September 15, 2010

Kevin Morrissey, RIP


One of the saddest stories that took place during our August hiatus was the suicide of The Virginia Quarterly Review managing editor Kevin Morrissey, allegedly as a result of workplace bullying by editor-in-chief Ted Genoways.

The story felt even sadder because not so long ago The Virginia Quarterly Review embodied all that was excellent and exciting about small literary journals.  “Wow! Everyone in our office has been trying not to hyperventilate,” Morrissey wrote in 2006 after the VQR was nominated for six “Ellies” (National Magazine Awards).

“What the fuck is the Virginia Quarterly Review?” asked Gawker, to which Genoways replied “Have any of you ever read it? If you haven’t, you should. BOOKSLUT today called us ‘the best fucking magazine on the planet right now.'” After taking home two Ellies, including the prestigious Fiction award, you can hear the excitement in Morrissey‘s voice as he speaks to NPR about VQR‘s triumph.

The story of Morrissey‘s suicide and Genoways‘s involvement, as it first appeared in Charlotte’s C-Ville and in the subsequent long Chronicle of Higher Education article that followed, painted a fairly damning portrait of Genoways as an overzealous boss who had let his ambitions turn him into an abusive monster. The accusations reached a fever pitch in a Today Show television spot (see below) that employs such sensationalistic tactics that it seemingly wants its viewers to either lynch Genoways on the spot or vow to never watch television again.

Since then, the story has fragmented. Accounts of Genoways‘s bad behavior continued to surface, including his promotion of Alana Levinson-Labrosse, the daughter of a million dollar donor, to a position higher than Morrissey, and his self-serving arrangements to have The University of Georgia publish his poetry. One Moby Lives contributor recalled Genoways’s furious emails (lost, alas, to hard drive failure) after the blog reported on Genoways‘s involvement with the “Foetry” scandal related to poetry prize nepotism.

(Equally appalling, in a different way, was the revelation that the VQR had an operating budget of $600,000 and a circulation of 7,000.)

Defenders of Genoways‘s also emerged, including Lawrence Weschler, Alan Shapiro, Adam Kirsch, and Daniel Alarcon who hailed Genoways as “professional, tactful, and respectful” in an open letter to C-Ville. Tom Bissell, another signee of the letter, wrote in The New York Observer‘s blog that “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‘s friends or writers have ever had with him.” He also points out that Genoways once attacked the Today Show‘s Jeff Rossen as a journalist “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.” In this light, the Today Show hit piece does seem even more odious. But then, just as he had won a few points, Bissell ended his argument on a sour note by claiming that everything would have been better if only Genoways had been allowed to fire his staff.

The story has now gone national and, as so often seems to be the case, the more we know the less we understand. “What killed Kevin Morrissey?” The Chronicle of Higher Education asked. Who is Ted Genoways? we wonder. Is he a torturer? A genius? A jerk?  Two things seem fairly clear: he was a good editor and could be a very unpleasant person. Beyond that, it’s difficult to say.

Out of all the speculation and accusation, our favorite piece of writing about the tragedy was by Steve Almond, a former contributor for the VQR, on The Rumpus. In his 33-point manifesto cum meditation “Let Us Now Raze Famous Men,” Almond writes that having Genoways as an editor felt “sort of like having a bad boyfriend.” He tells us that his final email to Genoways was titled “You Are Behaving Like a Bully.” But rather than penning yet another “j’accuse,” Almond addresses the utter sadness of the situation:

9. Treating Kevin Morrissey’s death as some kind of lurid whodunit is degrading conduct, as is maligning Genoways from afar, or anonymously. It’s interesting in precisely the way Fox News is interesting. It provides aggrieved people an excuse to feel angry rather than feel sad.

10. But it is sad.

11. It’s sad that Morrissey is dead and that his death will haunt Genoways. It’s sad that people will (at least for a while) associate VQR with this mess rather than the remarkable work published therein. It’s sad that Genoways talent as an editor has been overshadowed by his alleged conduct as a boss. And yes, it’s also sad that certain editors, endowed with so much power by a growing army of insecure writers, don’t exercise that power more responsibly.

It seems like Almond‘s essay hit a chord, because the comments to his essay include some of the most thoughtful, insightful, and humane responses ever seen in a place so often dominated by flame wars, anger, taunts, and general meanness.