The Evergreen Review, which was originally published between 1957 and 1973, was a legendary magazine in the English-language literary underground. It featured writers like Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs, and Susan Sontag before they achieved mainstream acclaim. The editor of the magazine, Barney Rosset, was also the head of Grove Press, famous for publishing sexually explicit literature by the likes of D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller. This week the Evergreen Review was revived as an online magazine edited by Dale Peck. It’s first new issue in over forty years includes pieces by Gary Indiana, Yoko Tawada, and Barney Rosset himself. Below is an excerpt from Peck’s editorial for the new issue. You can read the full editorial here.
What if art could point out the ways in which culture alienates us from ourselves, from the truth—could maybe even reveal our true nature to us, rather than immerse it in the flow of cutlure? What if art could expose the self-destructive nature of civilization rather than succumb to it?
I believe that not only does this impulse exist, but that it’s art’s true, indeed defining, purpose. It’s always there, but has to fight to make itself heard above the din of million-dollar advances and Nobel prizes and Twitter followers, to stand out from the banner ads and listicles and requests to renew your subscription at an unbeatable savings or donate to support the best writing ever anywhere in the history of words! And of late we’re losing that fight. It may be that it’s a fight we can only lose, and lose again, and lose over and over again, but life itself is a fight we’re destined to lose, and still we hold on to it for as long as possible.
(And let’s not let writers off the hook. Because let’s face it, most writers write things to sound like writers—they employ literary tropes and techniques not to reveal truth but to conceal it in the proverbial spoonful of sugar, in the mistaken belief that this makes the truth more palatable, when all it makes it is a spoonful of sugar.)
In Hatchet Jobs I said that most contemporary writing could be categorized as either recidivist postmodernism or reactionary realism, and I stand by that assertion. Nevertheless it’s probably more telling to say that literature, like visual art, has succumbed to the judgment of the marketplace. I have nothing against popularity, which is just another word for a whole lot of readers: readers are why we publish our work rather than hide it in a drawer. But more and more writing is produced in the name of mercantile approval, and the market, though composed of readers, is not the same things as readers. The market directs readers to read not as individuals but as members of a group and to regard books not as individual texts but as selections from, representations of, a genre. More insidiously, it directs writers to pitch their books to the genre rather than to the needs of its subject. A book that strives for popularity in the name of universality isn’t joining the ranks of art but, rather, the political order, and thus, as Chomsky has pointed out time and again, its masters will always be money and power, not truth, not morality. When a so-called literature of resistance can only point out the obvious, when it doesn’t rise to the level of action, then it becomes nothing more than an analgesic to the oppressed rather than an irritant to the oppressors, let alone an agent of change. It becomes soporific. It becomes accommodationist. It becomes complicit. And so do its readers.