Conversations With Literary Websites: The Los Angeles Review of Books

by Mark Athitakis (membership) | May-25-2011

Since launching in April, the Los Angeles Review of Books has become immediately notable for both the quality of its writing, the range of its interests, and the names of its contributors---pieces by Greil Marcus, Jane Smiley, and David Shields have already appeared, and its long list of forthcoming articles promises essays by Janet Fitch, Robert Polito, and Jonathan Lethem, among others. And the site has already kicked up some controversy, thanks to Mark McGurl's contentious retort to Elif Batuman's review of his book on MFA programs, The Program Era.

The LARB is focused on the web, but editor in chief Tom Lutz says that in 2012 it will publish a print "best-of' compilation more like a quarterly literary review than a standard print book review." Lutz answered questions from NBCC board member Mark Athitakis via email.
 
To what extent does the Review see itself as a counter to the East Coast literary reviews such as the New York Review and New York Times Book Review? Editorially, are you interested in engaging with the issues and authors those publications elevate, or do you want to look for different ground entirely?

We understood, when we chose the name "Los Angeles Review of Books," that people would associate that with the NYRB and the London Review of Books, both of which publish a consistent level of intellectual and literary discourse to which we aspire.  We have some overlap in terms of contributors, and there is little in either Review that we are not also interested in considering. But the majority of our contributing editors and our entire editing staff live on the West Coast, and that means something; the world looks different from here.  One instance: when I talk about this project to anyone west of Pittsburgh, they are very excited, happy to hear about a new forum, eager to pitch in.  When I talk to people in New York, some people are quite supportive, too, but many others are say 'good luck with that' in a way that is not actually wishing us luck, or 'why?' in a way that is not looking for an answer.  We see things differently out here, and this is a good thing.

More importantly, though, we are interested in a larger swath of the book world than those two venues.  We will be covering YA fiction and Science Fiction, for instance, which NYTBR covers slightly more than NYRB, but we will be doing so much more regularly and thoroughly.  We will be looking at things from small experimental presses, place more emphasis on world literature, and examine other genres beyond the margins of those two outlets, as well.

And third, we are interested in regular conversations—we plan to post multiple reviews of books from multiple perspectives, arranging symposia on books, authors, and topics, and engaging reader response in more active ways. 

Our entire architecture (not that of the Tumblr site up now, our ‘preview review,’ but that of the full site) has been developed as a web entity.  This does not simply mean we will have multimedia content, but that the site is deeply inter-relational, densely linked, and designed to create pathways from what people know they like to things they didn’t know they liked.  The experience, thus, will be different, and the result, over the years, will be a wide-ranging encyclopedia of literary discussion, not simply an indexed list of articles and reviews.

The Review is a nonprofit, and it’s a beneficiary of a variety of supporters, including the University of California, Riverside’s College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. As you were building the site, what was your pitch to donors? What got them excited about supporting a literary review?

I think a number of things have gotten donors and supporters excited. 

  • The fact that we are Los Angeles-based, and thus we answer a call issued at least since Hamlin Garland in the 1890s for a literary world not entirely centered on New York. 
  • Some donors simply like the basic stuff of the site—the multiple reviews, the multimedia content, the architecture, the living encyclopedia, the quality of our contributors.
  • Some donors have been attracted by the idea that we are responding to the loss of the Sunday supplement, the explosion of new titles, and the rest of the rapid transformation of the publishing world, and doing so in a way that is not resistant, but instead focused on what readers need in this changing environment.
  • Donors have liked the idea that we will attract YA readers through the media where they most regularly seek information about their world—we are recording some video reviews from young readers, for instance, and hope to encourage others to participate by sending us their own.  We will choose the best of those and put them up on the site.  We thus will help spread advanced literacy and attract younger readers to the world of book talk.
  • Donors also respond positively to our mixed funding model, our movement toward greater and greater self-sustainable operation over the years, happy that we won’t return every year with our hands open as wide.
  • Some donors are particularly interested in the way we are consciously focused on providing a bridge between the academic world of scholarship and the general reader.
  • Some donors understand, as we do, the value of constantly encouraging and recreating a highly literate, well-informed, cosmopolitan citizenry, and are happy to help us do our part in that project.

The Review is online-only at the moment, but you’re planning a print edition as well. Is there a different philosophy about what works in reviews online versus in print? When the Review begins publishing in print, how do you imagine the website’s role will change?

We are convinced that the old saw that people do not want to read long-form essays on line is simply no longer true.  It is true for some people, but with the increased use of electronic readers, with new apps and long-form sites arriving regularly, it is true for fewer people every day.  We will have, on the site, a lot of material that is site-specific, and some that is necessarily ephemeral.  When we put together our print issues we will be looking at the pieces that deserve rereading, that we feel would be a happy find in grandma’s trunk 50 years from now, and which are congenial to the analog book experience; no matter how comfortable people get with electronic reading, there will always be times when we all want the physical object—and not just when reading in the tub.

Many of the contributors to the Review are well-known names. How did you get them interested in participating before the magazine was out in the world and proving itself? When it comes to outside freelancers, what kind of article ideas are you interested in hearing about?

Writers have been very happy with the ability to pursue their own book-related essayistic proclivities, to take an idea and run with it rather than work from a pre-assigned book to review.  As with most literary ventures, this started with a small circle of friends, and we slowly added friends of friends as people got excited about the prospects.  Eventually, of course, we will have Kevin Bacon.

Many of the categories of reviews on the site’s Table of Contents are common to other literary reviews---memoir, fiction, etc. But you’ve also established two categories that are closely associated with Los Angeles---noir and film. What other categories do you feel unite Los Angeles and literary culture, and are you actively looking for articles that fit those niches?

Yes, we are actively looking for work in those fields, but as I said earlier, we want a very big tent.  We are not interested in those areas simply because they are associated with LA, but because readers are interested. 

The site currently runs on Tumblr, which lets other users promote the site easily, but the site doesn’t accommodate commenting the way other platforms do. What was the thinking there, and what strategies do you feel have worked as far as getting people to talk about the articles in the Review (and the Review in general)?

The real impetus for the Tumblr site was the simple fact that our editorial process got way ahead of our web engineering.  We had pieces that were threatening to get stale, pieces that our authors wanted out in the world, and we didn’t want to wait any longer to share them with readers.  Tumblr seemed like a reasonable way to do that.  We do have a live link for people to send ‘letters to the editors’ and we are just posting a first selection from those, which will become a regular feature.  The full site is going to be thoroughly interactive, but in the meantime, the discussion is going on all over the web—on Twitter, of course, but also on personal blogs, other literary sites, on Facebook—and we are thrilled to see it.  When the full site is up we will have some completely open forums, but we will also cherry-pick the best comments, the most thoughtful, intellectually rigorous, and skillfully presented responses, and give them real visibility, thus, we hope, encouraging engagement rather than snark.




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