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Arts and Entertainment

Is L.A. The World's Next Great Literary City? The Los Angeles Review of Books Says Yes

Photo courtesy of Lisa Jane Persky
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That's right: the days of dogging LA book culture might soon (finally!) be behind us thanks to The Los Angeles Review of Books, an ambitious new LA-based literature review journal that’s re-imagining the art of literary critique and propelling it into the 21st century. Digital, sprawling, and fearless, the LARB aims to reinvigorate book discourse by widening the margins of literary coverage and overthrowing the traditional book review format.

Firmly rooted in a city that shares the same decentralized qualities of the Internet, the LARB poses a pretty solid argument on why the world’s next major literary hub ought to be LA. And with national attention from The New Yorkerand The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Los Angeles Review of Books might just be right.

Via e-mail interview, editor-in-chief Tom Lutz shed light onto LARB, the future of publishing, and why literature's new 'it' city is likely our own.

LAist: What inspired you to develop the Los Angeles Review of Books?

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Tom Lutz: The New York Times Book Review was my introduction to literary culture when I was a kid, and as I watched the Sunday supplement book review dying off in city after city, I decided I had to do something. We have twenty times as many titles published each year than when I was a teenager, and one-twentieth of the book reviews, at least in print. And I noticed that nobody was complaining that people read too much.

The LARB attests it "looks out at the world of books from its perch on the Pacific Rim." How does that view differ than, say, one found from a New York City skyscraper?

For one thing everyone in the New York book world is depressed. We’re excited. For another, we are looking at the world of books as something directed by readers, while New York tends to think of the world of books as directed by the publishing industry. I've written about literary regionalism, and so I'm very used to thinking about 'the center' and 'the periphery', about cosmopolitanism and provincialism. I think Angelenos are used to thinking of being a center and not a center, of living in a decentered place that is nonetheless the center of many industries and movements. I once pitched a book about the 1920s, and my editor asked me what competing books were out there, and I said just the one about the 1920s in Manhattan, and he literally sniffed, and said, "Oh, is that all?"-- that doesn't happen here. If someone said, I want to do a book about the film industry, but the film industry outside of Hollywood, nobody here would sniff.

I should add, too, that we knew we were using a kind of steampunk name and concept — a name that hearkens back to the tradition as we look forward, a geographically-based name for a digital cloud. We're a web publication — we are here in LA, we are nowhere, we are everywhere. We bounce through servers in Sri Lanka and Guam.

In the publishing industry, ‘dead’ is the well-worn buzz-word. The printed word, bookstores, publishing houses, ‘The Novel.’ In an article you wrote for LARB entitled “Odious and Unpleasant,” you responded to an n+1 article, "Against Reviews," which argued the book review is (also) ‘dead.’ In defense, you wrote, “I need help to know what virus protection program to use, whether or not I have cancer, when my timing belt needs changing; I need the advice of people who pay attention to such things. People should be able to count on us, professional readers and writers, to let them know what’s up, to give them, as best we can, a review of books.” In addition to serving as a knowledgeable literary ‘guide,’ why is the comprehensive book review—many of which have gone missing from newspapers across the country—still a relevant publication?

Yes, pronouncements of death abound. Our first piece, by Ben Ehrenreich, was “The Death of the Book,” addressing these very claims. Book publishing is in the midst of a radical transformation, but people are reading more than ever. A year ago on the NYC subways, I noticed that 9 out of 10 readers, at least, were reading print; last month it seemed half were reading electronically. And although some surveys suggest a drop-off in reading, tell it to J.K. Rowling. The latest major California survey claimed 80% of Californians had read a book in the last month. Reading is alive and well, and all the research shows that people with eReaders read more than they did before getting the reader. Nothing’s dying, everything is changing. One example is the recent move of former LA Times book columnists Richard Rayner and Susan Salter Reynolds to the Los Angeles Review of Books. Their columns did not die, they just moved.

The LARB underwent a 'soft-launch' in April, and a 'full-launch' is scheduled for late 2011. What will the LARB look like post-launch this fall?

Stay tuned! Bells and whistles! Right now we’re a simple Tumblr site, still in our preview phase, but the very talented designer and art director Margot Frankel put together our prototype site, and we have an extremely interesting and innovative web company, working for us pro bono, for which we are eternally grateful. Taj Tedrow, who runs the company, is a big reader, and he saw immediately what Margot and I were after. He is designing a complex, yet friendly, engaging interface for us—it’s quite beautiful—and a complete Content Management System for our side.

How will the Internet enhance the experience of reading LARB?

When the main site launches at the end of the year, we will have video interviews with authors, we will have audio, podcast downloads, interactive forums of various kinds, and we will be an intricately relational site: we want to give readers not just the word-search, Google-directed experience of finding what they are looking for, but the serendipitous experience of browsing in a book store, or in library stacks, the experience of bumping into interesting things they had no idea existed, that they wouldn’t have thought to search for. Curating the internal links will be the most interesting, and fun, part of continually building the site.

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What will the LARB provide that online customer reviews and book blogs don’t?

At LARB, we feel we’re adding to the mix online - there are some excellent blogs out there, but one person, or even a small group of friends, can only read so much. And more importantly, to our way of thinking, we put pieces through a serious editing process, several editors working with each author, fact-checking, expanding some pieces and trimming others - this is the opposite of the quick-take blog, the diary-style dispatch. We aim for highly curated, rigorously edited, lasting pieces of literary prose.

I remember checking customer reviews on Amazon, when Amazon was still new, and finding them oddly interesting. Crowd-sourced information has a lot going for it: many heads are better than one. But many very smart heads working together towards a clear objective are better than many heads collected at random, each of which works alone in its own vacuum; the result of crowd sourcing, as in the case of amazon reviews, resembles the "one" more than it does the "many," accruing none of the benefits of combining the best efforts of many minds.

Our writers have been very happy with the editing process, and we feel that all the work we do, the thousands of hours of back and forth, add considerable value. If we didn't think so, of course, we'd be pretty loony to be doing it.

How often does new content appear on the site?

On the Preview site, we put something up once a day, very occasionally twice. On the full site I hope we can be updating with five or six times a day, three reviews and a couple or few other features each day.

Kathryn Schulz wrote an article for LARB entitled, “Life of the Party," which ruminates on the contradictory nature of essayist Montaigne, who favored a combination of both "erudition and vulgarity" within his work. Can one expect to find a similar mix of curated material in LARB—content belletristic enough for The New Yorker, and edgy enough for lo-fi 'zines and underground blogs?

“Bringing You Erudition and Vulgarity Since 2010.” I believe I’ll add that to the masthead.

I think readers can find, already, a dozen pieces that couldn’t get past the censors, either linguistically or topically, of the high-brow outlets. We are West Coast in that way - we don’t mind wearing sneakers to a dinner party. We don't always take our hats off indoors.

Because the LARB aims to publish reviews on a diverse range of literary genres including horror, noir, young adult fiction, philosophy, university press titles, poetry, and sci-fi, are there limits to the titles that are covered? Might we ever find reviews of, say, Tucker Max or Snooki’s book on the site—or is the line drawn somewhere?

Of course there’s a line, but it is drawn by our finite resources rather than a cultural demarcation of any kind. We’ve already reviewed books by Glenn Beck - and so how low can we go? I couldn’t remember whether Tucker Max was the guy on FoxNews with the bow-tie or the other professional asshole - I see he’s the latter. In both of the cases you mention, I think we’d be interested in essays that take account of those two as phenoms, rather than as writers. I find it difficult to imagine readers would come to us trying to decide whether to buy Snooki’s book or Jwoww’s or Kardashian Konfidential. But now that you’ve made me think about it, I think I’ll assign a batch of them to a really interesting critic ….

The LARB is a rare digital nonprofit organization, in that it is committed to paying its contributors. How do you stay afloat and will LARB ever offer subscriptions to support the publication financially?

Newspapers are not closing down their book review sections because they are too profitable. We are a nonprofit public service, and like the library, the university, or the scholarly journal, we will always operate at a loss for the public good. But there is some money to be made in click-through sales, some to be made in syndication, some in producing sellable merchandise from books to t-shirts to apps dedicated to genres - poetry, sports, science fiction. We think the mixed model will be heavily skewed toward grants and gifts (including voluntary subscriptions) as we get off the ground, and we hope that the economics of web content, however it shakes out, will allow us, over the years, to get closer and closer to supporting our efforts without constant fundraising. Since we want to produce not just reviews and essays, but film and audio, since we need a fairly significant staff to do all this well, and they need to eat, and because we are dedicated to paying our contributors for their efforts, it will take a big wad of dough.
Of course a couple of angels would really help: Steve Martin? Hugh Hefner? David Geffen? Call us!

Does the LARB favor LA-based and West Coast writing? How much national and international coverage can one expect to find on the site?

Roughly a fifth of our readers are from Southern California, roughly a fifth from the NY-New England area, and a quarter from overseas. The majority of our editorial staff and contributors are from the LA area, but we have had dispatches from London, Mexico, and Trinidad, and expect some from Russia, France, China, South Africa, and elsewhere. Literature is a global, cosmopolitan affair, and we have readers in over 100 countries. The world is our oyster.

LA is often unfairly reputed as a less-than-literary city. Do you think people will be resistant to the idea of a literary review based out of Los Angeles?

Of course I knew when I started that the resistance would be there, and for me, that was going to be part of the fun. So far, though, we’re finding the opposite. Los Angeles is the biggest book market in the country - yes, bigger than New York, despite the fact that we buy fewer Jersey Shore authors—and has been for some time now. Writing talent has always gravitated here. Decentralization is the future of publishing, just as it was for music, and there has been a dream in literary circles since the late 19th century of wrestling control of publishing from New York. It’s happening. Some of the most exciting publishers in the country—McSweeney’s, Greywolf, City Lights—are West coast born and bred. The New York literary world has welcomed us, the publishers are thrilled to have another outlet for book talk, writers from New York — and Illinois and Nebraska and Texas -- are doing things for us. I'm frankly a little disappointed about the lack of LaLaLand yogurt jokes.

So then is it true--will Los Angeles likely bear the next literary revolution?

Yes, and if you read the Los Angeles Review of Books, you won’t miss a beat of it.

For more information, visit the Los Angeles Review of Books website.