Smirnoff, Marc 1963(?)-

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SMIRNOFF, Marc 1963(?)-

PERSONAL:

Born c. 1963.

ADDRESSES:

Office—Oxford American, 303 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock, AR 72201. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Editor. Oxford American, founder and editor, 1992—.

AWARDS, HONORS:

National Magazine Award, 1998, for Oxford American.

WRITINGS:

(Editor) Best of the Oxford American: Ten Years from the Southern Magazine of Good Writing, Hill Street Press (Athens, GA), 2002.

SIDELIGHTS:

In 1992 Marc Smirnoff, a twenty-nine-year-old California high-school dropout, launched a Southern literary magazine in Oxford, Mississippi, the hometown of William Faulker. With the financial patronage of contemporary fiction giant John Grisham and contributions from such notable authors as John Updike and Eudora Welty, Smirnoff started Oxford American: A Magazine from the South. Within ten years, Smirnoff had garnered a National Magazine award and published a noted anthology of the journal's best writing; he had also collected a long string of adversaries and faced the financial collapse of his highly praised project. By the end of 2002, however, Smirnoff had found a new publisher and hoped for the continuance of the Oxford American.

Smirnoff's background did not promise success as the editor of a serious literary journal. His first experience as an editor, at his Marin County, California, high school newspaper, ended in disaster. Smirnoff included article mocking fellow students in the paper on the sly, and this error in judgment ended with the threat of a lawsuit. As a senior within months of graduation, he opted to leave school. Smirnoff was drawn to the South, where he hoped to find a culture far removed from the New Age elitism of northern California. Eventually he found work at a bookstore in Oxford and began developing his idea for a magazine of Southern literature. Bookstore regulars including authors Willie Morris, Hal Crowther, Larry Brown, and John Grisham encouraged the idea, and from 1987 to 1992 Smirnoff worked to raise funds and find submissions. Grisham submitted a piece, as did John Updike and William F. Buckley, and Oxford American was on its way.

Despite big-name contributors, the magazine consistently lost money. In 1994 Oxford American was on the brink of collapse when Grisham offered to become the publisher and co-owner. The financial boost meant that Oxford American could resume a regular publishing schedule, which in turn led to more advertising and higher circulation. Still, Smirnoff did not rise without alienating many of the Southerners whose culture he loved. He aggressively and publicly set his magazine against mainstream Southern publications like Southern Living, sarcastically declaring in the 1992 issue, "We will not publish pieces about family reunions, or recipes, or beauty contests, or picturesque porches … or interior decorating, or lovely gardening, or Southern soap opera stars." This smug and feisty attitude did not sit well with his Oxford neighbors, including Smirnoff's old employer Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books and mayor of Oxford. According to David M. Halbfinger, writing in the New York Times, Howorth felt Smirnoff's diatribe "typified Mr. Smirnoff's un-southern incivility." Halbfinger reported that after ten years of publishing Oxford American in the seat of Southern literary culture, "Smirnoff has been kicked out of parties, cussed out behind his back and branded a carpetbagger on the walls of restaurant bathrooms all over this town of 12,000." Smirnoff himself admitted that he contributed to the controversy. He told an interviewer for Newsweek, "I think I'm a difficult person in a number of ways and I think that more than anything caused me to have more adversaries than is proper."

Smirnoff nonetheless had significant victories with his magazine. The annual Southern music issue grew yearly in stature, eventually winning a National Magazine award for best single-topic issue in 1998. In 1999, publisher Grisham allowed Smirnoff to publish his newest novel in serial form. Grisham's A Painted House ran in Oxford American throughout 2000, and was hailed as an achievement both for the magazine and for Grisham. Circulation more than doubled, as did advertising revenue, and the online bookstore Amazon.com began selling the magazine. Yet Smirnoff later conceded that this was a missed opportunity for the magazine: though he hoped the Grisham novel would bring in new subscribers, he asked for payment in advance—contrary to standard publishing practice—and won many fewer subscriptions than planned. In 2001, Grisham decided to stop putting money into the venture, and by May 2002 Smirnoff was set to stop publication of Oxford American entirely.

Just as the magazine itself was about to disappear, Smirnoff published an anthology of its best writings, in the 2002 collection Best of the Oxford American: Ten Years from the Southern Magazine of Good Writing. Reviewing the book for Library Journal, Pam Kingsbury noted that the collection reflects Smirnoff's "willingness to publish largely unknown regional writers, many of whom have gone on to substantial careers," in addition to contributions from famous Southern authors, living and dead. Hal Jacobs, writing for Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said, "To see why the Oxford American magazine has developed such a devoted cult of readers in its ten years, you need only browse through the pages of 'Best of the Oxford American.' This anthology of short stories, articles, and poems is intelligent without being academic, quirky without being patronizing." Jacobs concluded, "Details about the magazine's future are unclear, but perhaps this anthology will help lure more readers who are willing to support good writing."

By August 2002, the magazine that New York Times prognosticators had declared to be nearly dead was revived. At Home Media Group, based in Little Rock, Arkansas, expressed interest in Oxford American and decided to buy a majority share, leaving Smirnoff and Grisham as minority owners. Ironically, the magazine's rescuer was the publisher of the kind of Southern decorating magazines Smirnoff had set himself against a decade earlier. Discussing the purchase with an interviewer from Newsweek, Smirnoff said, "They put out an interior decorating magazine called At Home in Arkansas and while it's not the kind of magazine I would naturally reach for, I have since looked it over and can appreciate a number of things about it: how professional it is, how successful it is." Smirnoff said At Home Media Group would provide the "business infrastructure" that had been missing from Oxford American while leaving the content alone. Speaking to Peter Freed in USA Today, however, Smirnoff said, "There is a different energy level [in Little Rock] than there was in Oxford, and I do think that's going to influence us." He told Freed, "I know we publish pieces that deserve a wider readership than what we're giving (the writers) … and I can't really rest easy until we reach the audience that some of these people deserve … and that the magazine deserves." The new magazine relaunched in January 2003.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Library Journal, November 15, 1993, Bill Katz, review of The Oxford American: A Magazine from the South, p. 108; August, 2002, Pam Kingsbury, review of Best of the Oxford American, p. 93.

Mediaweek, October 23, 2000, Alex McRae, "Southern Comfort," p. M12.

New York Times, May 14, 2002, David M. Halbfinger, "A Mississippi Upstart, as It Lay Loudly Dying," p. A12.

Publishers Weekly, November 9, 1992, Gayle Feldman, "Two New Literary Magazines from the West and South," pp. 40-41; July 15, 2002, review of Best of the Oxford American, p. 55.

ONLINE

Atlanta Journal-Constitution online,http://www.accessatlanta.com/ (July 28, 2002), Hal Jacobs, "Best of Oxford American Is for Sophisticated Readers Who Think of Grits as Food."

Daily Mississippian Online,http://dm.olemiss.edu/ (January 20, 2000), Sheree Callahan, "Marc Smirnoff Finds Success in Unlikely Places."

Hill Street Press Web site,http://www.hillstreetpress.com/ (October 22, 2002).

Miami.com,http://www.miami.com/ (August 27, 2002), Connie Ogle, review of Best of the Oxford American.

MSNBC,http://stacks.msnbc.com/ (August 8, 2002), "A Magazine Lives, and Moves, On," from Newsweek.

Onion A.V. Club,http://www.theonionavclub.com/ (August 14, 2002), Noel Murray, review of Best of the Oxford American.

Southern Scribe Web site,http://www.southernscribe.com/ (October 22, 2002), review of Best of the Oxford American.

USA Today onlinehttp://usatoday.com/ (September 3, 2002), Peter Freed, "Oxford American Rises from the Ashes."*

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