As we all know, this Internet of ours is a cesspool of subliteracy, a heaving welter of celebrity gossip, prank videos, and asinine comment threads trailing like endless filaments of drool into the digital abyss. But there are always a few noble exceptions, and since 2005 The Quarterly Conversation has been one of them. With its decorous name and erudite style, TQC stands as as one of the Web’s true bastions of civilized discourse on literature and the arts. Each issue contains featured articles on writers and their works (current topics include a little-known literary predecessor of Borges and Simone Beauvoir’s recently published journals), reviews of new books, interviews, and five to ten works of original art. The editor, Scott Esposito, recently took the time to answer a few questions about his online projects, his offline reading habits, and the distinction (or is there one?) between high and low art.
AMoS: What do you see as TQC’s “mission”? What niche is it attempting to fill, either online or in the culture at large?
SE: Our mission is to provide in-depth coverage of literature that can be read by educated laypeople. I don’t know that this is a niche audience that we’re trying to reach, although judging by the general disinterest newspapers now have in covering literature, I suppose some people think it is.
AMoS: You keep a blog called Conversational Reading, which is a kind of adjunct to TQC. How do the two sites relate to one another? Which (if either) is the more rewarding project for you personally?
SE: I started Conversational Reading in August of 2004. The Quarterly Conversation started about a year later, and it grew out of many relationships and ideas I derived from sources directly attributable to my blog. In other words, without the friends and education I found through my blog, TQC would have been impossible.
TQC is by far more rewarding because I get the chance to work with an amazing group of people. Also, as editor I read everthing we publish; suffice to say, I think it’s all worthwhile reading—just by editing our book reviews I’ve discovered so many wonderful books and writers. The blog is a lot of fun to do, but it doesn’t provide the same sustained level of rewarding interaction as TQC does.
AMoS: TQC publishes 5 to 10 works of original art per issue. What kind of relationship do you hope to create between the writing and the art you publish?
SE: There’s not really a relationship. If someone’s making interesting visual art I’m happy to give that people some exposure, and I’m sure some of our readers like to discover artists through us, but I’ve never really considered the two as integrated.
AMoS: What would you say has been TQC’s most controversial review or essay to date?
SE: I really can’t say. I know we’ve published some contentous stuff—Barrett Hathcock’s revisitation of the Brad Vice plagairism incident; Dan Green’s contrarian essay on Orhan Pamuk; Garth Risk Hallberg’s rebuttal to James Wood on Underworld—but I don’t think any of these pieces raised a controversy. Either that’s not why our readers go to the site or they’re keeping their opinions to themselves.
AMoS: How do you assess the state of the arts in this country today? Still vibrant, or drowned out by popular culture as some have argued?
SE: It’s tough to say. You can find declarations of the sorry state of book reviews/the arts/reading/etc. going back decades (and probably even well into the 19th century and further). So I really don’t know how our era stacks up to previous ones. There’s also the matter of measurement: how do you measure vibrancy of the arts? Is it some kind of comparison of the general penetration of “high” art compared to “low”? (And are those labels even useful?) Or do you think about the overall level of interesting art being produced and not bother with the people consuming it? Or is it something else entirely?
AMoS: Who are your own favorite writers and artists? Favorite works?
SE: We could be here for a while. George Eliot, Northrop Frye, Bakhtin, Wayne Booth, David Foster Wallace, Borges, Kafka, DeLillo, Sebald, Proust, Puig, Bolano, Tristram Shandy, Doctor Faustus, The Good Soldier, the Decameron…
AMoS: Where do you see TQC headed as a publication in the next 5 years?
SE: I hope we do exactly what we’ve been doing, but more of it.
AMoS: Finally, the house question: when you hear the word “stylish,” who or what comes to mind?
SE: Fashion models?
Hmm…so far no one’s taken the bait on that style question yet. We’ll have to strive a little harder to make “Abbeville” and “stylish” synonymous in the public’s mind—and more importantly, in the minds of tastemakers like Scott. Until then, we thank Scott for his time and wholeheartedly recommend The Quarterly Conversation to our readers.