This interview was originally posted on The Review Review.
The mission of Music & Literature is somewhat evangelistic; briefly, its purpose is to bring attention to under-appreciated artists. Would it be fair to say you strive more to initiate conversation on these artists rather than define readers' perception and interpretation of them?
I suppose so. The point certainly is to spur conversation, to present an artist’s work in many different lights so we might see it wholly, unapologetically bare and complete. A reader of Music & Literature will come away from an issue with many new voices to consider, all radically different from one another, and all compelling. Our appreciation for art, and the pleasure we take from it, deepens when we are challenged to think about it differently. This occurs most effectively through conversation among many inquisitive minds, which is what an issue of Music & Literature offers.
What was your publishing experience prior to Music & Literature?
Five years ago I began working for a couple of literary magazines, doing as much as they’d let me do, in all aspects of production, trying to learn everything there was to learn about how a literary magazine comes together and goes out into the world. After two years of magazine work, I did a four-month marketing internship at Graywolf Press and soon thereafter began working for Dalkey Archive Press.
How was Music & Literature started?
I began conceiving of Music & Literature immediately after leaving Dalkey. I knew I wanted to start an arts magazine, broadly defined. One of the reasons I sought work with Dalkey—why anybody seeks them out, as a reader or otherwise—is because of a mounting frustration I felt regarding the level of discourse in this country around the arts. I strongly believe that whatever apparatus we have today that informs the public about new beginnings in art has grown increasingly conservative over the past few decades, both in terms of what kind of art critical outlets (newspapers, arts and cultural publications, blogs, etc.) decide is worth presenting to the public as well as how this art is presented or reviewed. At the same time, we find fewer and fewer non-American artists in the pages of English-language newspapers and magazines, even online venues. This can lead to a false sense that there isn’t a lot of art being produced today that’s truly original, innovative, challenging…and therefore a false sense that we live in a much more homogeneous world than we really do! What was needed, I thought, was a new venue for high-quality, in-depth coverage of inventive artists who have no hope of receiving attention from newspapers or online editors. It took many months before the kernel of Music & Literature formed, and everything since has evolved naturally out of this central idea.
Are there other magazines on the market that have a similar mission to yours?
Only a couple others come immediately to mind: the Review of Contemporary Fiction used to do something similar, with each issue covering one or two modern writers whose work was seen by most review editors to be too esoteric or “strange” to interest their readership (a completely absurd idea!). I believe Parkett does roughly what Music & Literature does, with each issue covering 3-4 artists, though they deal exclusively in the visual arts.
Our mission is admittedly narrow, intensely focused, but to my mind the most interesting publishing ventures ongoing today began with one person's vision, relentlessly pursued. I think most arts magazines lack a strong editorial vision or aesthetic, and for that reason read very much like many other magazines (which is not a criticism) and each seems to find its own audience, but I do think it limits them in terms of their cultural importance. That Music & Literature is a venue for critical inquiry alone sets it apart from almost every other arts magazine available. That we are interested mainly in artists who are, well, not American places us in league with just a handful of other publications. Add to this that we work directly with our featured artists to publish 70-100 pages of the best original material on their work…I’m not aware of any other magazine with such a mission.
Who is the ideal reader of Music & Literature?
A friend recently joked that the audience for Music & Literature will be a group of NYU dropouts 50 years from now. I try not to be quite so cynical, though his point was well taken. Those who have so far discovered Music & Literature seem to be intrepid, young readers. One reader who had just received our first issue (featuring new work on and by Hubert Selby, Jr., Micheline Aharonian Marcom, and Arvo Pärt) wrote to me quite excitedly to ask if I realized that it had been 16 years since someone had published new non-academic work on Selby. He was very pleased to have found, in Music & Literature, a community of like-minded readers, engaged in an intimate discussion on one of his favorite writers.
I believe the magazine will appeal to any art enthusiast who has not become complacent in their expectations of journalism on the arts, who is, maybe, like me, frustrated by the narrow aesthetic of major critical outlets, or who simply wants to learn something about artists they’ve never heard of before. Because the magazine is rather idiosyncratic, I am under no illusions that its circulation will ever grow to that of, say, New York Review of Books. But our readership is already—and I’m sure will continue to be—passionate, informed, and ever curious: an important class of reader indeed.
Do you believe the low public awareness of “difficult, experimental, modernist” work is a result of such work being more troublesome to market, or the lack of willingness among critics, editors and publishers to address “difficult” work? Might the two be connected?
Good question. It’s really a systemic problem. No one aspect of the market can be blamed, yet no one is guiltless. As I’ve said elsewhere, public awareness of any sort of art that is not easily digestible is at a low ebb. Unfortunately, this cuts us off from most of the best work being created in rest of the world, as well as from the most innovative art that’s being produced here in America. So, yes, the public radar is very narrow and, in a way, I see Music & Literature as has having a wider aesthetic than most other critical venues, even though we focus on only a few artists in each issue. In any case, since editors at the major review outlets are quite conservative and worried about satisfying a widely varied readership, there exists a wide aesthetic range that they do not cover, and what does get reviewed at a major newspaper/outlet seems then to get similar coverage or treatment in 25 other outlets, similar to the way in which so many articles in the New York Times get blogged and re-blogged across the internet. This leads to a very narrow public understanding of what books—and what kinds of books—are out there.
Book critics today are, by and large, unread in much outside of American literature of the past 30 years. The editors of review outlets do not assign “difficult” or “modernist” books to their reviewers because they (wrongly) believe that their readers don’t care about such books, or that their readers will be turned off by the foreign name on the cover. I don’t believe most readers care at all about which language a book was written in (do we often think of Anna Karenina or The Odyssey as being “works in translation?”) nor do people care about a book’s supposed “difficulty” (if you have read Moby Dick or Don Quixote, you can take on anything.) But if a reviewer claims that a book is “difficult” or “not for everybody,” and that’s the bottom line of the review, readers are less likely to go out and pursue it.
At the same time, publishers have shied away from releasing anything that does not easily fit this all-too-narrow market. Aside from a very few nonprofit small presses, publishers operate as any for-profit business operates in a free market: they supply what they perceive as the largest demand, flooding the market with books that have little or no artistic merit but that are easily digestible. If this is the majority of what gets published, and there are few intrepid critics out there to assuredly cut the wheat from the chaff, then you arrive in our current situation in which it is very difficult to isolate and enjoy those works that carry artistic value.
What kinds of submissions are you looking for?
Since we work directly with our artists to seek out the best articles written on their work in other languages, the majority of the material we publish is solicited either by me or by others closely associated with the magazine. We do, however, accept unsolicited submissions on artists whose work will be featured in forthcoming issues (this list, which evolves weekly, can be found on our website), and I encourage anybody who has an interest in writing for us to contact me directly. We are always looking for intelligent, informed criticism that engages in a meaningful way with the text or piece of art in question. In short, because our mission has largely to do with bringing these artists to public attention, we’re looking for appreciative articles that effectively and inventively highlight the best qualities of that artist’s work, articles that grapple directly with the question of why this artist’s work is so important. The articles we publish are smart, playful, and accessible to all audiences, even those who have not yet experienced the featured artists’ work.
Please elaborate on what you look for in criticism which can be accessible to the uninitiated while taking bold positions.
I think that the great majority of today’s art criticism, particularly book reviews, is inexplicably neutral, too uninformed and uninformative to be of much use to readers and art enthusiasts. Fewer and fewer reviewers take a strong stand and then support it with an informed critical argument. Perhaps this is one reason why readerships of book review sections have dropped precipitously over the past twenty years: they haven’t been doing their job! How are we supposed to know what to read if every review sounds like every other review and few strong arguments are being made in favor of one book or recording against another?
Music & Literature is—and must be, in order to thrive—both accessible to the general public and strong in will and opinion. If an article is written clearly and flows from the essayist’s deep knowledge of the artist in question, that article will most likely be as accessible to the uninitiated reader as it will to the reader who has an intimate relationship with that artist’s work, so the article at once functions for the uninitiated reader as an introduction, and for the initiated as something that deepens their appreciation of the artist.
As I said earlier, I’m in the business of highlighting the work I think and feel is most important, particularly if I sense it is in jeopardy of going overlooked. And then I’m looking for creative articles that approach that work from many different perspectives, and that, taken together, cover that artist’s entire career. A good critical article is as stylistically adventurous and as precisely organized as the piece of art it’s discussing. I’m not looking for instigation or confrontation: just quality articles that engage with the artist in an interesting way, that cast the artist’s work in a way I’ve never see it cast before, that makes the work new.
You freely admit your own personal taste being a factor in the selection of artists to feature. Are you open to queries or proposals from writers with their own neglected favorites? If so, how should a critic seeking publication in your journal go about making their case for a writer or composer who is not listed on your upcoming issue page?
Yes, the artists we will be featuring are simply artists whose work I greatly admire and wish to expose to as wide an audience as possible. That said, I am absolutely open to any recommendations, and welcome suggestions from readers of the magazine. As I said earlier, one of the main reasons for Music & Literature to exist is to spur conversation—and not just around the specific artists in any given issue, but out in the broader artistic and cultural realm. I recently had a reader who was aware of my admiration of Vladimír Godár’s music recommend the work of Alfred Schnittke (lo and behold, a late modernist Russian composer!) which I’d never heard before. On his advice I sought out everything I could and almost immediately became an obsessive Schnittke lover. I’m now set on dedicating an issue to his music and influence, and am truly very grateful for the recommendation.
J. Y. Hopkins lives in Virginia and writes a little bit of everything. His work has appeared.