Online Edition: Summer 2005

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Litblogs Provide a New Alternative for Readers

by Scott Esposito

In an age where more poetry, novels, and short stories are being published than at any time in history, it is a bitter irony that a good bookish conversation can be hard to come by. “Reading at Risk,” a study performed by The National Endowment for the Arts, reported that the overall number of readers in America is in decline, and those that do read seem to only be interested in the latest Oprah pick or the new work by Stephen King. Many periodicals still provide strong literary coverage, but waiting month after month for the drip drip drip of substantial articles and news is both frustrating and unsatisfying. It is no wonder that in a 1990s lecture on the decline of literature (republished in The Gutenberg Elegies), Sven Birkerts said that reading had become a “dead-end proposition.”

The internet appears to be changing that. It has proven to be an extremely versatile tool for linking people in need with others who can fulfill that need. For instance, sites like eBay offer venues for anyone to sell their junk, and more often than not buyers from around the world snap it right up. Air travelers can now easily compare numerous fares to find the one that best serves their needs. Political campaigns have discovered unprecedented internet tools to recruit volunteers and accumulate donations. And, of course, it is well-known how many lovelorn singles visit match-making websites to discover potential mates.

If the internet is so useful for connecting people with junk, air fares, politicians, and dating partners, then why should it not be able to link literary enthusiasts with each other? If people can discuss politics on the internet, why should it not provide a stimulating forum for discussing literature? In fact it can, and it has been doing so for at least a year now.

Consider literary weblogs, or litblogs for short, the match.com for the lover of literature. They are for those bewildered by the tens of thousands of novels published each year. They are for those who think the quality of book coverage in the mainstream media could be much better, could offer insightful reviews instead of mere plot summary. For those who are interested in lively discussions debating the definition of poetry's avant-garde versus its post avant-garde. For the person who wants equal space given to Steven Dixon and David Foster Wallace. For someone who wants angles on the graphic novel fresher than “comic books aren't just for kids anymore!” The litblogosphere has all of these things and more.

Of course, all of these strengths were already present in the alternative literary media that has thrived both in print and in cyberspace. Litblogs owe much to carefully edited publications ranging from Poets & Writers to Jacket to, well, Rain Taxi, not to mention the thousands of literary journals and small presses, as well as distributors like Small Press Distribution and Consortium. For decades, these entities have fostered a legitimate alternative space in publishing, and they continue to provide excellent, regular writing about literature. By comparison, blogs are a teeming upstart, with daily postings that are more plentiful and generally more personal than those in magazines, but also less edited and fact-checked.

What litblogs arguably add to the scene is the chance for readers to enter into the discussion and talk books with other intelligent readers; it is by posting daily and by opening interactivity to not just bloggers, but also their readers, that litblogs have taken the tradition of an alternative literary community in a new direction. With so many bloggers posting every day and so many readers leaving comments, chances are if something important is happening in the world of literature, litblogs are both covering it and critiquing it. A great example of this was when a couple of Iowa Writers Workshop graduates reported via blogs on the search for a new program head, posting commentary and accounts of each applicant's public audition and lecture. The reportage of that event (an event which was barely covered at all in the mainstream media), snaked its way from blog to blog until it had become well-diffused and each applicant’s credentials had been parsed.

More recently, several poetry litblogs have taken up a series of fundamental questions about poetry, including “Does the fundamental nature of poetry change over time?” And “What is the most important poetry?” Several poetry litblogs parsed these questions, and readers commented, making for a strong discussion. This potential for almost immediate reportage, quick viral movement of a story, and conversation on demand adds a dimension that is not found in magazines, or even newspapers.

The majority of the most popular litblogs were started only 12-18 months ago. Some of the oldest litblogs out there—Beatrice and Maud Newton among them—started considerably earlier, but others like Return of the Reluctant and Bookdwarf have celebrated their one year anniversary in the past six months. Over the past year, a sort of community has sprung up among litblogs, with bloggers responding to each other's remarks, notifying readers to particularly good posts, and occasionally collaborating to promote literature and litblogs.

Since I started my own litblog, Conversational Reading, in August of 2004, I've discovered roughly 50 litblogs that I visit regularly. On any weekday (generally, bloggers don't post on weekends), I can count on most of these blogs to have fresh material up. In fact, there is so much material posted every day that it is impossible to read it all. Sometimes postings are as simple as a heads-up to a good article that I should read (quite useful since there are hundreds of periodicals that publish regularly on the web). Other times, a recent article will be excerpted and the blogger will include some commentary. A post may discuss a novel that the blogger is currently reading, or it may be a book review of a recently read book. There are also often write-ups of author events such as lectures or in-store appearances, interviews with novelists, book agents, publishers and others, and even long-form essays.

One trait shared by virtually all litbloggers is their enthusiasm for defying mainstream opinion, and because of this willingness to offer a countervailing point of view the litblogging community has managed to attract a substantial audience in a relatively short period of time. The highest-trafficked blogs get thousands of hits per day (sometimes tens of thousands if they’re in the news), and the publishing industry has taken note. Many litbloggers regularly get galleys from publishers ranging from Random House to Copper Canyon Press to the Dalkey Archive, and anecdotal evidence indicates that their coverage has helped sell books and prop up emerging authors such as Sam Lipsyte and Elizabeth McKenzie. Several well-regarded midlist authors—Cynthia Ozick, David Mitchell, and Lydia Miller among them—have done interviews with litbloggers, and some publicists are beginning to develop lasting relationships with favored litbloggers.

This alternative aspect of litblogs is good in that it creates the feel of a cohesive network open for discussion, but it also presents the threat of insularity. An alternative opinion is not necessarily a correct one and litbloggers' attempts to police themselves have often yielded mixed results. Just recently, the Lit Blog Co-Op, a collaborative venture of 21 litbloggers (Full Disclosure: I am a member of the LBC) to promote a book struggling to get noticed, picked Kate Atkinson's Case Histories as its first title. Controversy ensued over whether the title was too mainstream, with some savage remarks coming from both sides. As of this writing, it remains to be seen how or whether the LBC will respond to this charge. It also remains to be seen whether future skirmishes within the litblogosphere—over being “too mainstream” and otherwise—will be to bloggers' betterment or detriment.

These disagreements over the mainstream are especially consequential, because most bloggers are delighted with mainstream approval, be it from Simon and Schuster or The New York Times. Put another way, litblogs are still new enough that they feel like upstarts, and recognition from the mainstream offers validation, putting litbloggers in the strange position of receiving validation from those they critique.

Lately the mainstream media seems to be treating litblogs less like a fad and more like a permanent counterpart, but it is clear that the mainstream is far from willing to extend complete respect to litblogs, or even blogs in general, quite yet. (Still, some newspapers have given their reporters and columnists blogs of their own.) Several pieces, in fact, have issued stinging rebukes to litbloggers. Writing in The New York Times about litbloggers’ tendency to discuss Sunday book reviews, Sarah Boxer opined “Most book-review reviews are summary, to say the least. Their main purpose, it seems is to get noticed and linked to by more popular blogs.” Charlotte News and Observer book critic J. Peder Zane has said “Some of the best blogs exhibit flashes of brilliance, but none can match the best print publications in the breadth and depth of their writing.” And in a piece on litblogs, the Village Voice compared them to “parasites” feeding off the mainstream media.

While harsh, this criticism is not wholly unjustified. Many posts are unedited or dashed off at a moment’s notice, and it can show. Even the best litblogs sometimes feature typos or half-formed thoughts. Also, although litblogs do come up with a significant amount of original content, it would be difficult to imagine the litblogosphere as it exists currently without the mainstream media both as a generator of news and as the gatekeeper for the work of the most prestigious writers and critics. Lastly, as long as litblogs retain low expectation of journalistic ethics, questions as to their legitimacy will be difficult to dismiss.

Despite these criticisms, it remains true that litblogs are carrying on in the footsteps of alternative presses and magazines and are taking notions of “alternative” in exciting new directions. At their best, litbloggers' daily chatter enlivens and animates books, changing them from Sven Birkerts' “dead-end proposition” to a portal into an online discussion. Blogs have already inspired many, many trips to the bookstore on my part, and readers of other blogs have echoed these sentiments. Hopefully litblogs will find a way to coexist with the mainstream and continue to improve while staying true to their alternative roots and receptive to criticism. If so, literature will be better off for their presence.

A Few Good Litblogs

These are a few of the many litblogs I visit regularly. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a good starting point. I have tried to demonstrate some of the litblogosphere's diversity, and further explorations of the litblogosphere can easily be made through each of these blogs' blogroll.

if:book—Sponsored by The Institute for the Future of the Book, if:book tends to be on the cutting edge of the intersection between books and the internet. The site covers ways that hypertext, blogs, and other internet tools can be used to distribute information in new and exciting ways. It also considers the potential of e-books and where the future of paper books lies.

The Literary Saloon—The blog from the popular book review website the Complete Review, the Literary Saloon is blogged from England and features a large amount of news from that country and around the world. Posts tend to be short and newsy, with several each day, making it one of the more concentrated litblogs around.

The Mumpsimus—Matthew Cheney blogs on The Mumpsimus with a definite SF slant, although he also writes about other literary genres. He writes a lot about books he's been reading, in addition to responding to news and articles and keeping readers appraised of new developments in the world of SF.

Rake's Progress—Posts at Rake's Progress are often witty and irreverent. One will be flogging the latest book culture satire from The Onion while the next will be a serious consideration of Haruki Murakami’s newest novel. A fun blog to read with lots of entertaining and thought-provoking links.

The Reading Experience—The Reading Experience typically features longer, well-considered posts on fiction or some aspect of the book industry. Dan Green, the man behind The Reading Experience, is a former professor who has left academia to pursue his fiction and non-fiction writing, and his posts reflect his considerable knowledge of literature. Dan also posts, enthusiastically, on the potential of the internet and electronic publishing to change books and the book industry.

Silliman's Blog—Well-known poet Ron Silliman has been blogging since 2002 at Silliman's Blog and he has built a sizable audience in the process. Ron's voice is notable for it's even keel and stateliness, and his posts tend to be among the longer and most personal in the blogosphere. They often generate a substantial number of comments from readers. Ron also has one of the most exhaustive list of links to literary bloggers on the internet.

The Valve—One of the few group litblogs, The Valve takes its cue from literary journals. It’s the brainchild of John Holbo, a philosophy professor and blogger at the popular culture blog Crooked Timber, and several of the contributors are academics. The posts tend to be meatier and longer than most other blog fare, and although The Valve is new, it gets lost of comments, indicating that it’s succeeding in its goal of fostering good literary discussion.