Conversations With Literary Websites: The Critical Flame

by Mark Athitakis (membership) | Jul-30-2010

The Critical Flame launched in late 2008 and features long-form reviews of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, with few of the secondary features of many websites such as blogs or comments. Founder and managing editor Daniel E. Pritchard answered questions via e-mail about the site and its stripped-drown approach from NBCC board member Mark Athitakis.

You note on the site that the Critical Flame launched in part as a response to the thinning of newspaper book review outlets. What do you feel has been lost in the reduction of books coverage in recent years, and what elements do you feel the Critical Flame is best equipped to replace?

There is no question that an enormous amount of depth has been lost, and column inches generally lost, while more and more books are published each year. The majority of books sections that still exist at all persist as little more than as collections of 300-500 word notices of major new titles. Writers have little or no room to explore the books in depth, cite passages at length, to engage with the work and offer readers some insight and point of access. Now, one must realize that most book pages never had much of this; but even stalwarts like the LA Times, Boston Globe, New York Times, and others are noticeably thinner. The cultural conversation is being thinned out by the trials of economic necessities. I don't think of Critical Flame as replacement at all. We aren't looking to knock anyone else off. But then it is a lot of work to run a journal, and the compulsion to found The Critical Flame came from a series of cuts to book sections all over the country. So not replacement so much as picking up the threads that have been dropped.
  
Reviews for the site have no specific word-count limits (the guidelines require only that “an article’s length never exceed its coherence”). Still, the Critical Flame strongly embraces long-form essays. What has your work on the site taught you about how willing online audiences are to read such articles?
 
As an editor, I never cut for the sake of length. Maybe this section is redundant, or that one needs to be re-written for clarity — but no, word count is no longer a controlling force. Not for internet reviews. I'm also not sure that a book worth reviewing at all can be dealt with in 300 words anyhow, not with the depth that we aim for. I think our shortest essays are 800-1000 words, and they do feel a bit short to me.
 
But, we've found no problem with readership in regards to length, nor correlation between length and readers at all. There is — well, I am suspicious of questions regarding length and online audiences. For really good content, people will read until their eyes peel (which takes longer and longer as technology gets better) but they won't read 300 words of crap, or 600 words of mediocrity, on paper or on the internet. Treat readers as if they deserve to be involved in the conversation, as equals, with enthusiasm and insight, discussing a book that is worth consideration: length will never be an issue.
  
The books you review range from well-covered books from major houses (Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice) to small-press poetry books (Daniel Simko’s The Arrival) and considerations of lesser-known authors like Margarita Karapanou. Is there a guiding strategy in terms of what types of books are and aren’t good fits for the site? What’s your selection process?

I wish there were a grand plan. Some titles are picked out, some are happenstance. Simko's book was recommended to me and got great reviews elsewhere; I think a starred review in Publisher's Weekly. The Karapanou essay was a project of the reviewer, who simply wrote suggesting the book with enthusiasm, made a case for the writer, and I was more than happy to consider it. Pynchon's was a book I thought was worth giving critical consideration, more space than would probably be devoted to it elsewhere.
 
I really couldn't care less where the books come from. Really. I do have a soft spot for small presses, but the deciding factor and guiding standard is whether the book has any value. If I ask our audience to take the time to read a review, then I better not be wasting it. Most readers will give us one shot to make or lose confidence. We stay away from strictly academic titles as well as pure pop lit: the first, you won't read no matter what because it isn't meant for a general audience; the other, you're just supposed to enjoy the damn thing, and you either will or you won't but a critical review won't make any difference.
 
Who are your reviewers, and how do you find them? Are they established writers, people who are starting their reviewing careers, people who aren't particularly interested in reviewing per se but want to write about a particular book?
 
Some people are friends or schoolmates or acquaintances, some are people I know from their writing elsewhere, and some were strangers before they wrote to me. Well, Richard Nash was the publisher of Soft Skull for many years. I just emailed him, a total shot in the dark and he accepted. Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation, which I read regularly and love. Henry Gould is a blogger, poet, and critic who pitched his review to me by email. James Stotts is a great poet and a good friend. Katherine Evans has a Masters in Critical Theory and will be Katherine (Evans) Pritchard next July, as long as she keeps putting up with me. They all have some qualification, writing experience, or background that makes them suitable to address the title on hand. I wouldn't say that they are all "book reviewers" though. They're intelligent people able to write articulately and offer some insight.
  
You’ve written that the Critical Flame seeks “to clear a space in this wilderness that is the internet for articulate discussion and learned debate.” However, unlike many literary websites, there’s no commenting capability for articles. How intentional is this decision, and how do you feel the site can spark discussion outside of comment fields?
 
It's very intentional. Maybe because commenting attracts Trolls (which run up false stats), and moderating comments is laborious. I envisioned Critical Flame as a journal as well, not as a blog, and I decided that comments are the division between the two formats. Comment discussions yield useful insight as regularly as Halley's Comet but only half as often. Oh, that's not entirely true but is sure feels true sometimes. We do encourage letters to the editor, and pass them along to the appropriate author (if possible) or reviewer.
 
It's amazing to me that we have forgotten thousands of years of discussion that happened before the comments field of websites. Discuss what you read with a friend or family member or spouse, in an email or in person or in a letter, or when you post the article on Facebook or to Twitter. Or in response on your own blog. Or write to me. Reach out. Read and then reach out and don't be afraid of other people's opinions. People aren't fragile.
 
You work for a literary publisher, David R. Godine. What elements of the book-publishing sensibility have you tried to bring to the Critical Flame in terms of content, design, or editorial processes?
 
Well, I learned design at Godine completely. I was tabula rasa when I arrived at the company, although I didn't realize it. Design really matters. I wanted Critical Flame to be easily navigated, simple, and legible. Write that down: Legible. It's a lost quality online. I'm amazed at the number of big, serious, super-well-funded websites that look terrible, gaudy and busy, that are difficult to manage, and that deny long-form legibility.
 
Being at a small press, though, the defining characteristic is probably that we all care too much. Way too much. And it isn't lining the old coffers with Benjamins. You have to care that much to make the whole thing go. That passion informs the meticulous design, the investment in great content, the desire to make something that lasts. And I care that much about the mission of The Critical Flame.
 
In a review of The Open Letters Monthly Anthology, you write, “the finest online reviews are at least comparable to those in print, and this anthology reveals that — it represents a notch in the door-frame as internet review journals mature and grow, and rise to prominence in the republic of letters.” What do you think will be necessary to sustain that growth? Is it a matter of readers, resources, contributors, something else?
 
Sustaining growth isn't exactly the point. Growth by numbers is a MacGuffin. It would be great to have more readers, maybe go monthly, and have the funding to pay our writers — but, if Critical Flame only ever acquires a few thousand readers, and they form a community that cares, debates, and thinks deeply about verse and fiction and cultural issues, then that's success right there. Done. We're not looking to become Time Magazine. Expansion of that sort would change certain priorities at the heart of this endeavor. Journals come and go, computers crash, paper disintegrates. What's left behind is a set of values. I would hope The Critical Flame is a point of discussion as people construct and examine their values, be they aesthetic, ethical, or personal.



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