Growing Pains for the Litblog

As observed yesterday by Dan Green, the Litblog Co-Op is shutting down. This is a pity, because the LBC was a remarkable conduit for many overlooked authors to receive dutiful attention often denied them by more traditional outlets. (To get a sense of perspective on what this means, as observed last week by The Book Publicity Blog, collectively, all of the national NPR programs interview a mere 600 authors a year. Thus, there can never be enough conduits for long-form discussions and interviews with authors. The world needs more litblogs, more literary podcasts, and more literary teleprojects, however clumsily executed.)

Thankfully, none of this has stopped litbloggers from committing these energies on their own sites — see, for example, Colleen Mondor‘s invaluable roundtable discussions of YA and genre authors, aptly demonstrating that there remains plenty of room for community left in litblogs. But litblogging itself, as Dan quite rightly observes, has become more decentralized, with the litbloggers themselves becoming immersed in the great demands of their own projects. (Mark Sarvas has written a novel, Dan Wickett has formed a publishing company, many litbloggers have become regular print critics, while others have become dedicated bloggers for newspapers.) While I had a long run with the LBC, I was forced to back out for similar reasons. There were too many nights mastering podcasts until 3:30 AM when I had to wake up only a few hours later. I love literature as much as anybody. But it became necessary to step away, if only to ensure my own sanity. I didn’t want to become jaded or indolent about the authors I devoted time, thought, and attention to. (And, in fact, a number of forthcoming Segundo podcasts will feature return appearances by authors featured by the LBC.)

Stepping down from the LBC saw much of this approach shifted over to this site. While I have attempted to go out of my way to involve other voices in generating content and to include authors that Sam Tanenhaus would never devote even a column inch to, I nevertheless contemplate my own culpability in “doing my own thing.” If litblogging is galvanized by community, then does doing one’s own thing run counter to this medium’s strengths?

I find myself somewhat troubled by where litblogs are now heading. I certainly don’t exonerate myself from these developments. To use a pop cultural metaphor, it is as if the Beatles have broken up, with all of us pursuing our metaphorical solo albums. The early energy of individual projects is certainly there, but let’s not forget that John Lennon followed up his classic album, Plastic Ono Band, with the decidedly spotty Mind Games. But the communal DIY punk rock ethos that was once an inseparable component from what litblogging was about has been replaced by a competitive streak of who gets the story first. (Indeed, Galleycat’s tagline is “the first word on the book publishing industry,” when being “first” doesn’t always mean that you’re going to write something sufficiently purposeful.) Litblogs have been redesigned to accommodate advertising — in some cases, with intrusive graphics embedded within posts that detract from the thoughtful content. (What next? Newspaper-style pop ups and registration?) Some bloggers have even taken money from publishers and have flown, Harry Knowles-style, around the globe. Meanwhile, other voices are ignored because of personal differences, with variegated parties not understanding that this runs counter to the great neural network that litbloggers laid down. (And why can’t there be civil disagreement as well as lively fireworks?)

So what makes this fragmentation any less different from the tendentious gatekeeping one sometimes sees in newspapers? I think it’s safe to say that the print vs. online debate is more or less moot. Litblogging is here to stay. And while I certainly can’t speak for other bloggers, I believe the early passion that drove litbloggers to create a fantastic medium has been partially replaced by an obligation to put something up on a daily basis.

If bloggers are to hold themselves up to the same standards with which they frequently (and justifiably) savage newspaper critics, then the time has come to look inward and consider the things they may be doing wrong. The time has come to be humble and inclusive towards the community. Bud Parr had this idea very much in mind with Metaxucafe. Bud dutifully (and remarkably) tracked all the known litblogs and united them under one umbrella. But what was once a centralized site with considerable discussion has regrettably become less vociferous. This may be because the spirit of interconnectedness starts from individual litblogs, however “clubby” it may be (as once described by Jennifer Howard in November 2003; in a troubling indicator of online newspaper impermanence, her article has regrettably been removed from the Washington Post site).

The bloggers who best accomplish this interconnectedness are Maud Newton and Frank Wilson. Maud is perhaps the most concise of all litbloggers, and is very good about acknowledging where she has located her links (a basic courtesy that seems to be falling out of practice and that, oddly enough, was the subject of a controversy in the early days of litblogging.) Frank often links to litblogs that I haven’t heard of, and which I frequently add to my RSS feeds.

But I don’t know if these individual efforts really go far enough. If litblogging is becoming exclusively about promoting one’s own personal connection to books, at the expense of other personal connections, the litblog, as we once knew it, is dead. The Internet, lest we forget, has a very important prefix that caused this marvelous literary community to propagate. And when projects like the LBC die, I can’t help but wonder if we’re all just as incorrigible as the print critics we once railed against.

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8 Comments

  1. I’m glad to hear your candor Ed and thanks for mentioning MetaxuCafe. Admittedly I’ve let MetaxuCafe go asea over the last year, partly because of personal reasons (two new babies, paying for them) and partly because I haven’t known exactly what to do with the now 800 members it and was also disappointed with the lack of true involvement by the likes of the litbloggers I like the best.

    Some parts of it have been an experiment (the roundtables) that I still hold hope for (what better place to bring a bunch of bloggers than a neutral central place and one where the comments are on par with the posts) and others who knows – because it’s difficult to aggregate nearly 800 feeds, but MetaxuCafe is still alive and I’m even gearing up to do a redesign to make it better and hopefully breath new life into it – I hope to get this in place before our coverage of the Pen World Voices Festival.

    But it requires community involvement, and frustratingly, the community seems to like to keep everything on their own site, surely assuring that many readers will likely miss what’s happening. Don’t get me wrong – a big part of MetaxuCafe’s mission is to promote individual writers, but that purpose is not served if all it does is point to other Websites. It has long been my contention that for litblogs to succeed as a medium they need to be accessible to those who don’t have one, probably in once central location. I just realized I’m going way too much into this here, so I’ll close saying that despite the LBC’s closing, it was indeed a great thing but perhaps just something on the way to even greater ways for literature to live.

  2. I really think that as long as litbloggers continue to link to other litbloggers–either through shout-outs or through the kind of “roundup” you used to do or through links that are intended to spark or continue discussion about a particular subject–that something of the “communal” element we both rather miss from the early days will remain. It may be that the fragmentation you’ve noted is just an inevitable development as the literary blogosphere expands.

  3. I think community still exists, but it’s dispersed. In the early days, well before I started my own blog, you could almost say that all the litbloggers “knew” each other, and were thus “the” community of litbloggers. But there are so many of them now, that such a thing is impossible. However, mini-communities exist here and there (some even perhaps larger than the original total community). There are bloggers with whom I feel a certain affinity–with whom, I think, I help form a community of sorts. And then there are other blogs I check in on occasionally and I notice many comments there, consistently by the same people, with what I gather is a sense of camaraderie.

    The sense of ambition is different, but the communal element is still there.

  4. Indeed! Indeed, Ed! Indeed!

    Bloggers should continue to link to one another so we can have a sticky community; literary types have to stick together in this century. We only do ourselves in if we don’t.

    I am very upset that the LBC is dying. I had a lot of RSS feeds from there. But from where one organization dies; another one will spring up.

  5. The idea of a community of independents is exactly the reason I started Wordsy.com. I’d like to invite any and all to submit their work to our site.

    If it’s true though that, as you say, Lit Bloggers want to keep everything on their own site – well that doesn’t really do justice to the power of the web. Moverover, bloggers who feel like that are in the end doomed to obscurity. The community is the power!

  6. Interesting article – I’ve just launched an on-line literary magazine which works with a blog framework to try and get a community talking around the articles on the magazine.

    It seems I’m launching it into interesting waters. I hope we stay true to our vision and don’t end up selling up or being swallowed up. I want to maintain the indie but professional format.

    I’ve also been surprised by the amount of well known authors that have agreed to interviews for me – which seems to bear out the stats in your article. So plenty of space to carve out a space amongst the big players – more fool them for not doing more interviews!

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