Read This!

April 11, 2005

It isn't a prize or an award, exactly. But next month, the Litblog Co-op -- a consortium of 20 literary bloggers -- will announce the first novel it has selected for its quarterly "Read This" campaign. The participants will urge their audiences to buy the book, and will open discussions of it at their respective Web sites.

My impression from a conversation with Mark Sarvas in late December, when he was first rounding up collaborators on the project, is that the whole enterprise is a kind of laboratory experiment in literary sociology. Can a group of people frustrated with prevailing trends in the publishing industry (which is constantly on the lookout for the next Da Vinci Code, as if one weren't enough) and with mainstream media (where reviewing space shrinks constantly) win recognition for a worthy, but otherwise potentially overlooked, piece of fiction? Or, to put it another way: Do literary bloggers have any power? Considering  how many novels and short story collections they now publish, university presses may well want to monitor the results.

Members of the co-op will take turns serving on a five-person nominating committee, each member of which proposes a book. All members then read, debate and vote on the five titles. The winner will be announced on May 15. My efforts to get various people to leak the current slate of books underconsideration have come to nothing.

But on Friday, Daniel Green, who was until recently an adjunct instructor in English at the University of  Maine at Presque Isle, did agree to answer some questions by e-mail about the whole process. Green's blog The Reading Experience is part of the co-op. He also contributes to The Valve, sponsored by the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. (For a critical take on the ALSC's sponsorship, check this   out.)

(One passage in the transcript below perhaps requires clarification for readers not up to speed on contemporary cultural exotica. Green refers in passing to "ULA-type 'transgressive' fiction" -- an allusion to the Underground Literary Alliance, a group best known for denouncing all other writers as effete elitists who are terrified of the ULA's plebian manliness. Those not persuaded by the polemics note that all ULA fiction tends to resemble an uninspired imitation of Charles Bukowsi by some inebriated adolescent recently hit on the head with a bowling ball.)

Q:  I'm struck by the sense that the Litblog Co-op embodies a strong criticism of how mainstream book publishing and reviewing are organized, with a tiny percentage of new novels getting a strong push, and the rest being left to fend for themselves. At the same time, the fact that you will be urging readers to take a chance on a novel without much of a market presence seems to be a rejection of what we might call the Amazon algorithm -- the notion that if the reader enjoyed X and Y, then the next logical choice is Z. Was there a shared sense, implicit or explicit, of what is wrong with things as they now stand?

A:   I definitely see the whole enterprise as a repudiation of the status quo in book publishing. I've put up some posts on my blog expressing rather forcefully my dismay at the status quo. (For example, see this and this.) Most of the other members of the co-op are critical of contemporary publishing as well, but perhaps they're not as cynical as I am. I do think there was agreement that most of the "awards" being given out were designed to puff up the publishing industry, and had very little to do with identifying good books that serious readers might want to read. We wanted to fulfill this responsibility as much as we were able to, given that literary weblogs seem to be acquiring a little more "presence." There wasn't much talk about the Amazon syndrome, but obviously the spirit of the litblog co-op is opposed to the Amazon way of selling books.

Q: So what particular impact might this enterprise might have? It seems that some care has been taken to define it as other than an award -- as if the intent is as much to influence readers as to recognize authors. But do the people involved have any larger goal, in terms of influencing the larger literary culture?

A: You're right that the intent is to influence readers. Thus the "selection" is simply called "Read This." I think that all of the participants believe that litblogs have reached an untapped, or at least undertapped, source of readers for both contemporary fiction and (in my case, at least) the critical discussion of literature more broadly. I also think that most of us hope that our quarterly selection and, if it catches on, the popularity of same, will serve notice to publishers and to the editors of book reviews and magazines that this audience exists. I myself don't have any illusions that serious fiction of the sort we're promoting will suddenly become very popular, or that the litblog co-op will begin to wield enormous influence, but I would hope that our selections would bring additional attention to worthy books from smaller or less well-endowed presses. Probably everyone would agree that that is the main goal.

If writers, readers, editors, book columnists, etc. would pay more attention to litblogs and to the tastes in fiction we're expressing, that would be nice. Not because of the attention per se but because we're illustrating that there are serious readers of fiction in this country.

Q: How much of your internal discussion has been on the merits of any particular title, and how much on the overall standards for what books are worth considering?

A:  To some extent, the deliberations on merit are just beginning. We've yet to make the selection, and I don't really know how much contention there will be. The bloggers involved do have diverse interests, but a surprising number of us really do like books that are "off the beaten track." The nominating process was free of contention. The standards/criteria for eligible books were worked out during the listserv discussions, but they have been left pretty wide open. The real goal is to focus during the nominating process on books that aren't being well-promoted in the mainstream press.

Q:  You just referred to books that are "off the beaten path," and not served well by the status quo. Can you characterize things more precisely than that? Do the books now under consideration have anything in common at a literary (rather than publishing) level?

A:   I'm looking for fiction that takes risks, but that also has a sense of literary craftsmanship. I'm not looking for ULA-type "transgressive" fiction that doesn't really transgress anything except aesthetic sensibility. Although I look first for fiction that is interesting on a formal level, I don't by any means rule out books that also "say something" -- as long as it's not just the same stuff everybody else is saying. Some of the nominated books do these things, while, as far as I'm concerned, the jury's still out
(literally) on others. Speaking only for myself, I want to avoid a situation where we start looking for the "representative" -- so many from a certain gender, so many from a certain ethnicity, so many expressing a known point of view, etc. I want to identify books whose authors are committed first of all to extending what's possible in fiction as a literary mode. I think we will probably also be more open to genre fiction than other awards or book selections tend to be.

Q: Last week the Associated Writing Programs (the professional organization for creative writing professors) had its convention. That made me wonder about something. I don't know how many participants in the Litblog Co-op have graduated from MFA programs in creative writing, but at least a few did. Will that have any effect on the process?

A: My suspicion is that more than a few of the participating bloggers will actually look askance at books by authors from MFA programs -- or at least the high profile programs. A few others will consider such books as just as deserving of attention -- if they're good -- as any others. So far, MFAers have not been that welcoming to literary blogs, nor have many creative writing programs themselves taken much note of what's going on vis-a-vis blogs and their influence on reading tastes. To the extent that MFA programs are perceived as part of the "literary establishment," there will probably be some resistance among some co-opers to emphasizing writers who've come from them.

I just put up a post on creative writing, so most of what I think of it can be found there (also in an earlier essay). Some good writers go through creative writing programs, but there's an awful lot of stagnation as well.

Q:  You've seen the shaping "Read This" from the inside. Would you comment on how difficult this sort of thing is to organize? How practical would it be for academic bloggers to unite to do something comparable -- say, for nonfiction from university presses that might have a potential audience among nonspecialist readers?

A: From my point of view it didn't seem that difficult. But Mark probably would disagree. He contacted a lot of people -- publishers, editors, publicists, etc. Even now he's busy getting some media notice for the project. He's pretty committed to this, so perhaps he would say it's an effort worth the labor involved. But I'm sure there is labor involved. The listserv discussions were mostly productive, and the logistics were all worked out gradually. Again, Mark drafted the "charter," and then the rest of us made revision suggestions. To me, it seemed to be a group of people who were excited about what they were doing and thus worked things out relatively harmoniously. If a comparable group of academic bloggers wereable to approach things in a similar way, I'm sure it could be done. Academic egos being what they are, however....

I can't say I'm perfectly happy with every detail of the final product (no one else in the group would probably be able to, either), but, all in all, it was a worthwhile endeavor that, as we were putting it together, seemed enjoyable as much as anything else.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: Only that I was flattered to be invited to be part of the original group of co-op bloggers, and that the amount of interest our "selection" seems to be gathering suggests that in its very short existence litblogging has managed to establish itself as a medium of some influence and potential value.

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on (usually) Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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