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Los Angeles Review of Books aims to 'revive' literary culture

The newly launched, online-only Los Angeles Review of Books trains a West Coast eye on the literary and cultural arts world.

April 28, 2012|By James Rainey, Los Angeles Times
  • “There can't ever be enough coverage of” books, said Los Angeles Review of Books founder Tom Lutz.
“There can't ever be enough coverage of” books, said… (Lisa Jane Persky, Lisa Jane…)

On the home page of the Los Angeles Review of Books, a crisp color image of a couple treading water in a pool fills much of the screen. An essay probes the meaning of pools "in our lives and in our art." That piece sits atop a video interview with cultural historian Leo Braudy, testifying to the Hollywood sign's totemic presence in Los Angeles.

That distinctly western sensibility is among the most striking features of the new online book review, launched last week with the stated ambition of combining "the great American tradition of the serious book review with the evolving technologies of the Web." The site, known in short as the LARB, offers a big-tent approach — promising coverage of two dozen different genres, from fiction to film to comics.

The newcomer arrives after more than a decade of retreat and re-creation for coverage of books. Stand-alone, printed book sections survive at only a handful of newspapers. Some of the reporting on books has migrated to newspapers' websites and to Web-only upstarts that often focus on a single genre or audience.

Those changes provided some of the inspiration for Tom Lutz, an author, professor of creative writing at UC Riverside and founder of the site, which offers reviews, essays and interviews with authors. In a pre-launch statement, Lutz said that he hoped the upstart would "revive and reinvent the literary and cultural arts review as we know it."

Initial notices have been good. Ira Silverberg, literature director at the National Endowment for the Arts, praised the LARB for "providing a really good service and a great breadth of material." Dan Kois, editor of a new book review at the online magazine Slate, has been impressed by the array of writers and a nascent "West Coast thoughtfulness."

As with most online publications, LARB's biggest challenge will be, first, to attract an audience and, second, to get readers and others to pay for what, at least initially, is being offered for free. Lutz talks about creating multiple revenue streams. A red button at the top of the home page sends readers to a page where they can sign up to pay $3.50 a month for a membership or $15 a month to become a "sustaining member."

The site got a $25,000 grant from Amazon and hopes to expand its list of corporate and foundation backers, to get paid by other publications to republish some of its work, to sell online publications and, eventually, to launch its own publishing imprint. Lutz concedes he is not sure of the eventual revenue mix: "I wish I could see the future more clearly than I do."

Its headquarters, in name at least, is Lutz's Silver Lake home, though the review's 11 supervising editors and 22 subject editors work mostly part time at their computers, wherever they may be. The 400 pieces that ran during its tryout year came from 325 different contributors.

Many of the writers for the site have donated their work, though some received $100 for reviews. "We are not paying them enough," Lutz said. "The idea that writers write for free on the Internet is, I think, a terrible thing for the culture. Part of my mission and my business plan is to fix that, as much as I can."

Though the reduction in print space devoted to books in the Los Angeles Times was one motivation for starting the online review, Lutz said he does not consider his new outlet to be competition for the newspaper.

"There are some 3.5 million titles out there each year," he said. "There can't ever be enough coverage of them. And there has been very little overlap between what we are doing and what The Times is doing, day to day."

The Los Angeles Review of Books plans to offer several new reviews a week, along with essays that range broadly over art, politics and culture. One piece compared the Depression-era "Hooverville" libraries to the book collectives that popped up at Occupy encampments last year.

Another notable offering — "The Ghost of Books: Past, Present, and Future" — featured several writers ruminating on the books that haunt them. Novelist Jane Smiley testified to how reading Dickens' "Our Mutual Friend" — "each word impressing itself upon me, then dissipating into the whole, building an entire world one mote at a time" — compelled her to become a writer.

The site does not yet draw enough visitors to be measured by the Web rating agency comScore, but its editors said their metrics showed 530,000 unique visitors during the tryout year, 20% from California and the rest from around the United States and 150 other countries.

"We are not under the shadow of the New York publishing industry and the kind of conventional wisdom of that industry," Lutz said. "The Review is finding its own way in relation to national and international culture."

james.rainey@latimes.com

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