Sunday, June 10, 2007

Scott Esposito -- lit-blogger, essayist (Conversational Reading, The Quarterly Conversation)

Scott Esposito -- lit-blogger at Conversational Reading, critical essayist at The Quarterly Conversation, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Enquirer, and elsewhere:

1. Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?

I think that on this question perspective is very important. The NEA report tells us that reading is down in America. This is probably true, but I think it's too early to tell if this is a fluctuation of a trend.

Just the other day I read in a newspaper that, statistically speaking, the average Mexican reads one book per year. In Argentina and Chile the number is three. And these are countries with some of the most esteemed literary traditions in Latin America.

Comparatively, Americans still read a fair amount. The NEA report doesn't say exactly how many books per year, but looking at the report it's clear that it's much more than in these countries. I think we've got a very firm, institutionalized culture of reading, and that's going to be tough to shake.

Also, you might couch the American reading trends in comparison to other trends in America. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam charts 50 years of declining involvement in politics and social activities. His data show that generation-by-generation less and less people are doing things like going to the theater or the symphony. (Incidentally, among a number of other factors, he blames TV mostly.) So if people are reading less, I think this should be considered in combination with the many other cultural activities that appear to be on the decline in America. These are difficult times for the arts in general, not just literature. In a way, it would be more worrisome if other indicators were doing good and reading was the only one to be dropping.

2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the traditional novel be considered the prime example of it?

Not to get all Wittgenstein on you, but what's the prime example of a bird? Of a rock? I would say that at this point most people would equate novels with literature, but novels take on a variety of forms. If I look back at the books I've just read in the last year, there's Michael Martone, a book composed entirely of contributor's guidelines, The Rings of Saturn, an extended meditation during the course of a walk through England, Hopscotch, The Children's Hospital, Mulligan Stew, Wizard of the Crow, Witch Grass. Undoubtedly, this represents only a small sample of the books I could be reading.

But you could look at this from the other direction too. How would a structuralist define a novel? A critic adhering to new criticism? New Historicism? Maybe they could all agree that the novel best represents literature, but could they ever agree on what a novel is?

If you wanted, you could bring the definition of a novel back to something basic like "a collection of words that tells a story" but there's so much that fits into that that I'm temped to say that the definition depends more on the viewer than the viewed. I've read recently that Bakhtin called the novel the form that devours all other forms. Maybe that's the best definition of literature.

3. Prizes and awards are playing an increasing role in determining an author's career-trajectory. In short, winning a major literary prize can win a writer a large audience overnight (not to mention, considerable fame and financial remuneration). But, as British critic Jason Cowley has observed, what is lost is the ability for readers to think in a critically complex fashion.

Are literary prizes dangerous in this regard? Do they convey to the public the message that "this book is worth reading and all these others aren't"?

I think literary prizes are good in the sense that a friend who gives you recommendations on what to read is good. Maybe their best function is to bring attention to lesser-known authors.

But the problem is that the amount of emphasis people now put on prizes is completely out of proportion. There's lots of ways to bring attention to authors—there's my friend, there's a publisher like NYRB (which brings out-of-print classics back into print), there are critics (who can champion authors), there are blogs, there's the LBC, there are bestseller lists, there are book clubs (but TV-based clubs like Oprah's and The Today Show's now seem more like prizes), there are clerks setting up displays at book stores, there's advertising.

All these are legitimate methods to inform you about good books, but book prizes have become, by far, the most prominent. So, I think they're dangerous when they make readers lose sight of the fact that there's lots of other ways to discover books. For one thing, maybe your friend's advice is going to be better than the Booker's this year, and for another, art and culture benefit when there's a multiplicity of voices discussing and championing art. To the extent that we let prizes define what's "good," we're subjecting our literature to unilateral judgment. In other words, it's giving these prizes way too much power, and, as you say, letting these prizes substitute for an individual's responsibility to seek out quality art and make her own judgments.

4. Regarding lit-blogging: first, a simple question -- how do you do it? How do you find the time to read the books necessary to write longer posts, cover the arts journalism and criticism necessary for many of the shorter posts, and also have a life?

Quite simply you make the time, just like anyone else. Not to compare blogging to writing a novel, but how does a novelist (those not fortunate enough to live off their writing, and there's plenty of those) find the time to hold down a job, have a life, and write?

Or let me put it like this—literature is my passion. If I didn't blog, I'd still be reading the same books, journalism, criticism, etc. The actual blogging is kind of like the icing on the cake, or rather, a way that I can share and continue to think about things that I'm naturally interested in. If it felt like an obligation or like a job, I don't think I would have lasted this long.

5. Recently, considerable attention has been paid to the cuts to book review space in newspapers (a trend that started quite a while ago). You have written both reviews for papers and reviews as posts for your lit-blog. Is there any real difference between the two media? When writing for a newspaper and getting feedback from the book page's editor, does this help bring to the fore thoughts you might not otherwise have included in a review? Alternatively, does blogging, with its greater freedom to write about what one wants as long as one wants, lend a critic much-needed room to breathe?

Well, I think there's a lot of difference between a newspaper and a lit-blog, but in both mediums there's a big range in the quality of coverage, so it's hard to generalize. Some reviews I've read on lit-blogs seem exactly like the reviews I read in newspapers, but other times the two are very different. But I think there is usually going to be a difference in the final product when you're writing for yourself, are your own editor, and are writing in a medium that feels ephemeral and (for the moment at least) fringe.

I may be a bad example, but I've gotten very little by way of suggestions from editors I've written for. Most of the time they do a light edit, I approve it, and that's it. This includes newspapers, literary journals, and other blogs.

I do like the idea that blogs give you as much space as you want, but what I like even more is the opportunity to come back to a work again and again. When I review a book I go through it a second and third time so that I have a good understanding of it, but even then there's a lot of stuff that occurs to me after the fact. With my blog, I can come back to a work as often as I like. And if, say, tomorrow, I read a book that really benefits from a comparison to a book that I reviewed, say, six months ago, then I can talk about that on my blog.

I tend to view newspaper reviews as a good first line of criticism, but people make the mistake of thinking that's all there is to be said. No, that's just the first sentence of a long conversation. Blogs are one way to continue the conversation.

6. Despite the decline in readership for literary fiction, publishers keep producing a large number of titles each season. You have written that it would be better if publishers produced fewer books. (If my memory serves correctly, you wrote a post entitled "Less Please" that criticized publishers for producing an excessive number of books in the hope that a few of them would stick.)

But isn't there another way of thinking about the avalanche of work that gets published each season by the total number of large and small publishing houses? Isn't the corollary of "too many books" that books themselves tend to be too long? Especially given the trend over the last decade of new authors carving out reputations by writing 500, 600, and even 700 or more page tomes, is there not an argument for writers producing shorter works? Broadly speaking, shouldn't we have "less please" in terms of novel length?

I don't think you can look at pages in the same way you look at the number of books, and this is why. The thing I said about publishers publishing too many books is this mentality that you have to spread your risk. If you bank on two books, you're exposing yourself to a lot of risk, because both of them could easily flop and then you're screwed. But if you have ten, it's much less likely that all ten will tank, and you're likely to survive to publish another day. It's very good business sense ("diversify your portfolio" is exactly what any investment broker will advise you), but what's good from a business standpoint is rarely good from an art standpoint. Or put another way—this is the mentality that has taken over Hollywood, and if you think Hollywood is at a high point . . .

Actually, New York Magazine just did an article where they mentioned exactly this. They showed how out of every eight books published by Random House, six break even, one's a big success, and one's a big failure. So, overall, if you publish a lot of books, these things even out and you stay in business. Good business sense, but not necessarily what's going to get you the best literature.

And besides, I think that many of the long novels we have now are perfectly legit. There's an argument that prodigious fiction—like that of David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollmann—is a response to a world of prodigious information. I think I buy that, and if an author feels she needs a lot of room to render our world as it is, I'll grant her that. Of course, if you want to write a long book you run the risk of boring the reader. I always reserve the right to critique a book for being too long and wasting my time, and with all there is that I want to read, my tolerance is going to be pretty low.

Also, some books that are unduly long could be due to the lack of good editing, which is a symptom of publishing too many books per season. From what I've seen, it’s common for authors (especially young ones) to keep piling on the information. There may be a good book in there, but it’s overwritten, and this is where a good editor will come in. But now major presses do less and less editing, often because they're spread out over too many projects. So it's possible that this is a reason for ballooning books—and another reason to publish less books, so that the ones that are published can have more attention paid to them.

7. The lit-blogosphere is chock full of commentary. But, proportionately, it doesn't contain much creative work -- that is, it's extremely difficult to find blog sites (as opposed to online magazines) primarily devoted to original fiction. What's up with that? Is the internet doomed to be a venue of commentary rather than art?

I think the Internet will one day be a great venue for art, once we've discovered the correct kind of art to do in it. Fiction, though, is not it. Maybe it works to publish stories online as an adjunct to a journal or magazine, but I just don't think blogs are the correct place for fiction. The best stories are made to last, to be complete objects that you take in on their own. Does this sound like a blog to you? Not to me—I see blogs as very transitory, as connected to other stuff by a million tiny tethers; kinda the opposite as how I view a short story. I think that in time people will figure out how to make art via blogs, but it's not going to happen by taking this other, older artform and sticking it in just because both happen to be text-based.

Commentary, by contrast lends itself to the blog form. It's very much dependant on context (hence all the links), and to have good commentary you need to be constantly keeping up to date with what's going on. From this viewpoint, blogs are nearly ideal.

8. During the 1980s and 1990s, it was popular in literary circles to say women read fiction, men don't. Yet since the advent of the lit-blogosphere, a great deal of blogs run by men have emerged -- and, unsurprisingly, they have tended in a general sense to champion the work of male writers.

Do bloggers of one sex have an unspoken obligation to go out of their way to pay attention to the work of the other sex? Is there a bit of a "guys' room vs. girls' room" dynamic currently at work in the lit-blogosphere?

I think bloggers should go out of their way to find fiction by women, but I don't think there's the same obligation to search out fiction by men. Here's why: I read based on what books strike my interest, and somehow that leads to me reading far more men than women. Does that mean there are far more good male authors than female? Of course not. What it means is that via my normal habits I'm not being exposed to fiction by women, so I should go out of my way to find it. I don't think there's a similar obligation to find fiction by men because male fiction is already dominating discourse.

I don't think there's a divide like that in the lit-blogosphere. In terms of audience, there's Maud Newton, who's one of the most popular lit-bloggers around. Bookslut is also blogged (mainly) by a woman. GalleyCat (the only paying lit-blog gig I know of, and also a site with considerable traffic) is 50-50, gender-wise. And in general it seems to me like lots of female bloggers get links and are in the discussion.

9. Online, you both blog at Coversational Reading and write for/edit The Quarterly Conversation. Two questions: First, would you briefly describe the differences between blogging and writing essays for/editing an online journal?

Well, I hate to say it, but for The Quarterly Conversation I'm much more concerned about doing a thorough job. I love blogs, but I'm just going to automatically take writing for a journal (even a tiny online one) much more seriously.

For instance, my Friday Columns—I'll write the whole thing in a draft and then go back over it once or twice more. But, for a review for TQC, maybe I'll go over it a number of times, have someone else look it over and give me suggestions, come back to it, really work it over. And then there's copy-editing and proofreading. And if I do an essay, that could take a while.

10. Second: taking for granted that good writing is good writing, and what appears online is just as capable of being excellent as what is published, is there nevertheless (at least these days) still a strong argument for publishing a literary journal like The Quarterly Conversation in print? That is, would it not raise the magazine's profile even more if you could do this? Or is this asking too much? Given the obligations lit-bloggers already have, is it unrealistic to ask someone who reviews and lit-blogs to also print his or her journal -- particularly given the price of printing costs and headaches involved with distribution?

I think there's an argument for The Quarterly Conversation being in print. Besides the idea of getting the word out, there's the fact that lit journals are often very nicely designed with quality interior art—just something very pleasing to hold in your hand—and you just can't do that on the web. Another reason—the Internet being great as it is, I think it still feels much better to be in print. I certainly prefer to be published in print than online, and I think most of my contributors do as well.

However, that's not to say that we should do TQC in print immediately. If this is going to be in print, it should be worth printing—worth the expense and effort of making a nice piece of work, worth the $10 or so that we're going to ask someone to pay for it. I mean, look back at Issue 1 of TQC—I'm proud of it for what I was capable of at that point, but I would say that Issue 1 was far from being anything someone would want to print, bind, and purchase. Now I'm on Issue 8, and the end product is undeniably much better. You could say that publishing on the web has been a good way to try out things and make mistakes—to learn how to be a journal editor—without having the burden of 1,000 copies of a journal sitting in my basement.

And I don't think it's an unreasonable request. Sure, I'm busy—everyone I know is busy, by the way—but, you know, there's something to be said for responsibility and not hiding behind "I've got a lot to do." But I should also point out that I'm not the only one putting major time on TQC. Over the past year I've brought on a couple of contributing editors without whom I just couldn't put out TQC in its current form, and if we ever did do a print issue, I'm sure I'd have to find more people to be indebted to.

11.Finally, major media such as The New York Times occasionally mention lit-blogs, but they tend to do this in a very selective -- some might say, arbitrary -- way. This leads to a kind of hierarchy: i.e., you're either one of the lucky ones who gets a Motoko Rich link or you're not.

Given the power that major media still have to "make" someone, what is the lesson for serious lit-bloggers? Should they be trying to max out the number of hits they get? Should they be networking with arts journalists at major media? Or should they form their own media networks, and not worry about whom the Times will bless with its magic wand?

Well, first off, it is arbitrary, and moreover, bloggers keep saying how little newspapers understand about blogs, so I really don't think bloggers should care that much if they happen to be mentioned. I mean, yes, it's a nice little surprise when it happens to you, but I think that's about as far as it should go—if this is giving you a lasting ego boost, then you should probably examine your life.

I'm not so sure about the Times's king-making power, though. I've been linked by them and other major media—you get increased traffic for a day or two, but then everyone forgets and it goes back to normal.

About whose ass to kiss: The Times has discussed and linked to litblogs maybe once or twice in the past two years, so I don't think networking with its journalists is going to do anyone much good until they start discussing us on a regular basis, which I doubt will happen. The most click-throughs I've ever gotten by far was when Andrew Sullivan linked to me (when the Times linked to me I didn't get nearly as many). I think the lesson is clear—when people who are primarily newspaper readers read an article about blogs, a very small percentage of them will click over to you because most of the people reading the article don't know or care about reading a blog. But, when you're mentioned on a major blog, the click-through rate is going to be much, much higher, because the people reading that are ones that are the most familiar with blogs; they're used to clicking-through. So, I guess if you cared about maximizing your hits, go kiss the asses of major bloggers. Alternately, I think if you show a genuine interest in authors' work, participate in the community, and are putting up worthwhile information that people can't get anywhere else, then you will generate traffic.

But, who really cares? Say you get 2,000 hits per day. That's not bad. I mean, it's minuscule when you think of the millions of people online, but it's still a packed auditorium coming to hear you every day. That's cool. Most lit journals do what, 1,000-2,000 copies per issue, and people die to be in them. And also, think about who is reading your blog—I've been very surprised to find out who reads my blog. Hits aren't everything.


  1. Excellent discussion between two voices I hold in high esteem, though, I must say, I take exception to this from Scott:

    "Fiction, though, is not it [an online-proper artform]. Maybe it works to publish stories online as an adjunct to a journal or magazine, but I just don't think blogs are the correct place for fiction. The best stories are made to last, to be complete objects that you take in on their own."

    I can't see any actual structural (systemic?) reasons that fiction is any less presentable online than in a magazine, anthology or self-circulated samizdat. I've always assumed, rather, that *that's* the beauty of literature, unique among all the phyla of the Arts: the presentation has no bearing on the essence.

    Judging a "book" by its "cover" is a fetishistic paradigm of the marketplace, but reading "Lady with Lapdog" online or in a cloth-bound edition with gilded spine should be the same experience, essentially, by the time we're a page or two into the story.

  2. Anonymous10:57 am

    I got the impression that Scott was talking about blogs, not online magazines that feature fiction. After about 25 years of publishing stories in print (magazines, anthologies, occasionally newspapers), I started publishing online when webzines appeared. And by now I prefer to have my stories published on webzines because the audience tends to be wider.

    Also, I'm much more likely to get readers who come upon my stories by chance Google searches (when they look up, say, places mentioned in my fiction): people who would never buy or look at a literary magazine.

    Although some of the webzines I've published at have disappeared and you get a 404 message if you click on the link I've saved, for the most part, for now, it seems more "permanent" than a yellowing xerox copy of a six-page story published in an obscure Arkansas magazine in 1978, which had a print run of maybe 500-1000.

    Blogs, though, are not really for fiction. I've published stories in some online webzines that use the blog format, but I would never publish my own stories on my own blog. I'm old enough to want a "gatekeeper" -- even if, as Scott rightly says, print editors often do little in the way of editing. However, it's the acceptance by a third party that lends legitimacy to the work to me.

    Maybe it's a generational thing.

    I think the true narrative art in blogs will come from writers who can use the most important feature of blogs -- the comments section -- to create narratives and characters.

    For example, see this.

  3. "I got the impression that Scott was talking about blogs, not online magazines that feature fiction."

    Sure, but define the two in such a way as to draw a clear and permanent distinction.

    "However, it's the acceptance by a third party that lends legitimacy to the work to me."

    Depending on the third party, of course. Like any serious reader old enough to vote (and them some-laugh), I've consumed a metric ton or two of paper-printed fiction, and the great majority of it was filtered through editorial seives comprised of ordinary people with ordinary tastes and prejudices; the literary epiphanies were few and far between.

    I guess I'm leery of the cult of the expert (or pundit/sage/authority figure), that, I suspect, is a normative force that has delivered us much bland material over the years and filtered out more daring (counter-consensus) efforts.

    The lunatics may well be on the verge of taking over the asylum...I'm just not certain that's the worse thing that ever happened.