August 31, 2011 / Creative Writing
In “Trees,” Jesus’ condemnation reenacts itself under a cherry tree, the red fruit hanging in “fistfuls” on a monastery hill.
Gregory Wolfe is editor and founder of Image, a quarterly journal that has featured prominent writers, sculptors, painters, and poets for over twenty years. The journal also hosts the Glen Workshop, fellowships for emerging writers, learning trips abroad, and numerous speaking engagements across the country. In Part I of this interview Wolfe discusses beauty, and here in Part II he continues this discussion, riffing on the history of the journal and the importance of sleeping well.
The Other Journal (TOJ): You spoke earlier about the temptations to either kill or idolize beauty, and I was wondering about your experience of putting together a literary journal. Could you tell a little about the journey and work of avoiding spectacle and flash while remaining faithful to beauty?
Gregory Wolfe (GW): We could be here all day on that one, not only because I like to hear the sound of my own voice or talk about myself, but because I’ve lost some sleep over it. It’s amazing—this area of the literary/arts quarterly seems like a sleepy little area, but in a way it is hotly contested; it is full of adventure, thrills and spills, and near-death experiences. I had no idea how such a quaint little thing like a literary quarterly could bring my family to the brink of economic extinction and how intense some of the moral issues would be.
I suppose that anything I say is going to have the danger of sounding like back-patting, but we have had to face some serious judgment calls about how we do what we do—how slick are we going to be? What is the relationship between surface and depth? Where is the level between being too elitist and inaccessible and being too populist and too pandering to dumbed-down tastes?
And I suppose that if there is any charge that could be leveled at us about the last twenty years, it’s the charge of elitism. I sometimes have to laugh, but there are well-meaning people that sometimes say quite innocently that Image is such a “scholarly” journal. When they say that I respond, “There are no footnotes! There is no academic jargon! These are short stories and poems and paintings!” But what they mean is that this is deep stuff; this is challenging material. This is a six thousand–word short story. Who reads six thousand–word short stories anymore? We all read blog posts. We’re reduced to Twitter, which is 140 characters. That’s the nature of the modern and postmodern era. So we at Image are liable to this charge of being, in fact, very old-fashioned and out of touch with the times.
I am not impervious to the sting of being called elitist. I am an American like anyone else—Europeans are all sophisticated with their wine and stuff, but Americans want a beer and a good Hollywood movie. And so I twitch like any other American twitches—I don’t want to be seen as elitist. On the other hand, the serious literary quarterly and serious art, fiction, poetry, paintings, sculpture—these things do require something of us. There should be a midget running around pointing to the giants; there should be some voice saying that we don’t have to eat the five million Big Macs there are to be eaten. A few of us should have a nice filet mignon or even a vegetarian platter, not this instant, tasty, nutritionless, fattening confection that is the ubiquitous popular culture which we live in.
So just to give you a sense of the sorts of decisions we made that exemplified this—number one, the layout of the journal. It’s classical. It’s very low key. It’s a journal, so we didn’t make a magazine with funky layouts. Open it up—it has nice typography, but it is like a book, which means that you are not looking for inset quotes and little cartoons. You’re just going to get into this literary experience, to lose yourself in writing, the way classic literature asks you to do. We’re not going to gussy it up.
Even the cover design is white background. I could show you all sorts of other journals, and in fact, I do a presentation for the interns about the front cover. I can barely fit the presentation into an hour because of all the assumptions that go into what that cover looks like—the marketing assumptions, the philosophical/aesthetic assumptions. For example, we try to do a whole work of art on the front cover, and that’s because we respect the work as a whole. We’re not just making it a background. Some magazines will have a very colorful front cover, but the work of art is lost—it’s just colors and swirls. We use the full work in its integrity, and we don’t crop it. We don’t overprint it. Again, the point is that this is a publication that is going to ask you to engage the work in its full experience.
Those are debatable decisions. It’s more radical than you would think, because you’re going to have twenty years of people saying, “Well, no wonder! You could have twenty or fifty thousand subscribers if only you would turn it into more of a magazine and make them short 500-word pieces!” And I am sitting there feeling more conflicted than you might think. I want fifty thousand people to subscribe to my journal rather than four or five thousand people. But if I made the compromises I’d need to make to get all those subscribers, I wouldn’t sleep that well at night. There are people in the culture business who have, frankly, sold out, because of the pressure to pander. But I don’t think they sleep very well at night. I need my sleep.
TOJ: So, why? What makes that decision for you every time those temptations come up? What holds you through the dark night?
GW: I don’t want this to come across as sort of playing on my Stradivarius here for sympathy. There have been a lot of rewards. Just as you might say that we often get fewer subscribers than we would if we were more slick and populist, we often get compliments that are not just tossed off lightly. They’re often almost like testimonies. People will talk to me about Image at conferences; I will be sitting there in our booth, and they will come up and they will testify. They’ll say, “This has meant something to me.” And I know they’re not talking in either mere aesthetic or spiritual terms, but of this really interesting spiritual/aesthetic experience the journal gives them. So I want to make it clear that although it’s been tough to hold the line for a serious literary quarterly, the rewards, while not monetary, have been deeply felt. There are human spiritual rewards for doing it this way. It’s those testimonies that convince me that what we’ve been doing is right.
I also want to make it clear that however much I am the founder, I have always been surrounded by people who’ve put incredible labor and lifeblood into this, too. For example, my wife, co-editors, the first person who donated the money to print the pilot issue. I’ve always been surrounded by an incredible cloud of witnesses and coworkers.
TOJ: The testimony part is interesting. I recently read a story, “The Sparrow” by Ron Hansen, in the twentieth anniversary issue and shortly afterward an ache like a prayer came over me. That story was so good that it surprised me. I have read a lot of the giants—Flannery O’Connor, Merton—and it was this story that made my day better.
GW: We often hear that. It’s not so much that the material is overtly intended to become a devotional, and yet, it can be. I’ve had people tell me that our daily blog is part of their devotional because Monday though Friday they can be guaranteed to read beautifully crafted 800-word essays that are often about the same thing that we are about, which is the way that art, faith, and life intersect one another. I think a well-told story, though only theological by implication, can be a part of one’s spiritual life on that given day.
TOJ: I have been impressed by the way, over twenty years, Image journal continuously finds new talent. I always assumed that there was a rather small pool of creators that were concerned with sort of spiritual matters, or with the struggle of the seen and the unseen. But in every issue, there are new names and quality work. What are your thoughts on that?
GW: When we first started, we thought that we might only find material for four or five issues. We thought maybe we would at least make it into some footnote someday in some essay on the cultural history of the late twentieth century—“a short-lived little journal attempted to uphold the notion that even in late modernity great art could still be created out of the encounter with this Judeo/Christian tradition.”
Little did we know that the culture was changing around us. Something happened for which renaissance may be too strong a word, but let’s say there was a revival. In some ways, I would argue that the high-water mark of secularism in the public culture was probably the 60s and 70s, and certainly, by the late 80s when we started, there were a lot of signs that spirituality, Christianity, was going to be given at least the occasional place at the table, at least more than it had been. The “fortress” mentality that Christians had developed over the course of the previous hundred years was dated and no longer relevant. There was more openness. A part of that was that Christians were understanding that there were more ways to witness to their faith than proclamation, apologetics, and politics. There was a hunger for other ways of communicating and nurturing one’s self, and art has played a really big role in that. So I think there is at least, you could say, a revival.
At one point I think the top three best-selling classical composers in the world were Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, and John Tavener, all three of whom are devout Christians—well, Tavener’s been a little flaky lately, but at any rate, they were at the time. Their music was a synthesis of postmodern minimalism with ancient chant and polyphony. So I think the culture is changing. I think the cultural elites are changing. I think many Christians and the church are changing. And I think the work is being created more than it has been for many, many decades. We don’t seem to have a shortage. I mean, there are still just four issues a year. We’re selective; we have a maximum of eight artists and eight short stories a year, and that works to our advantage because we don’t dilute too much and try to prove something, but within that amount of space we have had no shortage.
TOJ: What are some of your hopes and dreams for either yourself or the church in regards to beauty and creativity?
GW: There are many levels of dreaming. One of them is hoping that all the fundraising and administrative work of making all this happen will be lifted a little bit from my shoulders in the coming years so that I could exercise a little more of my own creativity and get back to writing some more books. That’s a personal desire.
Institutionally, I think there is a lot more that we could be doing. Part of it is doing what we already do, but doing it better. Paying our authors more professional fees—artists have been abused so often as people that don’t really do anything or as people who are doing something that is not really worth that much or at least compared to somebody who works a real job. And so, just to pay our authors more competitive fees for the work they have to produce would be a great place to start.
Beyond that, we do much more than a journal these days—we have a website, a blog, a summer workshop, a study tour to Florence, Italy, a postgraduate fellowship, and we’d love to give out more fellowships to writers and artists to give them space and time to create. We’d love to start a book publishing wing of what we do. Eventually, we’d love to found something like an artists’ colony, a place where people can come and get serious work done in fellowship with one another, in prayer and conversation, cross-fertilization over weeks and not just a fleeting conference or workshop. So there’s a lot that still needs to be done to institutionalize this thrust that has been so powerful in the church this last couple of decades. This realizing of the importance of art and imagination needs to outlast my lifetime. Image and other similar institutions really need to become part of what the church in America is all about.
Please read Part I of our interview with Gregory Wolfe here.
Shannon Presler is an intern with The Other Journal. He has a BA in theology and is pursuing his MACP at Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, Washington.