The role of a magazine is to provide readers with the imagination and the world in equal parts. To entertain and instruct. Doing both is hard, and largely doesn’t pay. So most magazines settle on a smarter business plan and set out exclusively to entertain: fashion mags, music mags, men’s mags—in fact, 90 percent of the titles on the shelf, created by some of the smartest people around, are dedicated to producing carefully calibrated piffle.
The agendas of arts magazines—magazines that are “good for you”—are no better. Some of the dullest, least imaginative people you’ll meet seem to coagulate around the literary quarterlies. A former haven to intellectual honesty and wit, these university-funded exercises in budgetary stasis have become the home of the undead—tributes to intellectual and artistic irrelevance.
It’s difficult to know where to turn these days, as readers or editors, in pursuit of an experience that won’t try to sell you dog food, treat you like a ten-year-old with ADD, or assume you get your news from Entertainment Tonight. It’s doubly hard when a magazine like this one here—which does try to provide insight into more than hair gel—is gagged before it can even reach the newsstand. The major bookstore chain Barnes & Noble polybagged in clear plastic the sixth issue of Maisonneuve, effectively labelling it pornography, because the magazine contained an image on page 94 of a group of naked women, standing in a lobby, who had been arranged and photographed by artist Vanessa Beecroft.
B&N’s attitude can be summarized as follows: while perhaps artistic, we will have none of it. How noble of this largest of bookstore chains to take a stand against full-frontal nudity, thereby protecting all the impressionable children who (security cameras have shown) can’t stop themselves from riffling through literary periodicals in search of smut. Sorry, kids, no Maisonneuve for you, only the whole wheat goodness of Maxim, Blender, FHM, Razor and Stuff.
The reason I bring this up is not just to point out a bureaucratic hypocrisy, but to suggest how low the horizons of artistic expectation have sunk over the past decades. In this issue, we’re addressing the situation in literary terms. Whether the writer Sven Birkerts’ career achievement amounts to art is a question posed by critic Dale Peck in “The Man Who Would Be Sven,” an essay The New Republic refused to run. Maisonneuve is committed to publishing work of this kind not because Peck has become known as the king of snarky reviews, but because it’s very clear, if you actually consider what he’s saying, that he authentically cares about art.
There’s no deep psychological test here. It’s very simple. Loving art is simply engaging with it seriously—”serious fun,” more exactly. Book reviewing is one of the most unappreciated, poorly remunerated, part-time arts around. Polishing shoes is a step up from book reviewing. The reason so many contemporary reviews are so poorly done is because the culture of writing and reading them seriously—and then seeking out and reading the book—has withered with your Aunt Judy. Snarkiness is not the problem; the lack of sincere engagement is. You can’t claim the latter of Peck; on the contrary, it’s the depth of his engagement that distinguishes a Peck review, and that makes us uncomfortable these days. Peck has said he will never write another negative review, because of the intense flak he has received for being so critical. Duller, safer reviews may be our reward.
Perhaps we should have the reviewers work out their ersatz fire-and-brimstone tussles with authors ahead of time, the way professional wrestlers do. Or better yet, Best Bard in Show— a parade of well-groomed, well-behaved, purebred writers from the Toy, Hound, Utility andGun Dog categories, all having their balls felt up by a judge and trotted around a ring by their agents to wonderful applause. Now that’s a culture.