Roger Hodge, the new editor of Oxford American magazine, talked about his rise at Harper's, his writing philosophy and his plans for the OA before a full crowd last Wednesday at the Clinton School.
With prompts from moderator Jay Jennings, Hodge described his "clawing his way to the top" from an intern job in 1996 to editor in 2006, a position he held until 2010. Longtime Harper's editor Lewis Lapham had been a mentor, he said, imparting the "importance and sanctity and the power of the first person singular." Which I think means he believes in empowering writers (Lapham has used the first-person singular line before, including in his praise for Hodge in the OA release).
Inspired by working at Harper's along with "a group of people who ... have now taken over magazines," including Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffrey, GQ editor Jim Nelson and Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein, Hodge said he hopes to foster a similar culture, where talented, if often unproven, editors and writers can flourish.
Later, after a question from someone in the crowd about the ownership structure of Harper's, he joked that he wasn't going to say anything bad about Rick MacArthur, the publisher and primary benefactor of Harper's, who fired Hodge in 2010, if that's what the questioner was after. (He was more candid in a 2011 interview with Guernica, where he criticized MacArthur for clinging to a business plan "devised in 1984" and for not letting other board members raise money for the non-profit magazine.) He also sidestepped an opportunity to be critical of his predecessor, Marc Smirnoff, when asked what he didn't like about the magazine, saying every editor does things differently, that he "will enter into a conversation with the traditions of this magazine with the same amount of respect I expect our writers to approach their material" and that an editor should be a coach, not a dictator. Adding more character- and narrative-focused literary journalism is a priority, he said.
Left up to him, the magazine wouldn't increase frequency beyond a quarterly. He covered all of his bases on the "is web the future of magazines?" question, embracing the likelihood of some ever-evolving, not-yet-imagined technology as the true future of magazines and talking of his love for gadgets, while expressing his fondness for the physicality of printed magazines.
He was less convincing when talking about the place of long-form literary journalism in a world driven by social media: "Social media is a fad. In some form it's going to continue just like everything else that comes along continues, but the enthusiasm that people have for it is going to abate. ... Eventually you're going to have to nourish your soul, and I'm sorry, but 140 characters isn't enough."
(Social media and long-form journalism or fiction aren't necessarily, or even often, oppositional forces, I'd argue. As the longreads hashtag on Twitter has demonstrated, they're complementary.)
Though he's spent most of his adult life in New York, Hodge has Southern bona fides. His family has been ranching in southwest Texas since the 1880s. And Texas, he said, is obviously Southern "culturally, historically, politically." He went to college at Sewanee, The University of the South. His great-great-great grandfather was born in Tennessee. Kudzu grew all the way up to his grandmother's porch. Andrew Lytle taught him to drink bourbon. Most of that came in response to a question about his relationship with the South, though I suspect he has anecdotes at the ready for those who would criticize his CV as not sufficiently Southern (charges lamely leveled at Smirnoff and publisher Warwick Sabin in the past).
While I suspect the OA has survived at least partly on the largess of people who see it as vehicle for preserving and promoting the South, but care little about it beyond what it symbolizes on their coffee table, I'm hopeful that Hodge mostly ignores issues of Southern identity and the rah-rah South stuff. It's boring and terribly limiting. There are many more great stories to be found that happen to be set in the South than there are great stories about the South. I say this, in full disclosure, as someone who worked at the magazine almost a decade ago.
I asked Hodge about commuting to Conway, which was noted in an initial New York Times piece on his hiring. He said he has a very-strong willed family with a teen-aged son in a strong arts school in Manhattan and on the varsity soccer team and suggested that his wife might be hesitant to move, though he joked, "I think when I bring her down here and you all go to work on her, we can get something done." He plans to be in the office often, he said, but will also work remotely.