Simon Winchester event benefits LA Review of Books, interview with Tom Lutz…

Tom Lutz

Our event on November 18 with Simon Winchester in conversation with Patt Morrison will benefit the new, soon to be launched, Los Angeles Review of Books.  Leading the effort is Tom Lutz, who heads the creative writing program at UC Riverside. Lutz was one of 100 Angelenos featured in the LA Weekly this summer. We caught up with Tom with a few questions on the LARB…

Live Talks:  Los Angeles Review of Books. Why now?

Tom Lutz: Many things conspired–among them the death of the Sunday supplement book review, the explosion of titles, the continued dismay I heard about ‘web versions’ of book-related print publications.  We have twenty times as many new book titles each as year as we had a generation ago, and one-twentieth of the edited, comprehensive book reviews.

LT:  What is it that literary types outside the Los Angeles area don’t get about Los Angeles?

TL:  Angelenos write for the world–whether we’re screenwriters, journalists, fiction writers, poets, we write from Los Angeles, and sometimes about Los Angeles, but not just for Los Angeles, we look out, across the mountains, the Pacific, the borders.

LT:  Do book reviews matter?

TL:  Yes.  One can, of course, rely on Amazon comments, or other user-generated opinion, but without book reviews by informed, intelligent people, we are at the mercy of the publishers and will continue the trend toward a blockbuster-only world.

LT:  What’s the revenue model for your new venture? How does a site like LARB sustain itself?

TL:  We are a nonprofit community service operation, and we are actively seeking individual contributions and grant support.  But we also hope to make money from click-through book sales, from syndication of our reviews, from advertising, merchandising, events, voluntary subscriptions, and publications.  We may never become completely self-sufficient, but we hope to come close, to build an institution which will last.

LT:  Describe the uniquely digital opportunities you are planning or exploring to make an online review of books a sought after destination.

TL:  When you read one of our reviews of the new Jane Smiley novel, it will be surrounded by other options:  reviews of her book by other people and in other places, reviews of her other books, interviews with her in print, audio, and video form, lists of her favorite books and recommendations, chances to discuss her book with other readers and at times with the author herself.  We will have links to similar books, to books on similar themes or subjects.  We will have regular audio and video content, interactive possibilities of all kinds, deep aggregation from around the net, and a constant archival presence.  This is a deep and wide resource, way too much to fit between the covers of any print publication.

We will have daily updates–I used to love my Sundays with my book reviews, but my own reading habits have changed, too, and now it seems like an imposition.  I watch TV with TiVo, and I read book reviews, interviews, and news every day. When the Booker Prize or the National Book Awards are announced, we will be there, live.  We’ll be at the readings, we’ll cover the world of books in real time.

And we will have a real variety of content, from the shortest of recommendations to long-form essays.  Without the constraints of paper and printing costs, we can let the content dictate the length.

LT:  In a world of tweeting, blogging and whatever the newest social networking tool becomes, how does the crowd sourced opinion of a book versus the “regarded” voice of a critic or reviewer intersect on LARB?

TL:  We expect and will encourage a lot of back and forth.  Many of our reviews, in fact, will already come in the form of conversations, and we will have multiple reviews of the same book, encouraging a range of opinion from the start.  We will be monitoring the literary blogs and linking to the pieces we find most compelling.  And we will monitor the input from our readers, along the lines of the old ‘letters to the editor’ columns in newspapers and magazines.  The best of those tweets or comments, or flurbs, or as you say, whatever the next thing is, will be posted alongside our reviews and links.  Our pages will also have rooms dedicated to ongoing discussions of both very broad topics and very focused issues and specific books.  We will encourage our critics to respond and keep the conversation going.

I am very lucky, personally–I have conversations every day with professors in various fields and with students, and I learn from both.  Not everyone gets to live in a city with a great bookstore (the bookstores which used to function, too, as guides to reading, and are likewise disappearing) not everyone gets to work with, or hang in cafes with people who share their literary and intellectual interests.  We are the virtual alternative.  We are the newest social networking tool.

LT:  People say college students today don’t like to read, and can’t write. Is that your experience? And if it is, what can be done to change that?

TL:   This is complex, so let me make three too-quick points.

1) Students read, they just read differently than twenty years ago, when PCs were not much more than fancy typewriters.  As reading changes, so does writing. We don’t know what this will mean in another twenty years, but it’s exciting to consider.

2) For all the talk about the death of reading, there was absolutely nothing like the Harry Potter phenomenon when I was a boy–J.K. Rowling, in her first set of printings, sold ten times as many books as J.R.R. Tolkien.  The death of the book was announced with the advent of the popular magazine, with the rise of film, the birth of radio, then TV, now the internet.  It is still alive and well.

3)  All that said, the question of advanced literacy is something else altogether.  Nobody, but nobody thinks our primary and secondary schools are doing a good enough job.

Have any questions, and we’d be happy to take them to Tom Lutz. Just email us at info@livetalksla.org.