From Iceland — No Old Ladies in Dubuque, Please

No Old Ladies in Dubuque, Please

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Published February 10, 2006

The feature of this issue is a lengthy interview with Vigdís Grímsdóttir, a cherished Icelandic writer rarely presented to foreigners. In my opinion, she is a throwback to the great generation of Icelandic writers, including the novelist Halldór Laxness and the poet Steinn Steinarr—authors who wrote with the kind of overwhelming ambition and conviction that often earns the label genius. Many tourists and all locals know that Iceland publishes more books per capita than anywhere else on earth. It doesn’t, however, sell more books per capita, nor do very many books even have a second printing. Grímsdóttir and her peers, whom we also hope to mention in the Grapevine soon, are authors with more ambition than to get published.

I believe that our writers are cut from the same cloth as Ms. Grímsdóttir—they write not to get published but to express something they care about deeply as best they can. I believe their writings will make a lasting impression.
A biochemist in Grindavík approached me recently, laughing and smiling as he walked over.
“You’re over at the Grapevine. You guys are trying to make us modern,” he said.
While I was happy for the positive attention, there was really no way to respond. As I said, he was a biochemist, and he was reading a tourist publication in a second, likely third or fourth, language. I wasn’t about to tell him he needed modernising.

We talked briefly about his favourite issues, and then he dropped the smile and asked me, one professional to another, what my goals were with the Grapevine. What, exactly, did the Grapevine want?
I didn’t have a very inspiring answer. Unlike my predecessor, I have never had political ambitions for this newspaper. Unlike editors of other local papers, I have no political ambitions for myself. And as receptive and helpful as Icelanders have been to us, especially in the last few months, I really don’t see any reason for the Grapevine to expand—we now have enough money to have pizza on the day we layout AND kleinur the following day. With the revenue of this year, the editorial staff have even been able to afford two Dictaphones.

“I just don’t want to have to dumb anything down,” I said. Never saying this to a biochemist, as a) he won’t think it’s an interesting editorial ambition and b) he will assume you are as smart as he is, which, in my case, did not hold true as we discussed blue-green algae for ten minutes. I have become convinced, in reading over Ms. Grímsdóttir’s writing, that the goal of not dumbing anything down is something she might admit to having, and I believe that’s what makes her seem to be of a different age.

Believe it or not, it is this interest in a different age that brought about our cover, a lampoon of the New Yorker’s figurehead Eustace Tilley. In trying to put together a cultural issue for the Grapevine, the institution of the New Yorker came to mind. Beyond its literary history, the New Yorker had a few other connections to the Grapevine that struck us as important: the first being that we try to be funny, but are instead read for our news, the second being that we lie about who we’re for—the New Yorker used to state quite clearly that it was “not edited for little old ladies in Dubuque,” even as it hired more and more Midwestern writers and editors, and we claim to not be for those who speak Icelandic, even as we hire more and more Icelanders and focus more and more on local news coverage. We are hoping to build a final connection: the New Yorker, which could likely stick to news about New York, cartoons and light humour and make a profit, has invested an outstanding amount of effort into creating magazines that were more than they needed to be. We’re hoping to create just such a curiosity ourselves.

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