Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling


  Short Story Collection Review    

Best of the Oxford American:
Ten Years from the Southern Magazine of Good Writing
edited by Marc Smirnoff
foreword by Rick Bragg
Hill Street Press, 2002
$16.95 (310p)
ISBN : 1-58818-081-6




Love it or hate it, Southern readers were always passionate in their responses to the Oxford American. During its heyday, the magazine received equal amounts of praise and criticism for the editorial board's "quirky" approach to literature. 

The Oxford American made its' literary debut in Spring 1992. Editor Marc Smirnoff established the magazine with "the idea that it is time for a good general magazine to originate from the South." His goals for the magazine included publishing forms of "excellent writing" for the "intelligent, and nonacademic, general reader." As of this writing, the magazine's future is unclear. In his introduction, Smirnoff alludes to his hope that this will be the "first" in a series of "The Best of the Oxford American" anthologies. 

One of the magazine's great strengths was Smirnoff's willingness to publish then largely unknown regional writers. As editor, he balanced a blend of commercial fiction (John Grisham), unpublished manuscripts by  Southern stalwarts (William Faulkner, Zora Neal Hurston, and Walker Percy), and a running commentary on Southern culture (John T. Edge, Roy Blount Jr., and Hal Crowther). The annual music issue became a collector's item amongst both literary and music aficionados. 

Many of the authors included in this "best of anthology" lived in Oxford, Mississippi, the home of the Oxford American, at one time or another.  Cythnia Shearer, Larry Brown, John Grisham (who underwrote the magazine for many years), Donna Tartt, Faulkner, Barry Hannah, and Steve Yarbrough. Grisham's "The Faulkner Thing" wryly describes the problems associated with living in a town so closely affiliated with a Nobel Prize winner while Donna Tartt's "Willie Morris, 1934-1999" defines the sense of community amongst Mississippi writers. 

Other writers included are: Wendy Brenner, William Gay, Andrea Lee, Mark Richard, Cynthia Shearer, Tony Earley, Susan Sontag, Rick Bass, Roseanne Cash, Tim Gautreaux, Marianne Gingher, Matthew Teague, John Simpkins, Sister Helen Prejean, Lee Durkee, Steve Martin, Tom Piazza, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Billy Collins, John Updike, and Donald Justice. 

Rick Bragg's brief foreword likens the writers in the collection to cooks who are unafraid of using the salt shaker. 

Divided into sections -- Fiction, Book Views, First Person, Profiles, Eats, Humor, Canon Blasts, Religion, Music, and Poetry -- the works included are often topical, sometimes eccentric, and usually thought-provoking. Love it or hate it, the anthology shares the strengths and the weaknesses of the magazine.


Pam Kingsbury
Southern Scribe Reviews

2002, Southern Scribe Reviews, All Rights Reserved