At the same time that Alaskan writers are making literary headlines around the globe for their stories, the University of Alaska Anchorage is working on writing its own story. A “UAAmazing Story Written Everyday,” if you will. This particular tale has the hints of a tragedy in the works and involves the 32-year legacy of publishing excellence known as the Alaska Quarterly Review.
Known far and wide simply as "AQR," the publication is one of the nation’s leading literary journals, a powerhouse of recognizing and publishing up-and-coming authors as well as many of the top writers and poets of the nation in the prime of their careers. Called a “fresh treasure” by fiction legend Stephen King, AQR has over 30 years of awards and acclaim.
Since it was featured last year in the New Yorker, and selections from the journal often land in the annual anthology "The Best American Short Stories," you'd think that AQR would be one of the crown jewels of our entire University of Alaska system, or at the very least that it's survival wouldn't be in question.
With over 4,000 story submissions and 10,000 poem submissions a year from writers across the country aiming for a shot at joining such greats published in AQR like Sherman Alexie and Jane Hirshfield, to half a dozen U.S. poet laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and Nobel laureates -- names like Billy Collins, Robert Pinsky, Tracy Kidder, W.S. Merwin, Edith Pearlman, and 30-plus years of other literary giants, there really is no arguing the success or relevance of this journal in the American literary canon. And if we want to speak about the Alaska literary canon, well AQR is no slouch when it comes to publishing some of Alaska’s own greats, Seth Kantner, Peggy Shumaker, Nancy Lord, Joan Kane, and John Straley to name just a few.
Oddly, UAA has aimed its budget cannons at what is arguably Alaska’s brightest beacon of creativity. Here is where the plot begins to unfold. One of the most respected publications to ever come out of Alaska now finds itself at the bottom of the heap that is UAA’s 2014 prioritization process.
The findings of that task force place AQR in the lowest quintile, where the journal is “subject to further review, consider for Reduction or Phase Out.” In the “consider for higher investment” category, come such perennial student favorites as parking services, dean of students office, and the chancellor’s office. What “distinction,” acclaim, or honor do those units bring our university and our state that warrant a consideration for higher investment, while a little, underfunded journal called “one of the nation’s best literary magazines” by the Washington Post gets a spot on the chopping block?
Clearly the characters in this prioritization plot don’t care about their role in literary history, or they simply aren’t fans of the story they are writing. Perhaps they just haven’t yet recognized that the story of AQR is that classic Alaskan underdog story. You know the tale, where the little Alaska journal establishes itself on the map against all odds and becomes known far and wide for excellence and an eye for brilliance? The story where the underdog’s very existence is threatened because award winning poems and stories and O. Henry and Pushcart prizes carry little weight with administrators, and therefore, somehow don’t have the same value as parking tickets, a basketball team, or a university president’s bonus pay. Tweet #UAAmazing, for this story has already deftly been created with the help of a crafty publicity team for far more money than it takes to publish several years of Alaska Quarterly Review.
But for many of us who are fans of the journal, there is still hope a clever plot twist emerges and what appears to be a tragic comedy will instead become a powerful work of literary genius. As Alaskans, we can show our support by picking up copies of AQR at the local bookstore and or better yet getting a subscription online. It is also imperative we all let UAA leadership know we care how this particular story ends.
After all, Alaskans like nothing more than a good survival tale, and with the community stepping up to help, the story of AQR has the potential to be the most #UAAmazing story yet, a survival story of triumph and an Alaska celebration of discovery and creative achievement.
Don Rearden grew up in Southwest Alaska and now lives in Anchorage. He is author of the 2013 Washington Post Notable List novel “The Raven's Gift” and is an associate professor at UAA. His stories and poems have all been rejected for publication in Alaska Quarterly, so he’s hoping to #SaveAQR in hopes he can one day write something brilliant enough to get published in that fine Alaskan publication.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.