virginia was looking into complaints from him and others about Genoways. Since Morrisey’s death, Genoways has been on a leave of absence for a research fellowship. He also has hired an attorney. VQR’s offices were padlocked in the immediate aftermath of the incident, but the staff has since been allowed back in to finish the fall issue.
Other stories chronicle Morrissey’s struggles with depression and attempt to flesh out the bullying allegations, but the ripple with possibly the widest impact is whether the magazine will falter, and with it a hoped-for re-energizing of literary publishing.
The journal received virtually all of its funding from its parent, the University of Virginia, and was overseen directly by the university president’s office. It proved to be a prestigious forum, attracting such literary luminaries as Amy Tan. Colleges and universities tracked its rebirth closely because although many educational institutions publish literary journals, virtually no others enjoy the kind of popular success VQR has.
Just 31 when he assumed the editorship, Genoways has been widely described as a literary genius who was not afraid to take risks. Within a couple of years VQR had been nominated for six “Ellies,” the most prestigious awards in magazine publishing.
In 2006, it won the award for general excellence for magazines with circulations under 100,000 and bested such newsstand heavyweights as the New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire and Harper’s in the fiction category.
“It was as if a scrappy farm team had demolished the Yankees in an exhibition game,” Slate reported.
As much as any other branch of journalism and publishing, literary magazines have taken more than their share of knocks in recent years. VQR was a source of inspiration for lots of people.
“We’re keenly interested because it’s a publishing story,” said McClanahan, who worked with Morrissey. “What I particularly noticed was there was a relevancy to that journal.”
By way of example, she cites a story VQR published two years ago about the suicide of an Iraq War vet from a small town on the Iron Range. “It seems like it was a journal that was taking risks in a literary journal environment.”
All of the stories linked to in this post consider VQR’s possible future, but McClanahan says that for now, MHS staff is focused on mourning a friend.
“It’s so tragic,” she said. “It haunts us right now.”