Monday, January 26, 2009

Levi Asher -- author, lit-blogger, critic (LitKicks)

Levi Asher of LitKicks

CBT: When I started this interview series it was already clear that publishing -- especially of literary fiction -- was in dire straits. At that time, one explanation that was fashionable was 9/11 was the reason people weren't reading as much literature (or as much anything) as they used to. Now we are living in a time when the long-term repercussions of 9/11 are still with us. But using 9/11 as a primary explanation for what ails literary publishing simply doesn't work. For one thing, we are now in the midst of a particularly serious recession, and for another, it is clear the general decline in reading is a widespread -- and possibly unstoppable -- phenomenon that has roots which go back decades.

What is your take on the current depressed state of literary publishing? Is it a passing phase? Or is it an intractable problem -- in other words, it is the new normal? And if the latter, what can be done to counteract it?

LA: Actually, I can't agree with the premise that there is a general decline in reading. As a parent, I've seen my kids become just as obsessed with books as I did when I was their age. Literature retains the same appeal it always has. If there's a decline in reading, how do you explain the success of JK Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer? Why would there be a thriving literary blog scene if books did not excite people? Why are so many popular Hollywood movies -- today, I'm thinking of "The Reader", "Revolutionary Road", "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", not to mention John Krasinski's upcoming adaptation of a David Foster Wallace novel -- made from literary sources? I could go on and on. There is no decline in reading.

CBT: How much potential do you think the Internet has as a vehicle of publishing? It's clear that there is a place for online criticism; the lit-blogosphere is dominated by it. The blogger Dan Green has even coined a phrase for this form of critical writing: the crit-blogosphere. But the crit-blogosphere's logical partner -- the fic-blogosphere -- is marginalized. Not many people read short stories or novels online.

Will the Internet really become the medium in which serious people both publish and read fiction? Or is this a technological pipe-dream, and is it more a question of using the Internet as an effective means to sell and distribute printed books?

LA: I'm afraid my answer here will offer no surprise. I think the Internet has all the potential in the world as a vehicle for publishing. It is certainly the most relevant medium for reading, probably already more relevant than the physical. And I remain hopeful that people will read short stories or novels online -- perhaps in serial form.

Remember, many of the greatest novels of all
time were published and popularized not as books but as newspaper or magazine serials. Henry James, for instance, became popular because his stories and novels appeared in magazines. Modern publishing is way too obsessed with the pristine and perfect book, but the book is not the only fount of great literature.

CBT: It is arguable the Internet isn't effective as a medium for publishing long works of fiction because very few people can stand looking at regular screens for the necessary length of time. But e-ink provides a solution to this. It eliminates eye strain.

How much potential do you think e-ink and e-book technologies have? Do you see e-books catching on with the public? And do they provide a reasonable business model?

LA: Again, I'm afraid I may sound like a chirping optimist, but I believe electronic publishing will soon dominate the publishing field -- though physical books will always exist as well, since readers like them -- and I'm excited about the latest trends.

CBT: In the past few years, articles and blog posts (for example, at LitKicks) have appeared criticizing the pricing of books. Are books too expensive? Has this been a factor in reducing the size of the book-buying audience over the last twenty or so years?

LA: Yes, unfortunately the commercial book publishing industry suffers from a tradition of catering to an elite audience. You can see a movie or download a record album for about ten bucks. That's the correct price point. New books come out with price tags between $24 and $30 -- and then they wonder why the whole industry is suffering. Somebody's out of touch with the consumer here ...

CBT: Staying with the same theme. Literary novels were once publishing in hardcover and then, several months later (and a spot on the best-seller lists willing), they were available as affordable pocket-sized paperbacks. However, in the 1980s this practice ceased and literary paperbacks started being published in North America as pricier trade paperbacks. Only genre fiction retained the pocket-book form. In retrospect, was this a prudent decision by publishers of literary fiction? Or should the literary pocket-book make a return?

LA: I love smaller paperback books. Because I am an urban person who walks a lot, it is very important to me that a book can comfortably fit into my pocket. Most paperbacks can, but the larger formats are a tight fit. I would like to see smaller paperbacks make a comeback, yes.

CBT: Agents now have enormous power, effectively controlling which writers get access to acquisition editors at major houses. Furthermore, agents find themselves under enormous pressure, acting as the line of first readers who have to sift through avalanches of submissions. Is this tenable over the long run? Is it good for art? Or should large houses be accepting both agented and unsolicited submissions?

LA: I'm sure it's good when it works. I'm currently signed to a literary agent, and I'm happy to not have to shop my proposal around directly to publishing firms. Since I'm not sure how important the major book publishing firms will be in the future, though, I don't know if it matters so much whether or not they often publish unsolicited manuscripts.

CBT: Literary prizes have also grown in power. They have arguably replaced the glowing review as a marketing tool. But are they as effective as criticism in building a contemporary canon? After all, critics can express nuance, prizes can't. Do book prizes give the message: this books is worth reading and all these others aren't?

LA: I get instinctively annoyed when I read extravagant coverage of this prize or that prize, and I've made it a practice not to cover the regular run of literary prizes (I make an exception for the Nobel Prize, because I like their healthy international style). But, there is probably more crankiness than substance to my position here. Prizes help writers and they help publishers. Hopefully, they help readers too. I don't pay much attention to prizes, but I have to admit they are probably a force for good in the lit scene.

CBT: Thinking of your own site, what sorts of changes do you foresee in it? Are blogs destined to become the new magazines? Will you start using a format (and possibly working with partners) in a magazine-type way? Or is blogging as it's currently defined how you want to keep posting work on the Net?

LA: It's funny that many of your questions have danced around the project I'm currently doing on LitKicks. I'm attempting to write a serial memoir -- the chronicle of my fifteen years in the internet industry, both as the founder of a literary website and as an employee in the online departments of entertainment companies like Time Warner and A&E Network -- by posting each chapter as a blog post. I'm very excited
about this, and I have been getting great responses from readers.Because I am writing this "book" as a series of blog posts, I find myself writing with a "blogger" sensibility -- keep it short and punchy, don't lose the reader -- and I believe this will help me write a better, more audience-responsive memoir than if I churned it out in isolation and then sent the whole thing to an agent. This "memoir-in-progress" is the LitKicks project of the moment.

Bio: Levi Asher is the founder and a co-writer (primarily with Jemalah Earle and Michael Norris) of LitKicks. He has been one of the primary voices of the lit-blogosphere since its inception. He is also a novelist, whose work can be found online. He is currently working on a memoir.


  1. Lots of people talk about the price of an e-reader, which eventually is bound to come down. For quite a while I've been wondering why somebody doesn't begin to offer one for free or a minimal charge as part of an e-book subscription service, the way cellphones/mobiles are often included in a package in Europe.

  2. Anonymous6:53 pm

    Lee, I agree (very strongly in fact).

  3. Anonymous11:11 am

    I respect your work very much. Well worded talent goes far in the journalism career. Keep up the good work, so far I've clearly understood and followed up with your writings and I just want to throw some kudos at you, very good to hear people putting their mind to words the clear way :)
    Anyways, until the next time I run across your page, c ya' ciao!

  4. Very timely stuff. I think the means of becoming published is soon to be optional for writers who are seeking a wide audience for their work.