AUGUST 6, 2011
THE LOS ANGELES TIMES PROUDLY announced last week that it was as dedicated as ever to book coverage — “we have not changed our commitment,” said Vice President of Communications Nancy Sullivan. Sullivan was speaking to Publishers Weekly‘s Wendy Werris, explaining that a new round of layoffs in the section and the cutting loose of the book section’s freelancers was not to be taken as a sign of what it clearly was: a further contraction of the section’s purview.
“Freelancers” in this case means not just those of us who have written the occasional review for the Times over the years but the new class of non-employees, the many people who used to be on staff and were laid off before being rehired as freelancers, like Susan Salter Reynolds; book columnists Reynolds, Richard Rayner, and Sonja Bolle were among those let go. Reynolds is a prime example of the new class of the gradually dis-employed: she has been writing succinct, insightful reviews for the Times for the last 23 years, usually three pieces a week, although often adding a fourth or even fifth in the form of a more in-depth review or feature (she is a woman who clearly does not sleep). For the first 21 of those years she was a staff writer, but for the last two she’s been a freelancer. The difference was a deep cut in pay, the loss of health insurance and a retirement plan, and the outsourcing of her office to her own house. The workload remained the same.
The agonizing death of print journalism, squeezed by investors into this deplorable state, has been one impetus for our project at the Los Angeles Review of Books. We hope we can eventually raise the money from foundations, private individuals, and advertising to reemploy at least a few of the people who have been washed out to sea by the seemingly unending waves of firings and cutbacks in the print world. This week we were very happy and proud to have Salter’s “Discoveries” and Rayner’s “Paperback Writers” columns move to our pages. We are not yet paying them anything near what they’re worth, but we hope that our mixed business model — part e-commerce, part nonprofit grantwriting and fundraising — can eventually prevail, that we will create an institution that bucks the trend of professional writers writing for free on the internet.
The layoffs in the newspaper and magazine world cause enormous harm to our friends and colleagues, but the tragedy for American culture as a whole is more profound. We are losing access to great swaths of knowledge and proficiency. Few people alive have read as many books as Reynolds, Rayner, and Bolle. Then there are the thousands and thousands of jobless journalists around the country, people with decades of experience in foreign relations, arts coverage, politics, environmental issues, economics, all forced to find other work — this is a loss no amount of updating to Wikipedia can ever redress. Perhaps worse yet, the pipeline of new talent has been plugged. The editorial book staff at the L.A. Times, according to Publishers Weekly, now consists entirely of Jon Thurber, David Ulin, Nick Owchar, and Carolyn Kellogg: all of them, too, friends of ours, all great journalists, and all obviously working in constantly diminishing conditions. Kellogg is the youngster in this group in her forties, and while this does, in my book, make her a youngster, that twenty-year gap between her and recent college graduates will not be filled — a missing generation of journalists — since one does not imagine the Times or any other newspaper going on a hiring spree in the foreseeable future.
The Times has famously made some stupid choices over the years, especially since the arrival of Sam Zell, as Laurie Winer will recount for us in her forthcoming review of The Deal from Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers by James O’Shea. O’Shea’s book shows that the Times is far from alone. Everyone is scrambling, and everywhere the problem remains the same. Even in the best of times, newspapers never delivered the kind of profit margins demanded by Wall Street, and now, decimated by standard corporate short-thinking, they are spiraling into oblivion. Each round of layoffs revises the balance sheet briefly, jacking the stock price for a month, while weakening the product and thus losing customers, eventually almost requiring that they be sold for scrap. One Times columnist likened the process to preparing to sell your house, except instead of applying a fresh coat of paint, the Tribune Company is ripping out the copper wiring.
The book section layoffs follow on earlier shrinkages, the most dramatic of which was the folding of the free-standing Sunday Book Review into the arts section. Again, the Times was not alone. Book review supplements have been shuttered at the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere, all for the same reason: the sections were not (and never had been) profit centers. Traditionally, of course, the editorial side of the paper dictated what to cover and the business side figured out how to pay for it. This allowed decisions about what was “fit to print” to operate independently from the courting of advertisers. Zell came to the Times vowing to break down what he called this “artificial wall” between editorial content and advertising sales, a misunderstanding of the most basic precept of ethical journalism. Worse yet, each section of the paper, it was decided, needed to make its own profit or die, like subsidiaries of a company. Since book advertising had never fully supported the Sunday supplements, they were preordained casualties.
The genius of the great American newspapers used to be their comprehensiveness, their ability to print reviews of T.S. Eliot alongside Family Circle cartoons, to ply sensationalist murder stories and have a Hong Kong bureau tracking economic and political trends, to cover hokum and science. The understanding was that 1,000 flowers should bloom, that the value of information is in the eye of the beholder, and that by covering everything, the important things would get covered, even if we weren’t always sure what they were. Every whittling down of content is a step in the further destruction of the newspaper’s true value, and when the paring is based on publishing again whatever sold best in the past, we get a leaner, briefly more profitable paper, but one in which no new idea (since a new idea, by definition, is not a proven commodity) ever appears.
People like to blame the web for problems that often predated its dominance in various industries. In music, file sharing was touted as the artist-killing villain, but the major record companies were already displaying the blockbuster mentality that crushed new talent. Their disregard for the “content providers” and their investment in marketing rather than in artists had already pushed the most interesting music into independent channels. Independent film production thrives in times when studios make the same kinds of mistakes. With the digital revolution, equipment costs plummeted — anyone can now record, mix, and master music on their laptop, and anyone can shoot and edit a film for a total outlay of a few thousand dollars or less — and distribution costs dove as well. Thus, culture decentralizes, and now, thanks to desktop publishing, print-on-demand, and immediate universal e-distribution, the same changes have hit publishing. One result: we have more books than ever — over a million new titles last year, or twenty times as many as a quarter-century ago.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the publishing industry saw many similar developments, like new printing technologies and widespread corporate mergers. In 1900, Doubleday, which had already swallowed McClure’s, merged with Walter Page’s publishing ventures, and soon after merged with George H. Doran to become the world’s largest publisher. One of the casualties of the Doubleday-Page merger was the ending of Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1903); Norris’s new boss “asked” that he drop his indictment of the Southern Pacific Railroad in favor of a more corporate-friendly conclusion. The result of such corporate direction, then as now, was an explosion of independent publishing, the birth of dozens of small presses and literary journals. The small magazine movement took off, and publishers like Boni & Liveright, founded in 1917 out of Albert Boni’s Greenwich Village bookstore, set up shop. It was Boni & Liveright that published T.S. Eliot, H.D., e.e. cummings, and the first books of Hemingway and Faulkner. Boni and Horace Liveright were not hostile to commerce; they just didn’t allow profit maximization to frame every decision. And they knew that although people will always buy some crap, they will also buy great culture — if you take a chance and provide it. By 1928, Boni & Liveright’s titles accounted for six of the 10 best-selling books in the country.
It is no exaggeration to say we are in the midst of an even greater transformation in publishing, and the Los Angeles Review of Books will continue to focus on what this means for writers and readers. One new publisher I’ve been looking at is Red Lemonade, an imprint of Cursor, which is not a publisher, but a “publishing platform.” Both Red Lemonade and Cursor are the creation of Richard Eoin Nash, who ran Soft Skull Press from 2001 to 2009 until he left to start this venture. Cursor, Nash has explained in interviews, is a platform for “social publishing,” which means that it is first and foremost a social networking site for writers and readers, where manuscripts are posted and then read and commented upon by others in the “community”: a hive mind approach to the editorial process. Like its namesake, the literary social networking site Red Room, Red Lemonade is a site where members provide the content as well as comments, with the significant difference that Red Lemonade offers the possibility of publishing, supposedly if the community recommends it. The specific path to publication for most of these books is not entirely clear, though Cursor and Red Lemonade, Nash claims, are “the future of publishing.” (Red Lemonade, like many new small presses and publishing collectives, also claims to be carbon neutral, which is nice if it’s true — I know my colleague Toby Miller is attempting to calculate the environmental impact of websites, including their carbon footprints, and it is difficult to assess once we factor in the plastic waste of dead computers, the mining operations for their production, and the power demands involved in everything from wireless mouse batteries to the cooling of servers.)
So far, the Red Lemonade imprint has published three books: Lynne Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny, Kio Stark’s Follow Me Down, and Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen. Tillman’s book is what one would expect from this widely respected writer of a dozen previous volumes, her last with Nash at Soft Skull: Someday This Will Be Funny is a collection of short pieces — carefully observed, meticulously written, small moments — all treading a quietly experimental line between poetic short fiction and quotidian memoir. (We will soon be posting Veronica Gonzalez’s review of Tillman’s book.) I read the first sections of Kio Stark’s novel on the website — these books can all be read there for free — and the editorial comments by a dozen or more hands in the margins was distracting; perhaps they wouldn’t have been if the book had grabbed me, but for whatever reason it didn’t and I let it go.
Veselka’s Zazen, though, is grabby from the opening scene. Here are the first three paragraphs:
I went to work and a guy I wait on said he was leaving. He said everyone he knew was pulling out.
“Canada is just not far enough. Maybe Mexico. A bunch to Thailand. Some to Bali.”
He always orders a Tofu Scramble and makes me write a fucking essay to the cook. No soy sauce in the oil mix, no garlic, extra tomato, no green pepper. Add feta. Potatoes crispy and when are we going to get spelt. He holds me personally responsible for his continued patronage. I hope he dies. I’d like to read about it.
Our narrator is a 20-something graduate student in paleontology, Della, and she would like to leave, maybe when the bombs stop (the bombs aren’t immediately explained). The world Della inhabits is perhaps a hyperbolized present, perhaps a very near future, and it is a world on fire everywhere, including in her Portland-like city. The bombs may be set off by anarchists, maybe by terrorists, maybe they’re falling from the sky. In the meantime, depressive life goes on, and Della serves people like this man, whom she calls Mr. Tofu Scramble, and another grumpy contrarian she calls Ed, Logic’s Only Son. Through some alchemy Veselka transforms what might seem very typical youthful anomie and aimlessness into a consciousness that is stupendously particular and intriguing, and, as in many coming-of-age novels, the protagonist’s disastrous world and her own mishmash of nonchalance, nostalgia, dread, and dismissiveness help form and inform each other. In this case, unlike most versions of this story from the 18th century on, the protagonist’s world does seem to be literally exploding. Somebody is blowing up buildings, gunshots and riot police are strewn liberally throughout the narrative, and people are fleeing to safe havens.
Veselka has said in an interview that she wanted the novel to be encyclopedic, and thinks that it is, but in fact it isn’t. An enormous amount happens, and the prose is admirably economical. We’re introduced to one character, for instance, by being told she grew up in a suburban corridor near Los Angeles, “got pregnant halfway through high school by some skater kid who bussed tables at an Olive Garden and had an abortion.” Another is “so convinced he was smarter than everyone that whatever he said came out like he was teaching you how to tie your shoes.” And each of these lightning snapshots is used to develop Della’s character; knowing she has her own tendency to assume she’s smarter than everyone, she fights it, and as a result she
had stopped trying to communicate with anyone at all, patronizingly or otherwise. My attitude was fuck you and your myopic mental laziness, tie your own fucking shoes. Under examination it wasn’t a more enlightened stance.
For all its economy and wit, though, for all its grappling with the fundamental political questions — do we resist or accept the horror we find around us, and if the former, how? — it is far from a full survey of even a city like Portland. It remains, instead, focused on a series of counter-cultural types, a quirky and perceptive catalog of hipster variations from the last 30 years.
Which is fine by me. The novel is not the newspaper. It has a different constellation of social responsibilities. The novel — and I’ll just go ahead and admit that I think of the novel as the queen of the sciences, as the most sophisticated and far-reaching instrument of human understanding ever developed — but the novel, whatever its subject (even, for instance, if its subject is war and peace), will always simply be what Geoff Nicholson pointed out in his review of Will Self last week: a slice, an encapsulation, a scale model. No matter its ambition, the novel moves, at best, from the local to the global by reference to a specific story or stories; it keeps focus on the particular case, its arguments about the general necessarily analogical. The newspaper has, and should have, more encyclopedic ambitions. Even if it rarely can manage the depth of a great novel, it should always strive for a greater breadth. It will never survive if it keeps contracting.
Reading Zazen, I felt like I had discovered something, discovered a new paperback writer. I’m of course in a very lucky position — publishers drop a ton of books on my doorstep every day. I have opportunities to make discoveries that most readers don’t have, especially now, when brick and mortar stores continue to close, and the curatorial function that bookstore staffs perform is available to fewer and fewer people. Especially now when the book reviews that were my introduction to literary culture as a kid are pushed to do less with even less, however much they have the same “commitment.”
Both Richard Rayner and Susan Salter Reynolds have been sorting through the piles of Advance Reader Copies for years, and treating us to their discoveries. We are very happy that we can give these two formidable critics a place to continue to share what they find. “Once you step past the rubble, the smoking ruins,” Reynolds says, “you see that there are still places for book reviews that care more about readers and writers than bottom lines and bean counters, more about the future than fashion, more about the thrill of reading than the so-called death of the book. The Los Angeles Review of Books is such a place and I am delighted to be a part of it.” Richard said the same in his press release: “It’s a sad indicator of where things stand in the book world that my column ‘Paperback Writers’ was dropped by the Los Angeles Times,” says Rayner. “But I’m thrilled that it will now be carried by the Los Angeles Review of Books, a vibrant new publication which has already featured so many great writers and is set on refreshing and expanding LA’s literary landscape.”
We plan to add other columnists as well, and as we approach the launch of our full site, we hope to be able to bring readers a rigorously edited, intelligently curated, and more comprehensive review of books. We are approaching our 100th post on this temporary site, and we are moving forward, helped by generous donations of friends of the literary life. Researchers and commentators like Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols (in The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again) have suggested that a mixed revenue model might be the only way to do what we hope to do, and our economic model combines old-school commerce — advertising, syndication, merchandise, subscriptions (even if voluntary) — along with old-school nonprofit public-service fundraising — through private philanthropy, foundations, corporate sponsorships, events, fund drives, tote bags — and new-school versions of these — click-through sales, online advertising, Kindle singles and other e-editions on the commerce side, and community partnerships of various kinds on the development side. So far, we’ve raised about 10% of what we need to in order to do this well. We have made our first syndication money, made our first click-through sales money, sold our first t-shirts and tote bags, and have been supported by several family foundations and many individual contributions — people like you clicking on our donate buttons. Many of us are also supported, as I am, by our universities (however much they, too, are shrinking and under siege), and so we can write and edit “for free” as part of our commitment to the dissemination of knowledge that is integral to that job. But many of us are not.
If we are right, if this economic model works — and with your continued help I am convinced it will — we will be able to play some small part in reversing the woeful trends that leave writers penniless; we will be able to play some part in expanding rather than contracting the cultural conversation. Time will tell. I was once having dinner with an international group, and an American was complaining about the price of books in France. “Yes,” said a Frenchman. “We have this silly theory in France that our authors should be able to eat.” We don’t know what the future of publishing is, but we know that the future for every writer requires food. And we know that one way to help writers eat is to encourage people to buy good books. We think that when it arrives in all of its multimedia, interactive glory at the end of the year, the Los Angeles Review of Books will look very much like the future of book reviewing (if we didn’t think that, of course, we wouldn’t be working so hard to build it). We hope you agree. And I’m not sure whether Cursor and Red Lemonade are the future of book publishing, but I know Zazen is a great novel. Buy it. Put some food on Vanessa Veselka’s table. That way we’ll all be able to read her next book, too.