Denis Dutton dies at 66; founder of Arts & Letters Daily website
Denis Dutton, a scholar, author and Internet trailblazer who founded Arts & Letters Daily, a pithy website that links thousands of devoted followers around the world to smart, provocative writing online about books, culture and ideas, died Tuesday in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he taught philosophy at Canterbury University. He was 66.
The cause was complications of prostate cancer, said his brother, Doug, of the famous Dutton’s Books family, which ran independent bookstores in Los Angeles for five decades.
Denis Dutton wrote books (including “The Art Instinct,” an engaging treatise on the evolution of imagination, published in 2009) but did not join the family bookselling business. He did, however, share his brothers’ enterprising spirit. He launched a scholarly journal, Philosophy and Literature, now run by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Determined to recirculate out-of-print academic works, he ventured into electronic book publishing years before the current e-book rage. And, in 1998, he created Arts & Letters Daily, which the New Yorker called the “first and foremost aggregator” of well-written book reviews and other literary writing available on the Web. The magazine dubbed Dutton “the intellectual’s Matt Drudge,” a reference to the founder of the influential news site Drudge Report.
Unlike Drudge, Dutton was not interested in breaking news. He wanted to “incite thought.”
Modeled on a Victorian-era broadsheet, Arts & Letters Daily consists of three columns of witty teasers — written mainly by Dutton — about articles and essays on topics that provoked him and Managing Editor Tran Huu Dung, an economics professor at Wright State University in Ohio.
Recently their synapses fired over pieces on the decline of the soap opera, the metaphysics of lawn mowing, the enduring allure of “The Arabian Nights,” lasers and the search for the perfect golf swing, and a liberal’s critique of multiculturalism. The sources they linked to ranged from the mainstream (the Atlantic, Christian Science Monitor) to the obscure (a blog named Spiked, the Swedish magazine Axess) and swept across the political spectrum.
The diversity appealed to an erudite contrarian like Dutton, who for some years was a member of the Libertarian Party. He loved few things more than a good argument and often would go to great lengths to debunk fraudulent ideas or their purveyors.
“That was his sport,” Doug Dutton said in an interview last week. The motto of Arts & Letters Daily was “Veritas Odit Moras” — Latin for Truth Hates Delay — a tidy summary of the website founder’s approach to life.
A robust exchange of ideas was the daily bread when Dutton was growing up. The second of four children of William and Thelma Dutton, he was born in Los Angeles on Feb. 9, 1944, and grew up in North Hollywood.
His parents had long dreamed of running a bookstore, and in 1961 risked their life savings on a Laurel Canyon Boulevard storefront to open Dutton’s Books. It was initially run by Thelma, eldest son Dave and daughter-in-law Judy. Dave later took over the North Hollywood store, while Doug ran Dutton’s in Brentwood. (Both stores are now closed.) Their sister, Dory, managed museum bookstores.
In addition to his three siblings, Dutton is survived by his wife, Margit; and two children, Ben and Sonia.
After graduating from North Hollywood High School, Denis studied philosophy at UC Santa Barbara, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1966 and a doctorate in 1973.
In between degrees, he went to India with the Peace Corps, where he learned to play sitar from a student of Ravi Shankar (and, once home, shamelessly played for free meals at Indian restaurants). He taught philosophy at the University of Michigan from 1973 to 1984, when he moved to the University of Canterbury.
In the mid-1990s, Dutton started the Bad Writing Contest to expose “pretentious, swaggering gibberish” passed off as scholarship at leading universities. It drew about 70 entries a year, singling out for its dubious honors such well-known academics as feminist theorist Judith Butler and literary critic Fredric Jameson. The “winners” were announced in his journal, Philosophy and Literature, in which Dutton could be brutal in his comments; he described Jameson, for instance, as a man who “finds it difficult to write intelligibly and impossible to write well.”
He had been at the University of Canterbury for more than a dozen years when he came up with an idea for an Internet service that would trawl the Web for the best intellectual content and guide readers to the sources. “A daily reading list — with attitude,” as he later described it.
On its first day, Arts & Letters Daily attracted about 300 visitors. Now it averages 120,000 views a day — not bad for a website that eschews flashy graphics and carries no outside advertising. It quickly won kudos: The London Observer rated it the world’s top website; Wired magazine called it a “lusciously fat, slobbering intellectual’s site.” In 2005, Time proclaimed Dutton one of the “most influential media personalities in the world.”
His creation became the home page of choice for thousands of academics, Washington policymakers and writers as politically disparate as Norman Podhoretz and Eric Alterman. Harvard University evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker said Dutton was a visionary for recognizing that a website “could be a forum for cutting-edge ideas, not just a way to sell things or entertain the bored.”
It ran aground financially a few times but was quickly rescued, first by Lingua Franca magazine, which bought it in 1999; and, after Lingua Franca went bankrupt, by the Washington-based weekly Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002.
Dutton, who somewhat resembled Newt Gingrich with his square face and thatch of silver hair, ran the portal with a tiny staff scattered across several time zones. Based on Managing Editor Dung’s recommendations, Dutton posted about two dozen teasers with links a week. Dutton’s teasers were widely admired for their terse wit.
Fans worried about the future of the website were reassured last week by Phil Semas, the Chronicle’s president and editor in chief.
“Denis was the creative force behind Arts & Letters Daily and wrote all the items on the page himself, even when he was on vacation,” Semas said in a statement on the Chronicle’s website. “He is nearly irreplaceable. Even so, we intend to continue Arts & Letters Daily in the spirit in which Denis created and nurtured it.”