The Chronicle Review

Empire of Letters

Tom Lutz and the ‘Los Angeles Review of Books’ set out to create a new model of literary review

January 03, 2016

David Walter Banks for The Chronicle Review
Tom Lutz
When does buzz solidify into a sound?

I first heard it from my graduate students. They keep me current, and it seemed that every other day they’d forward me a piece from the Los Angeles Review of Books, or LARB, which popped up on Tumblr in 2011 and on its own site in April 2012. Several of my students work on contemporary fiction, and LARB covers it fairly extensively, reviewing genres like Young Adult (YA) and noir as well as more literary fiction, and sometimes carrying multiple reviews of notable books, for instance of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom.

I started seeing the names of scholars I knew in the journal — Steven Brint on higher education, Wai Chee Dimock on film, Mark McGurl on creative writing. There were intriguing interviews with critics, artists, and writers, including Jonathan Lethem, and forums on timely issues, like "MOOCs and the Future of the Humanities" and the boycott of Israeli universities.

People have been complaining about the lack of reviewing since the late 1990s, when shrinking newspapers started disbanding book-review sections, but the web tends toward glut more than scarcity, so at first I wondered if LARB was just another blog that would fade into the ether.

But it has only gained traction. Now publishing 1,500 pieces a year, with several new reviews, essays, and interviews on its main page each day, it has made its mark on criticism, spawning an "LARB style," as Brian T. Edwards, a professor of English at Northwestern University, put it at a standing-room-only forum on the state of criticism at last year’s Modern Language Association convention. By that he meant writing that was more personal, sometimes impressionistic, and more lively than typical academic fare. Of six younger critics on the forum panel, three had published in LARB.

At an LARB reception later on, the restaurant had to open an extra section to accommodate the crowd. It also wasn’t lost on me that almost all of the people there were under 40, navigating a new landscape, distant from the thickets of theory through which I had wended back in the late 1980s.

In addition to the main page, LARB has expanded into a small empire, with "LARB channels," affiliated sites like Marginalia and Avidly, the former focusing on religion and the latter on TV; a book club; a print quarterly; a blog; and a weekly radio talk show. It also has a deal with Salon to pick up selected LARB reviews (full disclosure: I published a piece in the review that also appeared in Salon). And LARB has built a substantial financial substructure, reaching a budget of half a million dollars a year, supporting five full-time employees, and attracting a long roster of benefactors, including Tim Disney, the entrepreneur and scion of the famous entertainment family, and Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, as well as those who give five dollars a month.

LARB beckons a new model of a literary review, not tied to a newspaper or based in a university but creating its own autonomous space, like a nonprofit gallery or museum, supported by a mix of donors, grants, ads, and memberships, and drawing a diverse audience. It is the kind of idea that makes you wonder why no one had done it before.

The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books (NYRB) loom over the field, not inconsequentially located in the center of American publishing. And the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) and London Review of Books, the more dashing half-sibling of NYRB, which sponsored it before it became independent, chime in from England. Yet, given that California is our most populous state and Los Angeles our second-largest city, it was surprising that there was no commensurate, large-circulation review located there. Papers like the Los Angeles Times run reputable (if shrinking) review pages, but literary institutions still tip East, a bias noted as long as a century ago in a little magazine called The Midland, first published in Iowa and later in Chicago.

Tom Lutz is the inventor and editor in chief of LARB, and it started by accident. A scholar of 19th- and early-20th-century American literature, Lutz took an unconventional academic path. After growing up on the East Coast with aspirations to be a writer, he bounced around, working as a line cook, carpenter, factory hand, gymnastics instructor, bartender, and musician. He started college a couple of times, at the University of Dubuque and the University of Connecticut, before finishing at the University of Massachusetts, and then went on to graduate school at Stanford University. He was a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa for nearly 20 years — but with an unusual arrangement. Since the early 1990s, he had spent a good part of each year in Los Angeles, where his second wife worked as a journalist and where his children had settled. Alongside his scholarship, he also wrote regularly for magazines and published two trade books. In 2006 he was hired to chair the creative-writing department at the University of California at Riverside. (He very publicly resigned the chairmanship in 2011, over budget cuts he felt were decimating the university, although he kept his academic appointment.)

A few years after he arrived at Riverside, the editor of a small, avant-garde magazine called Zyzzyva was retiring and asked Lutz if he wanted to take it over. At first he almost said yes, thinking it would be a good thing for the department. But one colleague, he told me, quipped, "I don’t know why you would buy a used journal when you could get a new one for free."

I interviewed Lutz in February at the old offices of the LARB in the Atwater Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, in a tan-stucco building next to an auto-­body shop. (The magazine has since moved to a new location in the heart of Hollywood.) He said the conversations about Zyzzyva had prompted him to ask, "If I really wanted to be a journal editor, what would I want to edit?" Something bigger and more general, more like NYRB than a little magazine. He had read the New York Review while growing up, an experience he called "my introduction to literary culture." He was also conscious of the history of American literary magazines, having written about them in Cosmopolitan Vistas: American Regionalism and Literary Value (Cornell University Press, 2004). Regions have long inflected American culture, but journals have served as a bridge to a more cosmopolitan outlook, he said: "As a literary historian, I think of the book review as a fundamental democratic institution."

And Los Angeles seemed overdue for a more substantial place at the table of American literary culture. Though born in Connecticut, Lutz seems in his habitat in LA, down to the Prius; the house in the Silver Lake neighborhood, with backyard patio and rooftop deck; the two daughters working in entertainment; the film script he has been chipping away at; the patterned short-sleeved shirt; and the friendly, open manner.

While I was there, he had a book party at his house for Seth Greenland, a television writer who had just published his fourth novel, I Regret Everything: A Love Story (Europa Editions, 2015). For me, a native New Yorker living in Pittsburgh, the party all too readily fulfilled my fantasy of Southern California: It had been 8 degrees when I left home, but it was 70 degrees and sunny in Silver Lake, as guests moved from garden to deck to open dining room. I met a number of "industry" people, among them someone who had been Billy Crystal’s manager, and John Romano, once an English professor but more recently a film producer and screenwriter for The Lincoln Lawyer and an enthusiastic supporter of LARB. I wondered if this was what every Sunday was like in LA.

In contrast to NYRB, which Lutz felt was "a very closed club," LARB evokes the more populist culture of his adopted city, "which certainly does not have the same relation to cultural hierarchy as New York, and the hierarchy can change in a year."

Still, the magazine was less a response to the old guard than to the new online landscape, aiming to go beyond the crowdsourcing of criticism on Goodreads and Amazon. While Lutz generally holds the ecumenical attitude of letting a thousand flowers bloom, he observed that "there’s no curating now." So he attempted to fill the gap.

There is a tension in the role of journals, between the modernist expectation that they criticize mainstream culture and their swimming in it.
To make the point, he told me about a documentary he had just seen about Jonathan Gold, the first food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. Gold has argued that it is the serious discourse about food in China and France that has made cuisine an art in those countries. We often think of criticism as ancillary or parasitical, but Lutz offered this credo: "For literature, and for theater, the visual arts, and film, I think that the critical function is constitutive of what builds human activity into a full art."

Although I kept calling it "L-A-R-B," everyone who works on it calls it "Larb," like the Thai salad. "The only literary review which is also delicious," Lutz joked.

The review tills the uneven ground between the selective and the inclusive, the conventional journal and the blog, the academic and the general reader. While it has developed a public presence — Lutz reported that, according to Google analytics, it received two and a half million unique hits this past year, of which nearly 40 percent are international, unexpectedly more than the 10 percent from California — it draws many academic writers and readers, often graduate students. It also reaches educated readers and subaudiences for its various features, for instance in law and in the entertainment industry.

Leonard Cassuto, a scholar of American literature and Chronicle columnist, says Lutz has taken the "Cecil B. DeMille approach" in his own work. That is, while much literary scholarship focuses on a handful of selected works, Lutz surveys "a cast of thousands," writing on American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Cornell University Press, 1991), about a swath of writers in the early 1900s; on Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears (Norton, 1999), from Greeks to present-day politicians; and on slackers and workaholics in Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), discussing lay-a-beds from Samuel Johnson and Ben Franklin to stoners in contemporary films.

The review is similarly capacious. Besides a steady stream of new authors, it lists more than 270 contributing editors on its masthead, covers fiction, television, religious studies, law, and more, and publishes every day of the year. At first it ran one piece a day, but now it releases three or four over the course of the day, because, Lutz told me, you have to be "in the churn" to maintain a readership. Unlike old-media magazines that readers might peruse cover to cover, he said, online magazines are "completely a side-door business," one that people come to through links. They need to refresh the content every few hours to keep readers coming back.

One drawback of so much material is that it’s bound to be less polished than that in major print magazines. As Amy Hungerford, a professor of English at Yale University, told me: "The pieces are very long and not always tightly written." Still, she observed, "there’s a pleasure in production" for authors that newer magazines like LARB pick up and which is often lacking in academic writing.

David Walter Banks for The Chronicle Review
Tom Lutz
Despite the shaky status of humane letters in the era of STEM, the past decade has seen a small surge of new magazines. Along with LARB, they include The New Inquiry, Jacobin, and Public Books, as well as the revived The Baffler, and, a little earlier, n+1, which evokes the spirit of highbrow little magazines like Partisan Review.

Digital evangelists would probably credit the magic of new technology, but actually most of the journals are late to the online game, and fairly conventional in their presentation. Moreover, several of them still feature print editions. Rather, what’s distinctive about them is that they represent a rising generation, in editors as well as contributors and readers, and in sensibility. n+1, for instance, was founded by a group of Harvard University graduates born in the late 1970s, and Jacobin was founded by a 21-year-old undergraduate at George Washington University. They tend to carry more lively writing than the previous cohort of journals, which were more ensconced in their specialties and directed to an academic audience.

Lutz himself is a baby boomer, but his crossover career presages the new sensibility, and his staff is largely Gen X or millennial, like the longtime managing editor and current senior editor, Evan Kindley, and the humanities editor, Sarah Mesle. Many have a foot in academe, if a tenuous one. Kindley, for instance, is a recent Princeton Ph.D. and visiting instructor at Claremont McKenna College. Mesle, who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, is a lecturer at the University of Southern California.

In its hybrid role between academic and trade publishing, LARB provides a tidal pool for new authors, and Lutz "takes a lot of pride in the fact that we publish a lot of first pieces." The magazine also tries to provide at least some support for those without full-time academic jobs, paying $100 per review.

One reason for LARB’s success might be that it speaks to this new demi-academe. Mark Greif, a founding editor of n+1, told me that his journal, located in New York, has had more connection to the world of literary journalism, while LARB has created "a venue for academics and academics in training" who can "write from the hip, as it were, in a personal voice, and avoid all the academic stuffiness." That confers a certain freedom: As Mesle told me, writing for LARB "gave me back to myself my own opinions as a reader."

Perhaps LARB’s signal difference from most other journals is the edifice it has built to sustain itself. Public Books, which also features lively online reviews, began as an offshoot of the academic journal Public Culture, published by Duke University Press, although it is independent now. It operates at a more academic pace, appearing twice a month, and aims to present work that "feels like sitting in on a great seminar," as it says in its editorial statement.

LARB stands outside a university, and that brings other bedfellows. Another event I attended in LA was a benefit dinner held at a stunning house on a twisty drive above the Pacific Coast Highway, near the Getty Villa, that is owned by one of the review’s board members, Rosanne Ziering. From the back terrace and pool, I could see the twinkling lights sloping down to the Pacific. (The hell with Pittsburgh; I want to spend every winter in Southern California.)

The dinner featured a reading by NoViolet Bulawayo, a Zimbabwean writer whose book, We Need New Names (Little, Brown, 2013), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and who is teaching at Stanford. The host served Zimbabwean chicken, collards, and yams, and about 70 people filled tables throughout the living space, flanked by a 12-by-20-foot painting by Simon Hantaï, whose work is featured in major European museums.

After dinner, Lutz set up a microphone (he has occasionally been the gravel-voiced lead singer in a blues band, playing at clubs through the 1980s and 90s), and Bulawayo read a passage from her novel. It was an encouraging moment for literature, as people showed real interest, and many bought books. I was tempted to ask how it felt for her, one of two black women in the room (the other was an artist), to be performing for a room full of rich Americans. But that was more the kind of question one might throw out at an academic conference than at a pleasant dinner.

I raised the question later with Lutz, noting the contemporary trend away from public support for cultural enterprises and the need to supplicate plutocracy. LARB receives more than a third of its funding from board members and, beyond that, 10 to 15 percent from major donors, Lutz said. It gets 20 percent from members and 10 percent from ads.

"I’m hopeful that people will eventually agree that we need to pay for the kind of content we used to pay for" but now expect to get free online, Lutz said. He also wished book publishers would send some of their ad budgets to LARB instead of spending it all on NYRB, which he estimated receives $300,000 per issue. Still, in the meantime, he praised his donors, pointing out that "there are a lot of other things they could spend their money on." But he also posed the dilemma: "To say that the symphony orchestra is a slave of plutocracy, does that mean you don’t want it anymore?"

I spoke with Eyal Amiran, a founding editor of Postmodern Culture, the first peer-reviewed online journal in the humanities (begun in 1990), who teaches at the University of California at Irvine. He granted that LARB "has done a great job getting started, but it’s not transgressive or radical." Like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with a board of wealthy trustees and a constellation of programs, its "ethos is very corporate and mainstream." Amiran sees its status as "acknowledging the crisis we are in but finally saying, ‘Let’s stare at the disaster’" rather than take a more critical position.

While he leans liberal-left, Lutz admitted that "political critics are never happy with me." In LARB he refrains from taking political positions. The review offers various sides of an issue, for instance in debates about Israeli and Palestinian politics.

But there can be a downside to letting a thousand flowers bloom. While one might find fault with the elitism of NYRB, it is good to remember that it made its reputation in the early 1970s publishing pieces opposing the war in Vietnam, and that it took a strong stand opposing the invasion of Iraq in the 2000s. There is an inherent tension in the role of journals, between the modernist expectation that they criticize mainstream culture and their swimming in it.

Lutz did bring up other models of funding, and mentioned a study concluding that the best solution for newspapers is that they be publicly supported. The reasoning is that, since public information is essential for a democracy to function properly, providing it should be insulated from the whims of private money and the dangers of proprietary information.

The "public sphere" is a key concept in contemporary cultural theory. It was first defined by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. He focused on the essential role of literary journals in fostering a new discourse of "public opinion," arising in the 18th century, when it vied with the dictates of the aristocratic courts. I find it an irony that many of the organs in the American public sphere today are controlled by private means. We need, I believe, more public in the thing called "the public sphere."

Correction (1/4/2016): This essay originally mischaracterized the journal Public Culture. It is published by Duke University Press, not the University of Chicago Press. (1/5/2016, 12:45 p.m.:) The essay also misstated the status of the journal Public Books. It is independently run. The essay has been updated to reflect these corrections. In addition, some extraneous material, introduced as a result of an editing error, has been deleted.

Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book is the collection How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University (Fordham University Press).


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