Journal Profile: Guernica
Wednesday, 17 August 2011
This post kicks off a new series on Pages to Pixels, “Journal Profiles”. In this series, popular online literary journals will be reviewed and explored in regards to mission, innovation, design, and intention. The first magazine to be reviewed is Guernica.
Since its recent inception, Guernica, “A Magazine of Art and Politics,” has quickly risen to Internet fame. Esquire has called Guernica a “great literary magazine,” and George Saunders has said that the publication “respect[s] the life of the mind with an intensity rarely seen these days.”
A varied range of worldwide contributers ensures unique content, refreshing literary depth, and a mixing of diverse viewpoints that stand as the foundation to all progressive movements, artistic and political alike. Through informative interviews, impressive fiction, an accessible design, and a mission worthy of popularity, Guernica should expect a bright future.
This interview is with Joel Whitney, an Editor in Chief with the magazine. In the piece, I’ve labeled his responses with ”GUERNICA MAGAZINE” rather than with his name. Guernica is published twice monthly, and accepts submissions of Essays, Interviews, Fiction, Poetry, Art/Photography. Follow the magazine on twitter here.
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The Internet has allowed hundreds of arts magazines and literary journals to flourish. How does yours differ–in either intention or success–from the others?
In some ways ours differs by taking little pieces of what we loved most. We’re hybridized. We loved the long writer interviews that The Paris Review does, and wondered if you could have a series that honors the voice of polemicists and activists and political thinkers in the same way; we loved the cross-genre arts interviews that BOMB does and saw a possible model for interviews-as-conversations in that; we loved how Ploughshares and the Best-American series use guest editors to create micro-climates within their own aesthetics. And we stole.
But maybe the single biggest difference is that Guernica looked at politics as the arts’ twin sibling in the family of culture. We want our ratio of arts coverage–our attention to aesthetics–to be higher than in current events or general interest magazines. And we wanted politics to be seen as part of that culture, which it undeniably is, and to be handled the way it is in opinion journals, in the sense of taking sides in the disputes. So there’s that.
But we’re really just looking for great writing and great ideas, and we’re not afraid to spark arguments, and this is why we’re cited widely in places like Slate, the Times Book section and its blogs (Arts Beat, Idea of the Day, now defunct, or Freakonomics), on Arts and Letters Daily, at The New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog or in The New Republic, in Best American Essays–to shamelessly name a few.
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By pairing “Art and Politics,” does Guernica encounter any difficulties? It seems that often, if art becomes the vessel of political ideals, something may be muddled.
To look at art and politics in the same space is not necessarily to make one the vessel of the other. If done with a clear mind, the effect is the opposite of muddling. But let’s back up. I’d say the onus should be on skeptics: what is the problem with a total freedom that allows artists and writers to think about whatever they want?
That’s what we tell other countries––when, say, China, imprisons its artists for their politics, right? Our first instinct isn’t to say, You shouldn’t talk about those things together. Our first instinct is to praise freedom, and condemn whoever abridges it to protect their narrow political interests. So is the freedom to write about politics, if you want, a freedom that good artists know not to use? Well, not when we’re looking beyond the United States. Why is that?
Actually, it’s one of the oldest of the received ideas from the middle of the 20th century; during the Cold War there was a systematic campaign by U.S. intelligence to fund literary magazines and arts movements (such as abstract expressionism) that divorced art from politics.
Peter Matthiessen is on record admitting that the magazine he founded, The Paris Review, was launched, unbeknown to its much more famous editor, George Plimpton, as a CIA front, or at least with CIA money. (I’ve been reading about this period of “literary renaissance” in Frances Stonor Saunders’s Cultural Cold War.) I’m sure the effects of this are complicated to trace. But your question suggests this campaign (to beat the Russians for influence in Western Europe, using cultural assets) was wildly successful.
Is Orwell’s precision muddled by his span of literary writing and politics? Is George Saunders’s work muddled by its total cultural critique? Would Asia’s first Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, have been better off if he specialized his knowledge in one field, and never thought broadly about the problems of nationalism, English occupation, poetry, and spirituality?
On the other hand, I should also quote The New Yorker‘s Peter Schjeldahl in his 2006 Guernica interview: “My problem with political art is not that it’s bad art necessarily, but that it is terrible politics.” So we look at them next to each other, but our poetry section isn’t weighing in on the debt crisis. Koch-funded Tea Party stupidity can’t really be captured in a sonnet.
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Speaking of politics, do you favor submissions from well-established writers, or do the unsolicited have an equal opportunity?
We try to publish about half and half. I’m sure at any given time in Guernica‘s life, the count has varied. Alongside BOMB, we were first to publish fiction by Rivka Galchen, I believe–who has since been named a 20 Under 40 writer to watch by The New Yorker. We also helped, with AGNI, to launch E.C. Osondu, whose debut story collection (Voice of America) is a must-read.
We were the first to publish Sandy Tseng, a poet who went on to win the Discovery Prize and now has a national following and at least one book. And to speak to your question, we didn’t solicit the work we got from Sandy, Rivka or E.C. Rivka’s came via a guest editor (“politics,” if you like). E.C.’s came via the unsolicited email pile and won him Africa’s biggest literary award, the Caine Prize. Sandy’s was also unsolicited. And Adam Day, who just last week won the first ever PEN Emerging Writer Award for his 2008 Guernica poem––he came to us via our unsolicited pile. So big congratulations to him.
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Should readers consider your site itself—in design, layout, type—an artwork, or a platform for artistic enterprise?
Readers should feel free to consider it in any number of ways. We see it as a platform for culture, a place to be seen by readers in well over a hundred countries around the world––part of a true international community, arguing, debating, praise-singing (Auden’s term for what poetry does) and criticizing itself. And if they like the layout too, cool. Many have praised it and it is the work of many terrific artists/designers, a true communal effort.
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You’re using the Internet to push art into new terrain. However, many publishers are interested in simply making art as easily digestible and accessible as possible. In the generation of the diminishing attention span, are viewers willing to pay closer scrutiny to a piece?
To start with the diminishing attention span, yes, I think people get bored easily these days, given all the choices out there. But the ideal Guernica reader (we’ll take anyone actually) is self-aware enough to notice that this quest for a quick fix that the internet sometimes fosters, is a.) already in us (not the internet’s fault) and b.) precisely what is boring.
That is, boredom itself is boring. Interest creates interest. And so that is our faith that we keep with the reader. The audience for longform journalism is growing constantly. In May for the first time ever we received a million unique readers. It’s true that every site on the internet is vying for the attention of people who can click anywhere and can read about almost anything, some of whom, I’m sure get distracted by journalistic porn and literal porn.
So we have to do our due diligence and make sure that with our display copy we don’t break trust with the reader; what we tease has to really be what they get when they click. There’s shouldn’t be any flab. But at the same time, if our purpose is to foster a community of people who will educate each other, then we can’t settle for the salacious 800-word blog style piece that piques our appetites but doesn’t truly nourish our curiosity about how the world really is, or give any information but “news” in the narrowest sense. The disposable sort of news.
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It’s difficult to bring fully the essence of literature onto the Internet; some claim that the art of writing relies on the holistic, artful presentation of the printed medium–a presentation that is lost in the coded generalities of the Internet. How has the site managed this problem?
Let’s see if I understand your question. In the beginning of the internet’s life, people didn’t want to read on a monitor. We remembered our parents lying to us that sitting too close to the television would destroy our eyesight or something. But I think many of us, of my generation and younger (I’m a proud member of generation X) have gotten used to reading on a monitor. Probably some of the Baby Boomers too, who took a little longer, in my inexact experience, to grow computer-savvy.
But all of us know now that when our eyes get tired we print a piece (recycling when we’re done of course), or just save it for later by saving our Firefox windows, or we prompt others to read it for us by posting it on our social media (another way to save a piece for later). But I don’t think there’s a real difference between reading on the page and reading on a screen or a printout from a screen. If it wasn’t already dead, that idea died with the birth of the iPad and the Kindle (neither of which I use).
Yes, we may miss the smell of a freshly printed book. But one doesn’t preclude the other. I read pieces of things excerpted in my favorite magazines, or as a preview on Amazon or Google, often then buying the book on Amazon, in solid-object form. Ok, probably your question is about the art of printing, and the art of doing it by hand. But that isn’t the sort of thing we read, in most cases, in the mass marketing of books and magazines anyway.
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There seems to be a growing fear of globalization, both artistically and pragmatically. Guernica features work by artists from all over the world. Have you noticed a significant formal and stylistic distinction in pieces from different regions?
I think the sort of globalization that readers whom I sympathize with fear is the NAFTA-style globalization. This style of globalization has institutionalized many undemocratic laws, processes and powers, and often favors the wealthy in the exploitation of what should be considered a community-owned resource, a commons, such as the environment. It diminishes, often, the rights of labor.
In a recent Guernica interview Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi Nobel Peace laureate, compares this globalization to a highway where the rules protecting little vehicles from the proverbial giant trucks of multinational corporations have been abolished. And so these multinationals just smash the rest of us. What is needed there? Better rules. Traffic lights. Penalties for smashing the janky little Mini-Coopers and mopeds and scooters most of us drive. But I don’t think there’s a widespread fear of internationalism–that reaches down to the man on the street.
This speaks to your last question too. The Internet can foster a kind of solidarity that we saw during the early parts of the Arab Spring. Much faster than print ever could. And if you take the example of literary fiction, we see a huge booming market for stories about the world, from around the world, about places we want to learn more about. Somebody named it immigrant fiction. And I would say it’s one of the exciting trends out there.
True, maybe there’s a self-interested fear of foreignness on the European and American right, a violent last-ditch effort to make us afraid of immigrants. True, the mainstream media tends to pounce on these kinds of stories, for a number of reasons. But usually this is transparent; the idea is to manipulate a constituency’s paranoia for votes. It doesn’t work in the U.S., according to this convincing piece by Stephan Salisbury. Though Richard Hofstadter might disagree about its effectiveness.
This fear of, or reaction against internationalism is a twisted psychological mirroring of (what Ben Kiernan calls “accusation in the mirror”; what Bush may have thought of as a pre-emptive strike against) the more informed fear of globalized, institutionalized inequity.
As for artists, they have always been sensitive to this inequity, institutionalized at the very top. And I think the fact that artists’ styles vary, for instance, in literary writing starts with two things: how you say it in that original language, and the experience of the lived history of that place. And that can be very personal. Great writers have a very particular way of saying things, a very interesting take on their national language or local dialect alongside their particular voice as an individual, and they have a very keen idea of what their history is–whether it points inward or outward or both.
Literature merely performs these things. But what comes through in great literary writing is the great universal that makes internationalism such a gift. As with the biosphere, our heritage is our variety. On a day-to-day basis, we may see a lot more news about the treasury department of a country. But what tends to last, in the sense of Pound’s “news that stays news”: these are the artists and literary writers, our true national treasures.
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What’s next for Guernica?
Our search for a benefactor continues.