A Literary Journal for the Backlit World
Tom Lutz and the Los Angeles Review of Books

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As the Internet opens up access, for both writers and readers, to different types of information and different avenues for acquiring it (video, podcast… GIF?), it is worth wondering what the literary review journal’s place in this new cultural ecosystem is, or will be. Is the literary review magazine still relevant? As more print publications do away with their physical copies, turning squarely toward a digital model, toward a market-necessitated dependence on pop culture, do the classic book reviews and literary journals stand a chance? And—if we want to get really radical—are they even worth saving?

These questions can seem downright apocalyptic to those who eagerly devour the literary criticism found in the likes of the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and the Atlantic Monthly— and for those who write and edit for them. With the rise of social media-oriented organizations and the digital makeover of legacy print publications, the literary magazine apocalypse appears ever-more solidly an ongoing, inescapable bad dream.

Such an environment would seem more than unwelcoming to the idea of starting one’s own literary magazine— who would want to dive into a draining pool? But that’s exactly what Tom Lutz, the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the Los Angeles Review of Books, who spoke Tuesday night at the Stanford Humanities Center, did in 2011. His journal launched in 2012, online only (with a 2011 prelude on Tumblr, of all places). The site is an aesthetic callback to an earlier print era, with its subtle gray and white color scheme and elegant fonts. That classic look, combined with the lofty name, makes the LA Review of Books seem like a vestige of days gone by rather than the active creation of a new Internet age. But Lutz and his journal are nothing if not proactive— and characteristically Los Angeles.

“The name was a steampunk gesture,” Lutz noted. “It was a re-appropriation of an old moniker to blend with the new.”

Lutz had no intention of sailing nobly into a dying sea. Rather, he sought to recreate the dusty prestige of the literary magazine for the modern world, and for readers who grew up with screens rather than papers. This is a reality he embraces (such as when he referred to the LARB’s print versions as “iPad-size”) and sees promise in. He’s not fighting innovative technology so much as welcoming it as a new set of tools with which he can achieve an old sort of magic— a magic that is struggling to maintain its cultural foothold in the tumult of the literary magazine industry’s ongoing existential crisis.

“My favorite book was the Columbia Viking Desk Encyclopedia,” he said. “My pleasure was what I didn’t know— to enter on a regular basis the vast halls of my own ignorance.”

Lutz explained that this undisciplined, adventurous learning is harder to do now, even if one wants to. The word-search functionality of the Internet brings more knowledge to your fingertips, but it also brings you only what you specifically want.

“There’s no more accidental exposure to knowledge you didn’t know you were looking for,” he said. “You can’t really be surprised anymore.”

Lutz seeks to recreate that magic of old learning in the LARB, where he takes special pride in the ever-changing network of “Related Links” at the bottom of stories. Instead of an algorithm, his own editors update these recommendations on a daily basis, relying on a human rather than electronic connection. He calls them “serendipity tunnels”— where you can “find a new path through links” that you hadn’t expected when you first set off.

***

Lutz didn’t know that the LARB— or college, for that matter— would be his destination when he first “rolled out of high school in a cloud of marijuana smoke.”

“I’ve always been the best-read drug addict in my friend circle,” he said. He called his early post-high school years a version of ‘Portlandia,’ but not as funny: following the quintessential “hippie curriculum,” he would read any and all books he found interesting, ignorant of their pedigree or their place in the academic continuum. He was an autodidact, an accidental inter-disciplinarian, finding his literary diet in the $1 bins in front of bookstores. He “didn’t need The Man to tell him what to do or how to do it.”

He soon took a job as a cook at a small liberal arts college, and while there, he realized that there are people who get paid to read: professors. And he discovered one guiding truth: “there’s nowhere more inviting to people with authority problems than academia.”

Newly inspired, he set his roaming intellectualism toward a concrete goal, enrolling as a student at the University of Massachusetts and getting degrees in English and journalism through an aggressively undisciplined reading style.

“I found a school that would give me credit for life-learning,” he explained. “I saw books as tools for living, not as a means of inquiry.”

He arrived at Stanford in the 1980s, pursuing a Master’s and PhD through the Department of Modern Thought & Literature. Here, he became suddenly conscious that he had never pursued a “coherent program of study.”

He decided that this was fine– not only fine, in fact, but rather a budding life philosophy that would guide his career in academia and publishing. “Every program of study has a coherence, and the best time to decide what that is is when it’s completed,” he said. “Following my nose had integrity.”

Studying English at a top university in the 1980s, Lutz was very conscious of the fact that the humanities were poised at a “strange moment.” English Departments, in a desperate grab toward relevancy in a post-modern world, were incorporating as many disciplines and philosophies as possible into their new mission statements, arguing their worth and justifying their existence to an ever more dubious populace.

“Every academic who came to give a talk was wearing a really nice suit and a really nice tie,” Lutz recalled. “You can measure the discomfort of an academic by how nice he is dressed.”

This wave of self-doubt and fear turned previously staid and cloistered English Departments suddenly “undisciplined and imperialist.” As such, Lutz’s own lack of discipline had “remarkably become a marketable trait.”

“It was a time of reexamining,” he said. “I was in the camp that thought we academics needed to write for beyond the walls of the academy. We needed to be public intellectuals.”

Ever devoted to the substance of the academic establishment, Lutz never felt any obligation to respect its long-standing structures. He wanted the magic of accidental learning to be available to the general reader, rather than prescribed by academics, or by algorithms, without any sense of joy.

In a way, the crises of the humanities and the review journal in the modern digital marketplace were uniquely suited to Lutz’s brand of literary learning and culture. With all the substance thrown into chaos, he could reorganize the pieces in any way he saw fit.

“The heart of the conception of LARB was that sense of wandering among the disciplines,” Lutz said. “The encyclopedic impulse has always controlled me. So we have that urge toward the encyclopedic and that urge toward the general reader.”

Rather than arguing that literary review journals are still at least relevant in the modern world, Lutz went further: they’re “not handmaidens to literary cultures, but a part of the conversation that makes culture.”

When he was younger, Lutz said, the Sunday arts and book supplements in newspapers “were his original literary education.” The public could enter the space of literature, theatre, commentary through these publications– a space that, if not dutifully recorded by democracy’s fourth pillar, would be reserved “only for people who have the last name Rockefeller.”

Without literary journals and newspaper arts sections, only the exceedingly wealthy could possibly afford to acquire the same level of knowledge that was once readily available to any willing reader– to go to each play and see each film and read each book covered in a magazine’s pages. Thus, when newspaper book reviews and the Sunday supplements began evaporating, it “was a loss of an important public square, but also an entire generation of expertise.” These publications, which had once been robust culture-makers, were no longer viable, and as a result everyone would lose something rich and enduring.

***

To Lutz, a book review is a central democratic institution, a work of service rather than a work of scholarship— not a bastion of stuffy elitism, but rather a democratizing tool, bringing knowledge beyond the academy walls.

“It was a way for me to somehow speak both to and beyond the discipline I was in,” Lutz said. “It’s the relationship between the research that’s going on in academia and the public—the public public, not the academic public.”

That essential function of the literary journal in democracy and culture persists, even as the world those things exist in has become more dynamic and, in some sense, more intimidating.

There’s an ephemeral timelessness to a good book review. Lutz’s faith in this fact drives him, as he continues to try to find a way to make magic out of publishing’s chaos. Combining, as he says, “new media, middle-aged media, and elderly media,” he seeks to connect to the past glory and function of the book review by using the opportunities of technology in the present as tools. Rather than feeling lost in the developing new media, he is focused on incorporating the new into his vision not of the old, but of the timeless.

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