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Garth Greenwell: “My discomfort with our current use of ‘relevance’ as a term of judgment is that it conceals its criteria, and that those criteria are not aesthetic, but social and political. I worry that if we make such ‘relevance’ not just one among other judgments we might make about art, but a condition of our interest, we have made that condition purely about the explicit, discursive content of art, its subject matter. In doing so, we devalue the elements of a work that, to my thinking, properly distinguish it as art; we deny the importance of form. My aim is not at all to imply that the subject of a work isn’t important, or that social and political context should not be part of what we discuss when we discuss art. I came of age as a literary person, more than twenty years ago now, in an academic milieu that very much did de-emphasize subject matter. One teacher of mine insisted in our poetry workshop that we not discuss content at all, that we somehow pay attention only to form. This was interesting as pedagogy, and not a terrible way to spend a semester, but it seemed false as a way of engaging with art. I suspected that behind the resistance to content was something more than a commitment to aestheticism—to art for art’s sake. It seemed to me the academic literary establishment’s way of responding to subject matter that it found disturbing or discomfiting, subject matter that seemed too assertive, too dramatic or overbearing, only because it had for so long been excluded from the literary canon. Much of this work drew on the experiences of people of color and queer people, of women, of poor people and people in rural areas—experiences deemed irrelevant to a supposedly universal human story. I see the prominence of ‘relevance’ as a term of assessment in our current critical language as part of a huge and necessary correction, an assertion that these and other supposedly marginal experiences are pertinent, as all human experience is pertinent, to the communal endeavor to make sense of ourselves that is the labor of art. What I find moving in the shared etymology of ‘relevant’ and ‘relieve’ is the resonance between ‘to make stand out, to render prominent or distinct,’ and ‘to give ease from pain or discomfort.’ The struggle to assert the value of a broader range of voices in our literature has relieved an injury, the injury of invisibility. That struggle is ongoing: just a few years ago, in a graduate seminar at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an author I continue to revere characterized my work as resembling “a sociological report on the practices of a subculture.” The fallacy of a certain idea of universality is to imagine that any human experience is unmarked by the accidents of geography, history, demographics—to believe that an account of a Congregationalist minister in rural Iowa, say, is somehow larger, more relevant to a shared human story, than an account of sex among gay men. The idea of universality, when used in this way, is nothing more than a maneuver whereby a privileged social position—which is often the position of straightness, whiteness, and maleness—secures its own default status, and therefore its immunity from self-awareness and critique.”

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