An interview with Gregory Wolfe

Gregory Wolfe is publisher of Image journal, author of books including Beauty Will Change the World, and now publisher of Slant Books. He spoke recently with the Bookman on the occasion of the release of the first book fromSlant.

Greg, thanks for joining us. In this age of declining readers and shuttered bookstores, why Slant and why now?

The death of the book has been much exaggerated. Books have survivedthrough technological changes before and there’s no reason to believe that they will disappear any time soon. There are music lovers who still buy music on vinyl; I’m hoping to find readers who still want to own enduring literature in hard covers.

What’s more worrisome, of course, is the quality of the books being read. I’m not the first to say this, but I am concerned about the chasm separating a vast, vulgar, dumbed-down popular culture and a literary culture that has lost its way in technical virtuosity and meaningless irony. (In other words, irony that has no sense of an underlying order in the universe to provide that irony with any sort of sharp moral edge.)

Slant is starting off as a line of literary fiction. I’ve edited a literary quarterly for nearly twenty-five years, so moving to book publishing isn’t a great leap into the unknown. This is how we characterized the vision for the imprint in our press release: Slant will publish fiction

“that explores the mysteries of the human heart-the nature of desire; the pain and the hope buried in our brokenness; our fear of, and longing for, communion with the other. And we believe the best way to approach such mysteries is indirectly, through the prism of metaphor and richly drawn characters. The books published under this imprint will be marked by a meticulous attention to craft and a love for language that are harder and harder to come by in an age of instant publishing. These books will lodge themselves in readers’ lives.”

Tell us a little about the new release, the first book from Slant.

It’s a delightful novel by Erin McGraw called Better Food for a Better World, which a reader on Amazon called “a satire with a big heart.” Set in a California university town, the novel tells the story of three aging couples who are trying to stay true to their college-hippie days while struggling with the perennial stresses of middle age: marriage and work. They pool their money and open an establishment called Natural High Ice Cream, where all the napkins have politically correct exhortations and the flavors have names like “Shade Grown Coffee Crunch” and “Che Guevara Guava.”

But the high-mindedness of the store runs afoul of the restless human heart and soon there is dissension and secret-keeping among the partners. Various forms of mayhem ensue. There’s a fat contortionist and a hugely muscled juggler and a few other oddities, including a twelve-step program for local married couples. It’s a very funny book about marriage and vocation.

We are awash in art that is neutral or even hostile to religious faith, or at the very least celebrates the ugly without regard for beauty. How can an artist working within a faith tradition navigate that environment?

As the publisher and editor of IMAGE, I’ve devoted a great deal of energy to providing a public forum for literature and art that grapple honestly and deeply with the religious traditions of the West. Slant may publish books that reflect this encounter, but it will not be restricted to books that have overt religious subject matter.

To answer your question: I think that the culture is actually more open today to art informed by faith than it was thirty years ago. This is something that many conservatives have failed to note—in part because they have invested too deeply in what I call a “narrative of decline.” When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it was said that Karl Marx had finally died. But I think nearlyall the secular “master narratives” lost credibility around that time, including the sort of aggressive secularism of a thinker like Sigmund Freud.

The artist of faith must first of all cultivate excellence in both craft and vision—the work she creates must avoid didacticism and search out what Flannery O’Connor called “mystery.” If such an artist produces excellent work, there’s still a good chance that it will gain an audience. Just think of writers like Marilynne Robinson, Annie Dillard, Christian Wiman, and Ron Hansen (the list could go on).

Recently, the pundit Jonah Goldberg wrote a piece basically saying movie-making should be left to Hollywood liberals and conservatives or believers should just deal with it. Is there art that is so irredeemable that one should just stay away?

Absolutely not. That seems to me a counsel of despair. You cannot be a conservative if what needs conserving is considered dead and gone. I’ve gone on record about this many times, especially in my book Beauty Will Save the World.” Goldberg made this statement just as the reputation of one of the greatest Christian filmmakers of all time, Terrence Malick, has reached its high point. The know-nothing declinism and parochialism of many conservatives scares me.

One area of art-like creation is digital and video media. I’m thinking in particular of video games, where many millions of people spend hours exploring fantasy or military scenarios. In your view, is this a type of seeking for transcendence that can be found in art?

Generalizations about video games are just like any generalizations: they’re wrong a great deal of the time. There are awful, mindless, grotesque video games, but there are others that—as you’ve hinted—provide a sort of immersive experience that reflects a longing for transcendence. Most of these media are in their infancy and have only begun to find artists who can explore their deeper potential. The rise of outstanding television programs in recent years—Mad Men, The Wire, and others—made me realize that it took nearly sixty years for that medium to find its potential.

Who are some visual artists working today who are seeking beauty in their work?

Very few visual artists are household names these days, except those who specialize in creating scandal rather than beauty. There are Christian artists like Makoto Fujimura who have gained recognition in the mainstream art world. I would also argue that some of the more serious artists with international reputations—such as Anselm Kiefer and Gerard Richter—are asking questions that genuinely touch on religious questions.

Recently, you responded to a piece by Paul Elie about the role of faith in contemporary fiction, in which you basically said you have to know where to find it. Could you expand on your take on his piece?

The irony there is that Elie is a liberal—but he, too, has bought into a narrative of decline. We love to bemoan the loss of giants like Flannery O’Connor but we forget that few conservatives (with the exception of Russell Kirk) recognized her genius during her lifetime. Many traditionalists attacked her work for its use of violence and the grotesque—and yet the same sort of people nowadays canonize her.

It’s always a losing battle to defend the excellence of contemporary writers—we’re too close to them, so it’s easy to find ways to ridicule or diminish them. You need to wait a generation or two before sound judgments can be made.

To go out on a limb, I venture to predict that in the long run, America’s greatest living novelist—Cormac McCarthy—will be recognized as exemplifying a deeply traditional, Catholic sensibility. I also believe that books like Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrimat Tinker Creek and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead will stand the test of time.

Where does Image fit in?

As I indicated above, IMAGE is a literary/arts quarterly that has published some of the best contemporary art that engages the religious traditions of the West. Instead of bemoaning the death of Western civilization, we set out to find who wanted to produce more of it. Sometimes when you look for something, you find it. I’d be the last person on earth to claim that we’re experiencing some sort of great religious awakening in culture, but I do think that postmodernism has at least leveled the playing field—the culture may lack a center, but it’s more porous to art that respects the “permanent things” than it has been for some time.

I mentioned Russell Kirk a moment ago. He was my mentor and IMAGE reflects something he instilled in me. As a young man, Kirk sought out leading modernist writers like T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis and Flannery O’Connor because he saw that they combined highly contemporary artistic forms with deeply traditional beliefs (as Igor Stravinsky did in music). Kirk’s example inspired me to do the same. What distresses me is that few conservatives seem to have grasped what Kirk was about—and that is a crying shame.

Thanks very much for joining us.

You are most welcome.  

The Bookman talks with Gregory Wolfe about contemporary arts, artists, and cultural critics (and what he learned from Russell Kirk) on the occasion of the release of the first novel from his new imprint, Slant Books.