The Wiener Zeitung talked to Peck about his plans for the new ER, its place in the literary landscape of the 21st century and the true role ofthe "New Yorker". © Foto: Johnny Perez
New York – The "Evergreen Review" (ER) is considered one of the greatest literary journals that has ever come out of the US. Founded in 1957 by legendary New York publisher Barney Rosset, ER published writing that challenged the literary, sexual, and social status quo of the country for the next sixteen years.
Among its contributors were a considerable amount of writers who, while at the time their first pieces ran in ER were virtually unknown outside their own circles, went on to become members of the Pantheon of world literature: Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Edward Albee, Richard Brautigan, to name only a few. From the outset, what was then the literary vanguard of America was joined by a great number of international writers and illustrators: Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Octavio Paz, Kenzaburo Ōe, Marguerite Duras, again to only name the most prominent. In 2016, acclaimed writer and critic Dale Peck (whose latest work "Visions and Revisions: Coming of age in the age of Aids" has been published this year by SoHo Press) is setting out to revive that tradition and spirit by, together with veteran publisher John Oakes of O/R Books, relaunching the "Evergreen Review" as an online literary magazine in 2016. The Wiener Zeitung talked to Peck about his plans for the new ER, its place in the literary landscape of the 21st century and the true role of the "New Yorker".
"Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead" surely still sounds nice, but what does the term counterculture mean to you in 2015, especially in regards to literature?
That’s one of the questions I’d like to answer with Evergreen. Like you said, it’s 2015. Capitalism has shown itself to be remarkably adept at assimilating movements or cultures or even ethnicities that once would have been considered anathema. They’re still marginalized, but they’re also commodified. It’s a win-win for the status quo, and maybe it’s a win-win for gay or black people, or urban primitives or ravers or what have you, although I think that depends on your point of view. But I’m definitely interested in exploring what it means to conceive of yourself outside of the mainstream in the age of the internet and the unfettered marketplace. How extreme do you have to go? Are criminals – murderers, rapists, pedophiles – the only real counterculture left?
In the age of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook a literary magazine, even one with a legacy like ER, seems like a hopelessly idealistic venture. Why are you on board regardless?
I’m not sure it’s idealistic as much as it’s anachronistic. I think the best new magazines capture some of the instantaneity of social media, the clamor of a self-selecting but largely unmediated group talking to itself.
Certainly that was the charm of a place like HTMLGiant, RIP. I’d like Evergreen to have some of that, although it’s not something you can make.
All you can really do is try to create space for it and hope people start talking to each other. But over and above that, I think there’ll always be demand for a curated literary environment. Anybody can read anything nowadays. Faced with unlimited choices, people want direction. They look for a sensibility they trust or at least find predictably provocative, and they return to that space looking for more of the same. You know, within certain parameters, what you’re going to get when you log on to Gawker or
n+1 or Threepenny Review. I want people to be able to say the same thing
There's no story about the old ER that doesn't mention the fact that it has always been done on a shoestring budget. How does one finance a venture like this today? What's the business model?
Well, we’re very fortunate in that I’m a multi-billionaire, so I can pay for the whole thing myself. I’m just going to sell a few shares of my Facebook stock and we’re off to the races.
This and the last decade have seen somewhat of a surge in new literary magazines appearing online and/or in print, some of which have made a name for themselves, at least when it comes to media attention. In NYC n+1, The American Reader, The Jacobin, The New Inquiry, to name just a few, in Los Angeles the LARB. Apart from the fact that most of these publications are only mildly intellectually challenging, and that there is a lot of navel-gazing going on in them: Where does the new ER fit in this environment?
I’m pretty sure you can accuse any good literary magazine of navel-gazing at some point. It might even be the definition of a good literary
magazine: it takes a kind of myopic self-absorption in a discrete, even esoteric set of ideas to provide the focus a literary magazine needs to maintain an identity. I’m less concerned with being "intellectually challenging" than with being urgent. Not provocative – not necessarily – but I want to publish work that needed to have been written and needs to be read. If I have any real problem with what I see out there, it’s that most of it is telling me stuff I already know because the writer only wrote so that he or she could call him- or herself a writer. It’s stuff that describes a problem that everyone knows about and arrives at homilies that no one can disagree with. That’s fine for, say, the New Yorker, whose primary job is to make the liberal bourgeoisie feel good about itself. But it’s sad when you encounter the same kind of stuff in supposedly independent or alternative venues. The only difference is that it’s not as well-written, or as well-edited. Or copyedited anyway. Say what you want about the New Yorker, but those copyeditors know their shit.
On your website it says that Foxrock Books, via O/R, is going to re-publish work from the old ER's backlist, starting with works from Beckett, Duras and Ōe. Is that going to happen in the new ER as well or is the backlist solely restricted to print publications?
Yeah, that stuff is definitely staying out of the magazine. I’m nervous enough about the fact that we’re using Evergreen’s name, when there’s no one from the original Evergreen involved. It feels a little like guilt by association, if you know what I mean. But if we feel like we need to crib old pieces by Beckett and Duras and Ōe to make the new magazine seem more substantial or highbrow or what have you, we might as well just run reprints of the old issues and call it a day. Come to think of it, that would actually be a good art project. But for now we’re going to stick with new stuff. I’m pretty sure there are two or three good writers out there that deserve an audience.
The old ER hadn't only been famous for its literary content but also for its illustrations, with contributors like Tomi Ungerer, Bernard Kliban, Frank Springer or Maurice Sinet. Which role are illustrations going to play in your ER?
Honestly, I don’t know. My husband works at a photo gallery, and he’s steeped in the world of contemporary art photography, so we should have lots of great pictures. God knows I’d love a good cartoonist or illustrator – a new David Levine or David Rees or Alison Bechdel – but it’s a question of finding them.
In its heyday in the late Sixties, the print version of ER had a newsstand circulation of 100,000 copies. What are you aiming for in terms of unique users? You set yourself any short- and/or longterm-goals you want/expect to meet?
I think we’ll be happy with as many as we can get, as long as we never have to run a piece for the sole purpose of trying to trick users into visiting the site. We’re not conceiving of this as a profit-making venture, so if our audience is 25,000, or 2,500, we’ll be happy with that, as long as we’re happy with the work we’re publishing. No doubt my publisher has a more nuanced take on this, but my feeling going into this
is: "Publish good work and the readers will come." Ask me a year from now when we only have 1,000 readers. Maybe I’ll be more amenable to Topless Tuesdays then…
How often is the site going to be updated?
The current plan is do six themed issues a year, along with other features that fall outside the purview of a given issue – anything from blogs on, say, the experimental theater seen in NYC, to podcast interviews, to an impromptu round-table on some current event or other. Because we’re not print, the issues themselves will probably vary wildly in format. One issue might feature eight traditional print pieces, another might be a single novella. Another might mix raw video and short films and podcasts and words. I think it’s surprising how hard some online-only magazines work to look and read like traditional print magazines. I want the issues to shape themselves around the question we’re asking, not around some notion of consistency of format.
Can you specify your criteria for potential contributors of the new ER?
Have something to say. It would be nice if you also had the means to say it, but this is definitely going to be a magazine in which content trumps form, not the other way around.