Southern culture magazine Oxford American of Little Rock was one of seven U.S. magazines named this week as winner of a 2023 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize, sharing the honor with publications like The Paris Review and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Editor Danielle A. Jackson knew for a couple of months, and was bursting to tell it. She talked to Arkansas Business about the achievement on Tuesday evening, after the Whiting Foundation of New York announced winners of the prizes.
“Oh, it’s definitely a relief for it to be public,” Jackson said. “Yes, I’m proud, but also just relieved not to have to be keeping a secret like that.”
The Whiting Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting literary writing in the United States, awards up to eight awards every three years, giving winning publications grants up to $20,000, with matching grants the following two years to encourage direct support to the winning publications.
OA, which was born in William Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, but has been published from Arkansas for decades, was described by the prize judges as “our most adventurous and authoritative window on the South, an ever-evolving portrait of the region’s cultural wealth.”
Jackson called it amazing to be honored with magazines like The Paris Review, which was co-founded by the writer and editor George Plimpton in 1953 and established itself by publishing works by Jack Kerouac, Phillip Roth, V.S. Naipal, Terry Southern and Adrienne Rich, all in its first five years. Another winner, Orion of Massachusetts, has been an advertisement-free quarterly focused on culture, environmental and social issues for more than 40 years.
“I feel like all these magazines had a hand in shaping my own sensibilities, and in developing and cultivating the kind of writer that I want to grow into,” Jackson said. “In a way, they’re all a part of me already as an editor, a writer and a reader.”
The prize’s first year grant will be $20,000, Jackson said.
“But the most exciting thing about the award and the honor is that it's a three year relationship with the Whiting Foundation and our cohort of fellow winners, in which we're sharing best practices around circulation, subscription models, retention of staff,” and other “somewhat less sexy” imperatives in making a literary magazine run, Jackson said. “So I’m amazed, honored and gratified, but also really eager to start the learning and the sharing.”
Jackson became OA’s first Black editor in chief in 2021, and recently took some time away to start writing her first book, “Honey's Grill: Sex, Freedom, and Women of the Blues.” It’s still a work in progress, she said, with a deadline next year.
The Whiting Prize is a landmark for OA, which was founded by Marc Smirnoff in Mississippi in 1992. That inaugural issue featured literary heavy hitters like Roy Blount Jr., Charles Bukowski, Richard Ford, Pauline Kael and John Updike.
But the magazine lived hand to mouth for years and twice ceased publication temporarily.
Novelist John Grisham resuscitated it in 1995, and it was rescued again in Arkansas years later by former Bear State Financial Chairman Rick Massey.
Massey, now CEO of Cannae Holdings Inc., paid off $700,000 the magazine owed to the University of Central Arkansas of Conway, OA’s publishing partner.
The magazine now operates as a nonprofit 501(c)(3), reaping revenue from advertising, fundraising, grants, foundation and corporate donations, proceeds from newsstand sales and subscriptions. It publishes about 25,000 print copies quarterly.
Asked what the Whiting Magazine Prize says about Oxford American, Jackson said it’s a tribute to the dedication of her small staff.
“It says that we really work hard, and that in a lot of ways we punch above our weight,” Jackson said. “It's a team of four full-time people” working with a staff of paid interns. “I think it says we have a lot of heart and work long hours” without all the resources of the literary establishment. “I think we make up for that, or try to, with heart and soul and care for our writers and our region.”
Here are this year’s Whiting Magazine Prize winners, and their self-descriptions:
- Guernica (Brooklyn): "A digital magazine with a global outlook, exploring connections between ideas, society and individual lives."
- Los Angeles Review of Books (Los Angeles): "Launched in 2011 in part as a response to the disappearance of the newspaper book review supplement, and with it, the art of lively, intelligent, long-form writing on recent publications in every genre."
- Mizna (St. Paul, Minnesota): A magazine that "reflects the literatures of Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) communities and fosters the exchange and examination of ideas, allowing readers and audiences to engage with SWANA writers and artists on their own terms."
- n+1 (Brooklyn): A magazine that "encourages writers, new and established, to take themselves as seriously as possible, to write with as much energy and daring as possible, and to connect their own deepest concerns with the broader social and political environment—that is, to write, while it happens, a history of the present day."
- Orion (Great Barrington, Massachusetts): "Through writing and art that explore the connection between nature and culture, it inspires new thinking about how humanity might live on Earth justly, sustainably, and joyously."
- Oxford American: "Oxford American celebrates the South's immense cultural impact on the nation — its foodways, literary innovation, fashion history, visual art, and music–and recognizes that as much as the South can be found in the world, one can find the world in the South."
- The Paris Review (New York): A magazine that "showcases a lively mix of exceptional poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and delights in celebrating writers at all career stages."