I was worried about the Oxford American. I really was. The summer issue, which came out last May, felt overly studied, so removed from its subjects, giving the feel of third-person even while speaking in first. The South felt foreign. I worried the new editor, apparently arriving from Brooklyn, didn’t have the comfort to lead Little Rock or to lead it well. I began to look into how one canceled a subscription, not ready to act but wanting to prepare.
The magazine’s fall issue, though, has now dispelled my concerns. Yes, the issue came out in August. I just had a chance to read it. The magazine is always weighty and requires hours to consume in full. But once devoured, this new edition has to rank among the publication’s best ever. The words are relaxed but do not meander. The topics are rich and well-mined. The editorial tone is aware and confident, much more so than in the spring.
Picking favorites from this issue is hard for me. But Alex Mar’s “The Secret Life of Nuns” and William Giraldi’s “The Dead Give Him Stories: The Return of Allan Gurganus” top my list, I think. Mar’s piece may be among the best religion writing anywhere this year. She mixes personal essay with profiles of two Texas convents, one cloistered, one not. What could have been an awkward combination of forms actually works, on the subtle backs of slow-food pacing and what one imagines were amazing structural outlines.
And Giraldi’s article surprised me. I’d never read any of Gurganus’ work, and my first substantial introduction to him was recent and not very good. I’d read the fall’s New Yorker piece about the author a couple weeks earlier, and the thing had bored me something fierce. But with Giraldi, Gurganus was certainly not boring. The author, his house, his town, all came to life.
The magazine hasn’t posted the profile online, but I wanted to share one paragraph. Giraldi got the following out of Gurganus, and let us thank the interviewer. Normal conversations do not render quotes so eventful and narrative, not even normal conversations with far-above-normal authors.
The greatest luck a writer can have is to be born in the American South. You grow up in a little Southern town and the stories preexist you. You memorize them till they seem to know you. The time grandfather got chased over the bridge by a scorpion. The day the pig fell down the well. The annual drama of named hurricanes. Burying all the silver and losing the map, endless people digging, trying to find the damn stuff. Naturally you add elements of your own biography to these stories. That makes for a new kind of catechism creating a new kind of literature. It’s the best training in the world both as storyteller and rememberer. And, like ocean waves, those stories keep coming, every day. Every time you read the newspaper there’s enough material to write War and Peace six times over.