The Future of Newspapers and Litblogs: A Thought Experiment

In yesterday’s Huffington Post, publicist Lissa Warren expressed her dismay in “the seemingly widely-held notion that these book sections are being adequately replaced by blogs.” She complained that blogs “don’t actually review books” (emphasis in original) and that bloggers are nothing more than helpful cherry pickers ferreting out the best content.

This, of course, is poppycock. Scott Esposito continues to turn out issues of The Quarterly Conversation and is now making efforts to pay his contributors. Aside from the almost two hundred hours of podcasts available at The Bat Segundo Show, this website has featured many lengthy roundtable discussions of books, running during the week of pub date, including T.C. Boyle’s Talk Talk, Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, and Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. (Powers and Baker both joined in during the final installments of their respective roundtables.) The Human Smoke discussion alone generated some 20,000 words of commentary among fifteen people, with asides on second generation Holocaust historians, World War I history, and sundry topics. This week, Talking Points Memo is featuring a lengthy discussion on Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Meanwhile, Mark Sarvas has been allowing his readers to see what goes into the writing of a review. This summer, Colleen Mondor helped to organize the Summer Blog Blast Tour (far from the first of this type), which featured a comprehensive series of helpful discussions about contemporary YA titles that even the purportedly best book review sections have not broached because of innate genre prejudices.

Do these efforts represent a replacement for book review sections? Well, if one hopes to find a facsimile of book review sections online, probably not. But it would take an exceptionally rigid and incurious mind to settle merely on a clone. If one wishes to discover forms of literary commentary that serve the same function as a book review section, it is extremely difficult not to find online exemplars in alternative forms.

Warren’s complaints about litblogs fall into the same tired explanations that have been bandied about by the likes of Sven Birkerts, Michael Dirda, and numerous other myopists who are incapable of accepting an alternative that has been carrying on for a good five years. The objections are less about function, or even the content (conveniently, examples of the litblogs’s inadequacies are never cited by the naysayers), and more about form and especially control. Impulsive thought cannot be accepted because it remains impulsive. Never mind that many newspaper book sections, because of the deadline-oriented nature of the business, remain somewhat impulsive and often fail to include numerous examples from the text when considering a book. (Consider, for example, Charles Taylor’s review of Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, which appeared in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. We are afforded a summary of Akpan’s offerings. But despite having 1,200 words of space, Taylor only cites a few sentences from the novella, “Luxurious Hearses.” Taylor prefers generalized speculation about the book, rather than the kind of rigorous dissections of text that one expects of a critic.)

The print boosters remain hostile to the idea that an online medium can not only modify the manner in which critics and readers approach a book, but generate innovative methods of expanding one’s relationship to a text. So litblogs are deemed inferior not necessarily because the content is inferior, but because there are doubts about the methods and manner in which litblogs transmit information.

I will agree that if one is looking for the online equivalent of the New York Times Book Review, it’s simply not going to be found on litblogs. And that is because most litblogs, on the whole, aren’t interested in perpetuating a form of literary journalism that, while often quite valuable, has grown tiresome and often predictable. And it is the unpredictablity and spontaneity of litblogs that offer both a literary renaissance and a threat to those who wish to uphold print’s humorless and oft passionless status quo.

On Monday, I posted a lengthy lexicon of very specific Yorkshire dialect terms used in Ross Raisin’s novel, God’s Own Country (known in the States as Out Backward). It was an effort not only to aid my own understanding of Raisin’s book, but also to assist other readers in negotiating the fascinating linguistic terrain of a novel that, according to a recent Google News search, has only been reviewed in one American news outlet: a 200 word “verdict” and “background” in the Library Journal. The book was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize. This failure on the part of American print outlets to include Raisin’s novel in a timely manner suggests considerable print deficiencies.

The Raisin example also suggests that litblogs are not only covering books that are ignored by the seemingly impeccable vanguard, but that litblogs are presenting new forms of coverage that are inconceivable to Sam Tanenhaus and, yes, even a dutiful reformer like David Ulin. Unprohibited by length and unhindered by house style or crazy billionaires who don’t know how to run a newspaper empire, litblogs are in a position to change the journalistic terrain, possibly usurping freelance reviewers if a comparable revenue model can be established.

While I disagree with Kassia Krozser’s assertions about gender imbalance at the Los Angeles Times Book Review for reasons similar to Carolyn Kellogg’s (disclosure: I am an occasional contributor to the Los Angeles Times), Ms. Krozser is correct to point out that the hand-wringing about book review cuts has indeed represented a sense of entitlement. Not a single books editor, litblogger, or freelance reviewer is entitled to the lives they lead. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of generating content that will ensure that the writer can carry on writing. But if one operates on a smaller scale, then the financial obligation is seriously reduced (assuming that one wishes to make this sort of life one’s center) and the writer’s freedom to write in any fashion is greatly augmented.

So perhaps what we’re really seeing here is a situation in which the leading online voices will carry on doing what they are doing, with the unusual and passionate voices prohibited by the constant scrutiny of newspaper executives, precisely because the financial demands of supporting one individual are lesser than the costs and overhead of running a large newspaper or magazine. As Howard Junker observed yesterday, ad sales for the Atlantic have declined 11% in the last month. For Vanity Fair, the sales were considerably more severe, dropping a whopping 49%. With print advertising starting to dip, the onus now falls upon newspapers and magazines to either (a) increase advertising to support current operating costs or (b) reduce operating costs to bring the outlet in line with the reduced advertising. But if newspapers and print boosters will remain obdurate about these apparent online yahoos, the onus also falls upon litbloggers to find sustainable revenue models that will permit them to operate independently.

I should observe that the cost of a full-page advertisement in People Magazine is $250,000. I cannot speak for other bloggers, but it is safe to say that I could live off of this sum for a good five years and be relatively happy. I think it’s also safe to say that the money could also be allocated to other writers to turn in high quality freelance reviews for this site. Now imagine if a People advertiser wised up to this idea and decided to sponsor me (or another blogger) for five years. The People full-page advertisement fades away from public consciousness in a week, but the advertisement would run here for five years to a more limited, but very specific niche audience. Because there is only one sponsor, my editorial integrity would be fairly well preserved and I wouldn’t have to fear upsetting many sponsors who keep a big newspaper operation afloat. I would not need to always pander to a mass audience by reviewing the latest by a big name author. Small press and genre authors tossed out with the galleys deemed extraneous could be included with the same rigor that a newspaper grants the celebrated big names. Gender imbalances, whether genuine or perceived, could be greatly remedied.

If enough bloggers were to initiate an advertising scenario along these lines, it is safe to say that blogs could adequately replace newspaper book review sections, adopting both the form of the well-considered essay featured in book review sections as well as many alternative forms now practiced and conjured up by current litbloggers. I don’t know if the newspapers have discussed this possibility, and I don’t know how many litbloggers have truly considered this ambition. But the time has come to set a precedent. If this does occur — and it just might — then it may very well be the print contributors who begin coming around to the online venues. Let us not respond with the same snobbery and entitlement.

Why I’ll Never Read Litblogs Again

I first heard about blogs last summer, after the word “Bookslut” caused me to break out in a foul rash. I have sensitive skin. I have sensitive ears. The doctors prescribed the toughest emollient, but it wasn’t enough. So I was forced to start stabbing myself with a plastic fork. It was a surprise to me when I couldn’t draw blood. After all, the words had hurt me. Why couldn’t the disposable cutlery?

“Bookslut,” however, was only the tip of the iceberg. Some man, fancying himself a humorist, ran a site called Black Garterbelt, daring to impugn the moral fabric of books with an unspeakable reference to lingerie. I did not laugh. Instead, I took to wearing a burqa and urging the children in my community to do the same. There was Critical Mass, the blog run by the seemingly respectable National Book Critics Circle, but the name suggesting a mass of something else you might find on the sidewalk. I hesitate to use the four letter words that these literary harlots bandy about with such frequency, but it was a filthy notion. It was as if these book critics, who I thought were made of moral character, had decided to not clean up after their dogs during a walk, if you catch my drift.

Bookshelves of Doom appeared to pilfer its name from the Holy Book of Revelations. It was bad enough that Marvel Comics had named one of their supervillains “Dr. Doom,” thus popularizing a noun of great import. A word not to be used lightly. But now these morally reprehensible blogs were encoding secret messages about the second coming in their titles. But of course, I knew that Christ would strike them down if they could not be saved! As far as I know, Anton Chekhov was a moral man. But, lo and behold, some sinner had conjured up Chekhov’s Mistress! I also understand from a friend that The Elegant Variation refers to the unholy act of premarital sex, and that Mark Sarvas’s blog is a place for unmarried pagans to hook up and commit foul and carnal acts. Enter the Octopus? Dear Lord, this is disgusting. I must also conclude that the writer Ed Park, in naming his blog The Dizzies, is addicted to the evils of alcohol. I do not know what Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks are, but I do not care to find out. And if The Publishing Spot is a coy reference to a woman’s nether regions, well then, Jason Boog is due for a public stoning. Assuming that this is his real name.

But I must stop. These words have been difficult to write. And I have my private doctor taking my blood pressure as I type these words. It had not occurred to me that those who champion literature in these online venues could be possessed of such perfidy and callous disregard for moral purity. The doctor now tells me I must confine myself to bed. Unlike the litbloggers, he chooses his words carefully.

[UPDATE: Apparently, Jessa doesn’t get satire, which includes material that, in fact, champions her site. Incidentally, Eric Rosenfield and I are pals, but we do indeed have independent minds and frequently disagree. It remains a mystery to me why the two of us having penises might lead any reasonable person to think that we were connected to some Y-chromosome hive mind. No different really from some ridiculous gender-based generalization about women that one would expect from a bigot. But there you go.]

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.