When Garth Greenwell was growing up in Kentucky, the LGBTQ section of his local bookstore was a lifesaver: a refuge, even in the pre-internet era. But the implications of that categorization—keeping LGBTQ authors’ books separate from the rest—suggested that the experiences of queer people and other traditionally marginalized groups were somehow inaccessible to the general public, that they failed to speak to any “universal” truths of human life. Years later, Greenwell would have his work described by a professor as “a sociological report on the practices of a subculture,” as though his choice to focus on queer subjects was a hindrance to artistic resonance. Since then, of course, the cultural pendulum has swung the other way, and stories featuring white, male, cisgender protagonists are increasingly derided as irrelevant and shopworn. In the November issue of Harper’s Magazine, Greenwell questions the meaning of “relevance” and its place in our cultural discourse, disputing the idea that art must be “relevant” to be resonant, and even that “relevance” is a fruitful ground for analysis in the first place.
In this episode of the podcast, Greenwell, author of the novels What Belongs to You and Cleanness, reflects on his essay and discusses with host Violet Lucca the concept of universality, the high speed of Twitter discourse, the way dating apps are anathema to the true nature of desire, the future of art in our current political climate, and the LGBTQ section of a bookstore near you.