Feel I’m out here always trying to downplay the realm, the influence of social media. Right? The bullshit people talk about on the internet. But, I’ll admit I was surprised, reading, scrolling months of heated back and forth about Hobart on twitter, on blogs and various literary gossip sites . . . So, for those tuning in, the quick backstory: Fall of 2022, Hobart ran the interview with Alex Perez. Elizabeth and Alex commiserating with each other, basically agreeing that the literary world is being run, and perhaps ruined by “woke white women”. I’m laughing as I write this. Among other topics, masculinity under fire. Alex is a former college athlete, the brutality, the rawness in his work and opinions comes from sports, from the mean streets of Cuba and Miami. This ethos also makes him virtually unpublishable in today’s literary climate. Supposedly. He and Elizabeth also agree that straight white men are now being overlooked and discriminated against in some ways, particularly in literature. At any rate, those were some of the talking points. In short order, this essay, it’s publication on the site led to the entire editorial staff resigning in protest. Then the resignation of the remaining co-founder Aaron Burch. From there Elizabeth Ellen took control, putting together a new team of editors, (including yours truly), rebranding the site as Elizabeth Ellen’s Hobart . . . A few months later, after going dark, the site is reborn. A strange new world rises from the old. Enter, Kevin Walker. Or “Kev”, as he signed his letter to us, via email. It was mostly Elizabeth receiving the criticism in his letter. On the other hand, it also seemed like a good measure of the sentiment surrounding Hobart, shit people talk about, right? But an actual email, not twitter, politely outlining some of the criticism. More than anything, I was excited. With Kevin’s letter circulating the Hobart bullpen/email thread, it occurred to me, one of the big ideas of art is, in fact, to stimulate conversation. So I figured, let’s talk about it! Hit up Kev. Let’s do an interview:
First off, thank you for agreeing to do this! Do you mind me breaking up and quoting your letter to us? If not, we can do it another way. Full disclosure, I initially just pasted your letter in it’s entirety as the the intro. But I thought that felt too much like mockery. You seemed serious, and open in your letter, so I wanted to match that energy.
And I appreciate your restraint. When I sent the email, I never expected it would be platformed. Reading it again, I cringe at how I phrased certain things. But I don’t mind responding to snippets of it for the purposes of this interview. If I can’t make fun of myself, I may as well quit writing. I’m twenty-five, relatively young—
I composed the email in a fit of deflation. I graduated from an undergraduate writing program a few months after the start of the pandemic. For the next two years, my writing life took an unceremonious backseat to other pressing concerns. How do I make money? How do I exist? And the feeling that I’ve been unfairly robbed of momentum sometimes overwhelms me. In these moments, I feel like my life is still leaking air from the puncture of two lost years. Reading great writing always reinvigorates me. The night I sent the email, I was probably feeling deflated. I had probably opened Hobart with the impossible expectation that doing so would resurrect my soul.
How about we do it this way? I’ll quote from the letter, you can either clarify or pose it to me as a question, and I’ll try to answer and address your concerns, not as proxy for Elizabeth, but I’d definitely call myself an editor who believes in what we’re doing with Hobart. Also feel free to interject any questions of your own that come to mind. Here’s the first cut. Again, from your letter, you start off:
“Personally, not a huge fan of the direction your magazine has gone in.”
I originally wrote a different answer to this question. I originally attempted to diagnose a failed editorial direction of the magazine. But I now realize making such an attempt was stupid. Hobart’s output is too broad to categorize like that. How can I say a magazine has failed when I enjoy so much of what it publishes? Let me tell you a story: one time, I sent a reckless email, and… That said, the magazine often publishes a strain of voice I don’t enjoy. Of course, this voice doesn’t characterize the entirety of the magazine’s output. And my irritation with this voice varies from writer to writer, varies according to what the writer does (or fails to do) with it. I’ve read a few too many disaffected, twenty-something urbanite writers in Hobart. These writers couch their chaotic sexual lives, their drug usage, in uncomplicated and blasé language. They use phrases from social media and pop-psychology. They write casually, blasély, about things that would shock their parents. The effect is a dizzying kind of numbness. This voice works for me when a writer marries dispassionate, debauched moments to incredible, striving language. Or to incredible, insight. Or humor. Certain stories and poems I read in Hobart leave me with nothing but numbness.
So when was your first exposure to Hobart? How often would you say you visit or read from the site?
I started reading Hobart when I was an undergraduate. It was a magazine I could read online without spending money. Writers I enjoy had been published in it. These days, I visit the site a few times a week. Consider me a regular reader.
Nice! We appreciate that!
Here’s another cut from your letter. Let’s discuss:
“I understand your reaction against "woke" writing, "woke" writing published under "woke" editors. But now, it seems I'm reading "shock value"/unconsidered schlock, in the mag.”
If I can’t make fun of myself, I may as well quit writing.
I don’t think Hobart’s literary output amounts to “schlock.” “Schlock” is a very funny word. We should say it more; it combines the sonic qualities of several very impolite words. Though I’m embarrassed by my phrasing, the phrasing captures how I felt when I sent the email.
I was frustrated. I had probably just finished reading a Hobart poem or story that left me cold, or numb. All I had expected was literary deliverance. Was that too much to ask?
If you think a piece or a certain type of writing sucks, to be honest, I don’t think you have to defend it. Not on my account! I think we lose sight at times of the fact that this is all subjective. And that it’s entertainment! What we all produce, and aspire to produce is technically just an entertainment product. I mean, of course we’re all snobs about it, but lets be real for a second . . .
In terms of “deliverance”, I don’t know, that’s a lot to ask from any lit-mag.
I was being a bit tongue-and-cheek when I said that. Deliverance is, of
course, too much to expect of a literary magazine. Or frequent deliverance is too much to expect. Hobart has delivered me a few times. The contention that the pieces we produce are “entertainment products” has ruffled my feathers. When I write, I don’t write to entertain. If that’s a side effect, great. I’d like to capture something indelible in the work, something totemic, final. And I understand how naïve and idealistic that sounds.
No, I get you . . . Here’s what I’ll say. I think the advantage of Hobart, for me, as a platform, boils down to a few key aspects. The big thing is that there’s a new story almost every day, give or take. Sometimes more! Whereas other mags hem and haw and politic and focus-group every sentence they publish. Not all, but a lot of them. Then they publish once or twice a year. Meanwhile Hobart is a constant feed, like Youtube, like NTS Radio. There is no “house style” so to speak, so the content is all over the map. Sure, it’s gonna lead to a good amount of stuff you don’t like. But the sheer frequency of posts and the number of people picking stories, especially now post shake-up; if you did some sort of spreadsheet I’d bet you’d find Hobart has one of best-ever percentages of stories you’d actually like, just based on at-bats, the raw number of hitters, etc. Think about it that way . . .
I hadn’t thought about it that way.
But it takes some diligence on the part of the site’s reader (me) to sift through the feed and locate pieces I will like. The format is interesting, but also potentially frustrating. More at-bats means more homeruns, sure. It also means many more strikeouts. Many more walks, many more pop-outs,many more solid singles. I’m an occasionally frustrated reader and sifting through Hobart occasionally feels like a task. Do you guys ever worry that the “constant feed” format may overwhelm your audience? That the homeruns may get buried in the feed?
Well, I would prefer just a single story or poem per day. It’s mostly one post, but sometimes it’s two posts and especially with poetry, that single post could have 2 or 3 individual poems. Even still, that’s not too crazy, in my opinion. In terms of getting lost, I think that if you’re actually searching for something, or some specific author, then it’s as easy as using the search bar. But in terms of discovery I think the concept of the site is to streamline the process, that you’d maybe want to check the Hobart feed just once a day. I think expecting the casual lit-enthusiast to spend hours cruising the site is unrealistic. We’re not trying to lock you in. Not some sort of algorithmic booby-trap. If you’re interested in what we do, all we ask is to check in and see if you like the piece we’re running on that particular day. If not, maybe check back in a day or two or a week . . . But, no, I can see the other side of it. Like with any “feed” type site, once you start backscrolling maybe it can feel mind-blowing. Fair. Especially if you prefer lit-mags that are separated into issues.
I had a few more points, but I like the detour. I’m with you. Keep going.
As for the “woke writing” part of my comment, I perceived aspects of Hobart’s editorial direction as a reaction against the sanctimonious crowd that tried to cancel Elizabeth. Some pieces on the site seem designed to shock. One of your editors recently published an essay on the site titled, I Still Jack off to Meth Porn. That title reads like it’s designed to shock. Also… need I ask about the big cigarette? I imagine Elizabeth as someone who wants to affront the sanctimonious, wherever and however they persist. Is that a good description of her and her editorial philosophy? If not, please explain the big cigarette.
Ha! That’s funny. I think one of the big arguments me and Elizabeth have had, was whether she was really “cancelled”, whether in fact there was this wide-ranging conspiracy to ruin her literary career. I guess it sounds punk rock to say. You get to be a rebel and a victim all at once . . . To be fair to her, I wasn’t around at that time and as they say, it’s her truth. Fair. On the other hand, just like she’s entitled to her freedom of speech, motherfuckers are also free to say, I don’t like what you’re saying, or even how you choose to messily say what you’re saying, and because of that we don’t want you in our anthology or to publish your story or novel, or host your reading, or whatever. And I like messy! But that’s not censorship. Social justice heroes vs all the so called “based thinkers” out there. It works both ways. Everyone on all sides at the end of the day has the power of choice, the power of their dollar, to greater or lesser degrees . . . Also, by the way, I mainly disagree that Elizabeth was cancelled because she’s always had the two things that make an artist cancel-proof. She has a fan base and she has her own platform. On top of that, the work ethic to outlast her critics. Right? Hence the giant cigarette. I burst out laughing when I first saw that thing. And yes, it covers and blocks out a lot of people’s pics! Shrug emoji . . .
We hurl spitballs and learn from how a spitball splats against whatever it hits. I’m no admirer of Alex Perez. In that interview, he comes across like a narcissistic freak. “The Iowa pariah will say it for you!” Gross.
(laughing) To be fair, he did make a few points I think most people would agree with in context. But there’s also a part of it where he’s just trying to kayfabe and piss off everyone on purpose . . .
Perez gave up fiction to pursue punditry, traffics now in the unsubtle language of cultural outrage. Still, the publishing of that interview was a spitball, an idea Elizabeth lobbed, and the enterprise of writing and leading a writing life is nothing if not the lobbing around of ideas. Though I disagree with much of what Perez said and especially how he said it, I admire Elizabeth for having had the guts to put something so combustible into the world, knowing (I assume) certain people would want her head in the aftermath. Certain people attempted to cancel her. And I imagine, when she was on the receiving end of so much contempt—outsized contempt for the small trespass of engaging with an offensive pundit—it was easy to assume a conspiracy had materialized against her. Did these certain people succeed? The site still stands, now emblazoned with its new signature: the cigarette.
This one made me think a little bit. I also looked up the meaning of the word, “transgressive”. Again from your letter:
“As writers, part of our mission is to elevate the transgressive. But an equal part is to find the edifying, the meaningful. We don't read and reread Jesus' Son because it's shocking. We read it for a meaningful diction of working-class, drug-addled life. Johnson puts everything we know to the music of language.”
There are many books about drugs. I read Jesus’ Son again and again. But I don’t read it because it’s about drugs. I read it for the singular way Denis Johnson articulates despair, confusion, pyrrhic joy. He articulates far stranger emotional resonances, too—resonances impossible to describe other than how they appear on the page. If it was a book about drugs and nothing more than drugs, I wouldn’t read it again and again.
“Last year, when I was working in a warehouse, I was internally screaming for an elevated language of people like me.”
My job wasn’t in a warehouse. I misled you. I was the receiver at a Barnes & Noble location. I worked in the backroom. Every day, a shipment would arrive from the warehouse, and I would break down the pallets, slice open the boxes, and sort the books by genre into towering, precarious piles on a huge metal desk. Some days, I would process every box. More often than not, there would be too many boxes, and as more shipments would arrive through the week, the backroom would fill with unprocessed boxes.
I work in a bookstore now! Their warehouse moved to Brooklyn, but it used to be on the fifth floor of the building above the retail floors. I did my little stint in the warehouse.
The boss would always tell me, “You need to work faster.”
Yeah. Don’t get me started.
I worked there for one year. Barnes & Noble orders its seasonal product months ahead of schedule. The August of that year, I received hundreds of Christmas-themed mystery novels. One day, I spent hours organizing them. I flipped through the pages of The Mistletoe Murder, of A Yuletide Caper, and when I stepped outdoors for lunch, the air was wavering with heat. Millions of Americans work surreal and humiliating jobs for far longer than I worked at Barnes & Noble.
Do we have enough literature that captures the strange emotional resonances of people who work such jobs?
Maybe. I’m sure we could find examples, but also my main response, when people strongly think something sucks, or like there’s some great lack of certain voices—I think that just means there is actually room for you in that larger industry or literary world. Some unclaimed angle or territory for you to stake out as your own. That’s how I see it.
(A quick one)
The literary world. Like man’s brittle psyche exposed in ruins. Like with everything, let’s attach a needlessly complex mythology, some inflated dreams, to a pursuit that from the beginning, seems so simple. People who read, then somehow, inevitably, we become people who write. These things intersect, now it becomes a deadly, futuristic game, trying to metric and monetize, and decide what gets read—even darker, what should be read. But what is this, literary world? Why the fuck are we all marching, out here, single-file, to die on this hill? Sniping at each other from fortified bunkers, via twitter. Choking down stale cheese, boxed wine. What is good and bad writing, what’s the difference? If I can only find some trapdoor, some handshake pathway to elevate my own shit. Agents and publicists. Hugs and coverletters. Wait, I know! I’ll start an online literary magazine . . .
(Who is Kevin Walker?)
You mentioned Jesus’ son. So was that where you caught the virus? How did you get into the writing game? Specifically the lit-world. Submitting to lit-mags, readings, that sort of thing?
I owe everything to another book: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. I bought myself a copy for whatever reason, when I was a teenager. Reading Davis’s stories put me on the path to a literary life. I wanted to write stories like hers. I went to college, became an English major. I transferred to a college with a dedicated writing program. I discovered the work of other writers along the way, but Davis’s stories will always be my north star. Reading great writing compels me to write. Jesus’ Son is a great book that compels me to write. Robert Walser’s Microscripts is also a favorite book of mine: a book of peculiar and trenchant prose morsels. I haven’t read Walser’s novels yet.
Where did you grow up? Where are you from?
I grew up in Skillman, New Jersey. I experienced a traditional American childhood.
You’re getting your MFA. As you envision it, what’s your trajectory? What type of career are you trying to carve out?
As I write this, I dropped out of that MFA… four or five days ago. I gave up an assistantship that funded my degree and provided me a stipend. The MFA advertised itself as a full residency program. Only one of my classes was in-person. The other two were online and asynchronous. An asynchronous class is a class that never meets, not even over Zoom. Are you familiar with Blackboard? Blackboard is an “online classroom.” In an asynchronous class, students post text responses to prompts on Blackboard discussion pages. Posting is considered “attendance.” It was email school. It was anathema to me. Nothing online can substitute a real classroom.
Especially with art stuff.
Nothing online can substitute organic, in-person conversation, which was what I had hoped my MFA would provide. I’m applying to other programs this fall. I envision myself teaching college someday. I’d like to share some of what I’ve read with students. I’d like to share how what I’ve read has impacted my understanding of the world. I’d like to do that for a lifelong living.
Wow, ok. So teaching more than writing. Feel like most writers do the teaching thing mainly as a means to an end. Just a steady paycheck . . .
It’s not that I want to teach more than I want to write. I want to do both. At this point in my life, I’ve developed one or two strong convictions. To create great writing, a writer must engage in dedicated and wide reading. To write without doing all of that necessary reading is a recipe for bad writing. In this internet age, it’s easier than ever to ignore challenging literature. I’m guilty. Daily, I get sucked into watching endless YouTube reels. Because I believe that interest in great writing—that the production of great writing—should continue into the future, beyond my lifetime, I feel compelled to teach about the literature that has shaken the foundation of how I see life.
It’s been almost a year now since that Alex Perez interview dropped, and maybe 6 or 7 months since the relaunch of Hobart. So have you seen anything you like in the interim? Any stories? Any writers you like? Or are we a lost cause on you at this point?
Hobart is not a lost cause. Again, let me tell you a story: one time, I sent a reckless email, and…
Will Bindloss’s story, “Sixty Percent”, which appeared in Hobart on February 2, accomplishes a feat in seeing its absurd premise all the way through without flinching. A great read. Colene Lee’s story, “How I Got My Hair Back,” which appeared in Hobart on April 5, does the rare thing of being so funny and sad at once. She has a singular comedic voice. I also read an excerpt of your novella, House of Hunger, in the magazine. And then I read the entire novella. Your book communicates ceaseless consciousness, the drum and drum of thought, in a way I find compelling. I’m grateful to Hobart for exposing me to your work. People: if you haven’t read House of Hunger, get yourself a copy. I’m a fan.
Ha! I appreciate that . . . Also, to circle back, aside from the title, what did you think about the “meth porn” story/essay by Miss Unity? I think my first blush was similar to yours, from the title, like, “What the fuck is this?” Then I heard him read it in person in Bushwick, actually liked it, I went back to the site, read it online, and I was all in. Beyond gritty. Dark. And definitely messy! Our messy, conflicted lives. All of us. Looking forward to reading his book . . . Apart from the title though, I’m curious, what did you think of the actual piece?
Heartbreaking. Not the kind of thing I would usually seek out. But arresting and heartbreaking. As a piece of writing, it offers nothing like solace, nothing like redemption. I was hoping you would ask me about that essay. I began reading it skeptically, but the depth of feeling in the piece won me over. The horror of it, the rage, the rage that Unity turns toward himself and what happened to him. Messy, as you said. Filthy. Admirable. Admirable to read someone bare the darkness of himself without flinching. A lesser writer would have flinched and not written himself like that.
Final question. And like Tom Cruise in MI7, brother, you gotta pick a side. I’ll let you have the last word:
So do you think “woke, white women” are ruining literature?
No group of people can ruin literature. For hundreds of years, the literary market has had priorities different from those of independent writers. And for hundreds of years, independent writers have produced meaningful literature. About the cabal of white women that Perez alleges are ruining literature; I know very little about the publishing market, too little to pontificate about it. I dislike novels and stories that try to heavy-handedly instruct a moral viewpoint on specific issues. Most people I meet feel the same way. We can choose to not read these books. We can choose to find more appropriate homes for our challenging work. This cabal (if it exists) will pass from relevance as the times change. And the times always change. And great writing keeps happening.