Conversations With Literary Websites: The Quarterly Conversation

by Mark Athitakis (membership) | Jun-07-2010

This post continues a series on Critical Mass featuring websites dedicated to book reviewing online. Read the previous Q&As with The Rumpus and The Millions.

Launched in 2005, the Quarterly Conversation is an online journal featuring long-form interviews, reviews, and essays related to a variety of books---"so long as the books are of literary and/or cultural value," as the site puts it, but with a special interest in works in translation. Editor Scott Esposito answered questions about the Quarterly Conversation---and its related blogs, Conversational Reading and the Constant Conversation---from NBCC board member Mark Athitakis via email.

You launched your personal blog, Conversational Reading, in August 2004; the Quarterly Conversation debuted the following year. At the time, what role did you feel an online literary journal could play that a blog couldn’t? Have the distinctions between what your blog does and what TQC does changed five years later?

Given all the changes of heart I've had about the form and function of blogs and online magazines during the years, I'm a little surprised that my original distinction between CR and TQC has remained consistent: essentially, my blog is the testing and sharing ground for all the books, chunks of information, and half-formed thoughts I figure are interesting enough to put out there to whoever wants to read them. The best description for it is simply "Scott's reading journal," and I'm gratified that people seem to find it interesting.

By contrast, The Quarterly Conversation is a place where I hope to present writing about literature that is considerably more developed and worked over, basically writing that aspires to more permanence than what I would put in a blog. It's a place where we add our contribution to the chorus of book reviews out there, where we interview authors doing interesting work, and where we provide in-depth, 4,000-word essays that attempt to explain why certain writers working today are important and even unique.

Needless to say, the other main difference is that CR is just me--it's just my thoughts, more or less unmediated and probably a little rough--whereas TQC would not exist without the hard work of many amazing writers and editors, whom it has been my good fortune to know and work with.

How has the Quarterly Conversation’s commitment to covering international literature and works in translation evolved since its launch? Has the literary world, in print or online, generally gotten better or worse at covering these books?
 
It's funny, but I've gotten so used to having TQC identified with world literature that I've developed a pretty boilerplate response to this sort of question. When I started the publication I certainly didn't have any agenda, like "let's push foreign literature." I didn't even read that much myself. But over the years I've found that more and more often the fiction I was finding the most interesting was fiction being written in countries other than the U.S., so I naturally started reading those books--and writing about them--more and more, and so obviously TQC started to lean in that direction as well. I'd say the evolution is branching out from Latin American authors--which we've always reviewed quite a lot of--and breaking into other regions and languages. Although, I must say that we certainly do cover a lot of domestic literature, and I don't want people to think we're a "translation-only" publication: we just published our 20th issue, which includes works by Shane Jones, Anne Carson, Ron Slate, etc. We've recently interviewed Sam Lipsyte, Ander Monson, Lance Olsen . . . We just like to cover the most interesting, important books we can, wherever they're coming from.

As to translation's cultural presence: as good as literary translation has gotten at bemoaning its marginalized status, I do think many people in the field have noticed a change in past years. When Edith Grossman's book (Why Translation Matters) was published earlier this year, you had places like the New York Times and the Boston Globe giving it fairly significant and fairly positive coverage. Or look at Dalkey Archive's Best European Fiction--for a couple months you couldn't wave your dead cat around without slamming up against a new review of that book. I mean, it was praised to the heavens in Time magazine. And of course there have been events like Roberto Bolano, Jonathan Littell, even Stieg Larsson. My main gripe with this coverage would be that most of it still takes a very cliched approach, more or less bemoaning America's insularity and then promoting translation as a high-fiber, occasionally not-too-disagreeable way to meet your daily quota of foreign culture. Much as I complain, though, I think even this is changing, where a lot of reviewers now simply want to treat books as books, regardless of what language they were originally written in.

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?
 
I think Wallace Stegner put it well in one of the essays collected in On Teaching and Writing Fiction. He talks about reviewing being a good way for upcoming writers to both break into the community and interact seriously with the books of the time. For instance, reviewing was how Ralph Ellison got his start. A sizable fraction of our reviewers are people like this, people in or recently graduated from writing programs who are looking for ways to be a part of the community. These people mostly aspire more to write fiction than be critics, but they can be very able critics since they understand the workings of fiction very well.

Then you have a lot of what I guess you could call industry professionals--professors, authors, people who work at presses, translators, people who run other journals and magazines.

And lastly--and I think this is a category that is far too often overlooked or simply ignored--you have what you might call amateur enthusiasts. These are people who just love the culture but who don't really have aspirations to professionally write. Many of these people write incredible stuff and are amazingly knowledgeable about literary subjects, but they're people who treat it more as a hobby than as a calling or a profession. I think they're one of the greatest untapped resources available to reviews of books, and I sincerely feel that book culture would be healthier if more venues were willing to look beyond the credentials and take people like this on.

As to where I find these people--pretty much everywhere. Some of them solicit me, some of them I solicit after I've read their work elsewhere. I meet them at conferences, literary events. Some of them are friends of writers I've worked with for some time. I guess you could say that I feel one of my jobs as an editor is to always be on the lookout for fresh blood.

Stylistically, what do you look for in reviews? Is there a particular type of book review that you feel works better for the Web than for a print publication?
 
I think the lede is hugely important online in a way that's not all that different from newspaper writing. I mean, if you look at a newspaper, it's very similar to a static, printed version of the Internet: it's all these stories that have almost nothing to do with each other jammed together, and if you're not hooked by the time you get to "CONTINUED ON A5" you're going to jump ship (because who wants to bother folding around that ungainly collection of paper for the sake of a story they're not that interested in?). The Internet is similar, but with about a million more options. So I think the lede is crucial, especially to something like a 1,500-word book review, where there's less incentive to be patient and invest yourself in it.

That said, our foremost aim with The Quarterly Conversation is always to treat the book seriously and give a deep, intelligent assessment of it. So if someone's just written a penetrating review of a great novel and the lede is a little weak, I'm going to publish the review and hope that the audience we've cultivated will have enough patience to stick with it.

What I most look for in a review is something Leo Robson summed up in a review he wrote in the New Statesman. Talking about Tristram Shandy, he wrote "Erudition is inimical to narrative flow, unless--as with Tristram and Maf--it provides the narrative flow." And that's what I want--erudition that provides the narrative flow (although I've read far to many reviews where the erudition was inimical, and that's absolutely not what I want). Essentially, a review where I'm so caught up in a reviewer's reading and critique of a book that I slide right on through. The review should create its own logic, a logic that's particular to the review as a genre, and maybe even unique to the particular book under review. Literary culture's most astute and enduring critics have always had a natural knack for intuiting this logic and embodying it in their reviews.

In addition to your own blog, the Quarterly Conversation now also hosts a group blog, the Constant Conversation, and you’ve published essays between the publication of formal issues of TQC. What prompted the launch of the Constant Conversation, and what value does the literary-journal model have now that you’re pushing out essays and blog posts outside of the quarterly cycle?
 

I started The Constant Conversation because I like the kind of free-form, immediate engagement blogs can offer, and I wanted to have that as part of The Quarterly Conversation. Everything we publish in the magazine portion of TQC is closely edited and worked over--which I think is important--but I also see a lot of validity in those first few fresh-from-the-fire thoughts. I mean, Matt Jakubowski just wrote a post for CC calling Justin Cronin a sellout for writing a vampire book, and that led to a great debate in the comments field, with a lot of people running to Cronin's defense. You tend not to get that rawness and pointedness in something that a writer has labored over for a few weeks and then that has been edited and revised numerous times.

Or to take another example, Scott Bryan Wilson did a series of semi-inchoate posts on mass market paperback books he's collected. It was just some cool stuff he wanted to share, and it turned out that people loved it. And now as a direct result of that we've arranged for him to write an essay on these themes. So it's good for numerous reasons to have a forum to air these discussions, and I've long wanted TQC to be one of those nodes where such a forum existed.

As to the relevance of quarterly publication in an online world: I still like the quarterly mode because it gives us all a little reason to celebrate every three months. Publishing an issue feels like an accomplishment in a way that pushing out 20 or so articles over the course of a few months doesn't. For whatever reason, this is how people think. Plus, whenever we do a new issue all these sites say "new issue of The Quarterly Conversation," and push people over to the site, and that just doesn't happen with an article here, an article there.

But in a larger sense, I still like the idea of having a lengthy collection of writing where someone has said, "this is all a unit," and I think it has a lot of relevance to written culture. And that makes a lot of sense, since I'm a reader, and I love losing myself in a novel. Right now our culture is very much in a place where we're all about discreet little pieces that you get to plug together however you feel is best. Sure, I like that in a lot of ways, but I think literary culture needs people who see the value in encountering an object that someone else has put together and having the patience to take it all in.

For a period of time---correct me if I’m wrong---the Quarterly Conversation was paying writers but, as the site explains, “With the prolonged economic downturn, advertising revenue has fallen off sharply. We hope to offer payment again when that changes.” Can you talk a little bit about the decision to pay writers, what difference (if any) paying writers made for the site, and how the advertising landscape for literary sites looks today?
 
This is a question that seems to get a lot of attention, and while I don't doubt that is has some relevance, I do think it gets much more attention than it should. But anyway, it's something there should be a conversation about and I'm glad you asked.

The decision to pay was part idealistic goodwill on my part and part wanting to not have the site feel like a content factory. There are sites out there whose modus operandi seems to be "get as many people as possible to write free content for us, and with enough webpages we'll do massive traffic and get decent advertising revenue for the two or three of us at the top." So when I first made the decision to pay, I mostly wanted this small token payment to act as a demonstration that this wasn't our purpose as a publication, as well as to offer a small thank you.

The fact was that paying writers made--at most--a tiny difference. Most people (perhaps realizing I was paying this out of pocket) declined payment, and those that got paid didn't seem to really to give it much regard one way or the other. And anyway, I doubt many people look at TQC as a content factory.

My thinking on payment has changed a lot. I recently read a book called Drive by Daniel H. Pink that offered a lot of evidence that in many situations people perform worse when they get paid for something (particularly creative work), and that small, token payments like the one I was making do the most harm. He makes a pretty good argument that people enjoy doing this kind of work for reasons other than money, and that if you can't pay serious bucks it's just not worth it. That's not to say all venues should stop paying immediately--obviously the places that can afford to pay serious rates make it feasible for critics who take their work seriously to devote significant amounts of their time to acting as public intellectuals, and this is hugely important. I do wish there were more places that could pay these sorts of rates so that "freelance critic" was more of a viable option, but the fact is that the Internet just isn't at a place right now where Web-only venues can generate revenue to pay those sorts of rates. Ads just don't pay that much money, even if you do mega traffic. To offer serious payment to contributors we'd have to charge entry to the site, and that's not a direction I want to take TQC in. 

What obligations do you and your contributors feel you have to participate in comment threads and keep the conversation going? When it comes to building a community on the site, what works and what doesn’t?
 
I don't have a great sense of this, but I think that other than the contributors who have taken on the responsibility of blogging at The Constant Conversation, most probably don't feel a great obligation to participate in keeping the conversation going. This seems to be typical of the Web at large, where virtually all of the print publications have put their material online, but only a tiny fraction of the articles gets a serious response or generates an ongoing conversation. I think people just take literary criticism differently than other forms of discourse--I mean, the way people on political blogs dissect every tiny twist and turn and nuance of public policy! You'd never get that kind of minute discussion of a book review, and maybe that's for the best.

As to building a community, we do contests, I try to be in touch with our readers wherever possible, I keep good relations with writers, publishers, etc . . . all that helps. But in the long run, I think the best thing you can do is be consistent. To the extent that we've built a devoted following, its people who find someone valuable in TQC that doesn't exist elsewhere. The best way I can make these people devoted to reading the publication is to honor their commitment by maintaining a high standard and continuing to give them what they want. That's something that takes a long time, but I think after nearly five years we've built a pretty good brand and have strong good word of mouth and respect from a lot of people I'm proud to call readers of TQC.

Speaking of community, you’ve been spending the spring hosting a group reading of Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy. How do you build up a group enthusiasm for participating in such a large project? Has it picked up its own head of steam, or does it demand regular effort to keep people coming back and engaged?
 
Well, first of all, I'd like to announce a new group read--The Summer of Genji--and I'll come back to this in a second.
 
I think the best way to build and sustain enthusiasm for a venture like this is to pick a good book. These things seem to work best with long books--and even better if they're infamous for their difficulty--probably because you can build a group identity and some solidarity around what's seen as an imposing task. Plus, I think people really want to talk about what they've read, and those long, dense novels always provide a lot to talk about.

In the case of Your Face Tomorrow, somehow I got the feeling that there were a lot of people out there intrigued by this book and its author, and it turned out that there were. The group has been a success largely because YFT is such a great read--it's so compelling a novel that people have actually been reading ahead of the schedule, and I've had no difficulties at all keeping people interested in the book.

As to generating its own steam, that's a little harder since I'm pretty much the only person blogging this read, so there's no real steam to be had (although we've had lively discussions in the comments to my posts for a good 2 months now). However, to return to The Summer of Genji: this is a group read that I'll be blogging with around 10 other people, and I think here there might be some potential for the thing to run away with itself. It all really depends; Infinite Summer clearly struck a chord with the culture at large and that thing took off, but I get the feeling that often these things are just the work of a group of devoted people determined to blog a long book through till the bitter end.




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