United by a love for literature
Marking a departure from the solitary life of reading and writing, about 20 independent literary bloggers announced Friday that they will begin working together in hopes of drawing readers to books they feel deserve more attention, while seeking to generate more and deeper public discussions of literature.
Calling themselves the Litblog Co-Op, the effort includes the sites the Elegant Variation, Moorishgirl, Rake’s Progress and Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, all of which will continue to operate separately, the bloggers say.
Key to the effort is the Read This! campaign they’ve created, in which five of the bloggers will each nominate a title he or she thinks deserves readers’ attention, then the co-op will vote for one to promote jointly. The first title (four will be selected each year) will be announced May 15 on the group’s website,
Los Angeles blogger Mark Sarvas, who drew the project together, described the effort as less an award program than a conversation starter.
“We want to shine a light on literary fiction likely to get overlooked and lost in the shuffle,” said Sarvas, a writer who runs the Elegant Variation from his Santa Monica apartment. “The mission is to see what happens when 10 to 20 lit bloggers get behind a title and push hard. Does it make a difference?”
The bloggers say they will focus on literary novels, short-story collections or graphic novels published in the U.S. within 12 months prior to the quarterly selection or one month after, and by a living author. They will not consider self-published books, though that and a restriction against reissued works could change. Books by the bloggers or their friends are ineligible, they said.
“We’re casting a wide net to get a more eclectic view,” Sarvas said. “We want to avoid the Philip Roths and Cynthia Ozicks, people who don’t need help” finding readers.
Literary blogger Edward Champion, a San Francisco paralegal and freelance writer, hopes the effort will coalesce discussions now fragmented among many blogs.
“It allows a one-stop shopping place for people to essentially find out what these many passionate and literate chroniclers of literature have to say and see what points of view are out there,” Champion said. “But I don’t see it as serving our own self-interests. It allows other people to find out what we’re reading, what we’re talking about and to join in.”
Champion, who runs the edrants.com blog, hopes Read This! will broaden readers’ access to information about literary writers who fall outside the usual mass-market publicity juggernaut.
“There’s been concern in the lit blogs that we have plenty of press on Ian McEwan’s ‘Saturday’ or big books like Tom Wolfe’s, but for the small books, the David Marksons of our world that no one really knows,” there is little coverage, he said. “This represents the opportunity to champion the kinds of authors and titles that are often overlooked by conventional establishments.”
Laila Lalami, who runs the Moorishgirl blog from Portland, Ore., said the project offers literary bloggers and their readers “the best of both worlds.”
“Each of us bloggers has a unique voice, unique interests, and even distinct audiences,” Lalami said. “I’m really into literature by writers of color, or any kind of fiction that explores life in the margins. I also read quite a bit of fiction in translation, and I suppose those interests distinguish Moorishgirl from some of the other blogs. But being part of a group effort is also cool, because it’ll enable us to get that much more attention to one book.”
The project has stirred interest among publishers eager to find new ways to connect literary writers with readers. “I can only be excited about the possibility of any kind of book getting extra attention,” said Reagan Arthur, senior editor at Little, Brown. Publishers, she said, can give added consideration to “more adventurous fiction because they think it might find an audience or support system. That’s good to explore.”
Publishing in recent years has undergone something of a socioeconomic divide -- the rich get richer while the poor languish, spurred in part by readers’ reluctance to spend $30 or more for a book they know little or nothing about.
“I’ve heard it described as winner-take-all, in which so many book-buying dollars are consumed by a few bestsellers -- right now it’s ‘The DaVinci Code,’ ” Arthur said. “There’s just less book money to go around on the consumers’ part, so they focus on what they think is the safer bet.”
Whether literary blogs have evolved large enough audiences to affect sales on the low end of that scale is the question, she said.
“Just by generating discussion and interest and support, it seems like a really exciting new avenue beyond just general print reviews that we have come to rely on,” said Arthur, editor of one of the books on the bloggers’ current reading list, which neither she nor Sarvas would identify. “It’s sort of a second wave of publicity and awareness for general readers.”
Los Angeles writer Steve Erickson, whose fantastical novels, including the recent “Our Ecstatic Days,” tend to get warm critical receptions but cold sales, welcomed the added attention at a time when he said mainstream outlets are devoting less attention to literary fiction.
“There’s no doubt that as book reviews around the country ... become more and more indifferent to fiction, some sort of guerrilla action is called for,” said Erickson, who teaches creative writing at CalArts. “The attention my recent book got from blogs like Rake’s Progress ... and the Agony Column and Small Spiral Notebook and whatever ones I’m not even aware of, was at least as intelligent and insightful as any from the conventional press.”
Erickson sees the potential effect of the blogs as a positive move toward a broader, and more democratized, discussion.
“I can’t help thinking this is the future, and I also can’t help thinking that the more the future moves from the media capitals of L.A. and New York out into the hinterlands, the better for literature, culture, fiction, whatever,” he said.
Doug Dutton, who owns Dutton’s bookstores in Brentwood and Beverly Hills, also welcomed the effort.
“I think that the bookseller’s lament is how many wonderful books that we’re aware of ... that get lost in the deluge of product,” he said. “Any time one of those books can be found and promoted is to everybody’s good.”
Yet it’s unclear whether the blogs have much effect on readers buying from bookstores.
Dutton said that when customers come in looking for a book they’ve read about on the Internet, usually they cite reader reviews on Web retailers such as Amazon.com.
Still, the effort could have a similar -- if lighter -- effect to that of the Man Booker Prize in England, which in addition to announcing a winner releases a short list of contenders.
“One of the best things the Booker Prize has done is drawing attention to five books, when you get to the short list, all of which are worthy,” Dutton said, crediting the list with drawing him to David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.” “It was one of the best books I’ve ever read.... It’s a nice thing to have more surprises.”