So we’ve all read the spats in the newspapers and online that have taken place between journalists and bloggers, watching the drama unfold from our ringside seats over who has the greater authority in the world of writing about books. The debate so far was beautifully presented in this excellent post at Vulpes Libres. Taking on some of the issues it raises, I’m thrilled that arts editor of the Washington City Paper and freelance book reviewer, Mark Athitakis, who has his own book blog American Fiction Notes has agreed to an interview here. I found his answers fascinating and insightful, and I hope you do too.
Reading your work, I feel you have a very genuine and passionate engagement with the arts. How did that interest develop?
I was always an avid reader, but growing up I was more of an obsessive pop-music fan. As a teen I swept the floors at a kitchen-utensil warehouse and handed out towels at a YMCA, and all that money pretty much went straight to CDs and LPs. (So I suppose I owe my career to sweaty men and pizza cutters.) What little cash I had left went into fanzines and record guides, and I read tons of music criticism–I devoured Robert Christgau’s guide to 80s records, my Trouser Press record guide, and anything else I could get my hands on. A lot of all this was escapism–the punk and alt-rock bands I liked seemed a lot more interesting than the dull little Chicago suburb I grew up in–but I also got very energized by the writing itself, and I became very, very interested in doing something like that. By the time I was in college, I was regularly going to concerts, spending even more money I didn’t have on even more records–and, like a lot of college students, feeling very self-satisfied in the absolute correctness of my opinions. So I started to try my hand at writing criticism.
Can you tell me about the career path that brought you to where you are today?
Circuitous and clumsy! Largely it’s been an attempt to successfully write about books full-time. If there’s a way to do that as a freelancer, I haven’t figured it out, but I’ve been lucky enough to get a few bylines in larger daily papers. Mostly, I’ve worked at alternative weeklies. (I’m not sure if there’s a British equivalent, but they’re free weekly papers that focus on both long-form journalism and arts criticism.)
What are the best and the worst aspects of your job right now?
The best part of it is the quality of people I get to work with–City Paper has a very smart batch of editors and writers who know a great deal about politics, writing, and the arts, and can do it with both intelligence and humor. (You need the humor, because the pay is so mediocre.) The worst part is that there are now fewer opportunities to do that kind of work–like pretty much every newspaper I know, ours has gone through rounds of budget cuts and layoffs. I’ve only been in the arts-editor chair for about a year, and the definition of my job–and the resources I have to perform it–have been radically reshaped at least twice. Journalism, as a profession, has never had much tolerance for the lazy, but there’s no room to coast now–there’s a constant *doing*, in the hopes that somebody does the thing that recovers profitability.
I’m intrigued to find a professional arts journalist with a blog, given the current, often antagonistic relationship between the two media. What decided you to have a blog?
I love the phrasing of your question–it implies that the decision to blog was made for me, which is largely true.
I think journalists need to rethink what “publishing” is and experiment more with video, audio, blogging, and social networking tools–many of us are now doing that, and a few have been at it for a while now. You have to rethink it in part because the next generation of readers embrace all of those things, and it’s folly to dig in your heels, stick with print, and say you’re not interested in reaching those people, or say that everybody has to process your ideas on your terms. But when I decided to start American Fiction Notes, I wasn’t being dutiful about it–“Oh, bother, guess I’ll do this blogging thing and see how it goes.” I’d been blogging regularly for City Paper’s staff blog and launched the paper’s music blog; before that I edited a handful of blogs at the Chicago Reader, my previous employer. In my personal time, I briefly ran a blog on neighborhood affairs in the Chicago suburb where I was living before I moved to D.C., and I was keeping a “screening blog” of films I was watching. Both eventually died their deaths, thank goodness; I moved away from that suburb, and tracking what movies I was watching *did* feel like un-fun work. In the blogosphere, people can tell when you’re doing something in a dutiful, obligatory way, and the traffic will reflect it.
With this blog I wanted to do a few things. I wanted to embrace my enthusiasm for my chosen specialty, American fiction, and a blog is a nice way to keep up with that beat; every day, I’m looking for stories that relate to what I care about, and that draws me to things that I might like to write about down the road. The journalism term for that is “gathering string,” and that’s largely what this is–gathering string in public.
More practically, I’m advertising: My reviews for City Paper are often buried in the listings, and anything I write on the staff blog is quickly buried by another staffer’s post. That is as it should be on a group blog. But on my blog I’m always on page one.
How have you found the blogging experience so far?
This has been the most fun I’ve ever had doing a blog. Partly that’s because I feel like I’ve finally found a theme I enjoy and a way to cover it that doesn’t feel burdensome–I try to have a mix of pointers to stories I find interesting, with the occasional commentary on a particular subject (like, say, book trailers, or Amazon’s problematic little Kindle). Also, I’m not forcing myself to write reviews. Nearly all of my reading these days is of books I’m reviewing for other outlets, and want to keep things relatively fast and loose on the blog, pointing people to things I find interesting; my time for deep, considered thoughts on a particular book is pretty much reserved for the published reviews.
A nice surprise this time is to see the response from people who better understand the world I’m writing about. A week or so back I wondered out loud if “connected story” collections were a trend these days to get around the publishers’ concern that debut story collections don’t sell; a few days later I got a comment from an editor of one such “connected” collection, essentially verifying that.
Where do you stand on this vexed issue of professionals vs. amateurs? For instance, I recently read the opinion that bloggers lacked the necessary authority to write negative reviews of books. What would you say about that?
It really depends on the blogger, and I think in the past year or so the “antagonistic relationship” you mentioned above has pretty much died away. I understand the skittishness of some newspapers and magazines to embrace blogging–a large publication prides itself on its credibility with readers, that credibility is a product of the accuracy of their reporting, and working at blog speed means you’re bound to make a few mistakes. But many newspapers have learned to be both speedy and responsible reporters, and many blogs now successfully speak with real authority and intelligence.
I wonder what this blog critic you mention considers “necessary authority” to write a negative review–or any review, for that matter. Must you have an advanced degree in English literature? Experience as a reporter and editor? Tenure? I think there are some bedrock requirements for a good reviewer–an ability to efficiently articulate a book’s ideas, a working knowledge of the relevant related literature, a watchmaker’s obsession with getting the details right, an ability to discuss a book’s problems or merits without lapsing into cliche. A lively style helps too, of course. But there’s no reason why a blogger isn’t just as capable of meeting those requirements as an editor at a daily newspaper–and quite often they’re a damn sight better at the “lively style” bit. Bloggers like Mark Sarvas and Maud Newton proved themselves very capable on their own blogs, and they’ve rightfully been given opportunities to write for daily-newspaper book reviews. I almost said they “graduated” into it, but I think the worlds have flattened a bit–it’s not as if they stopped blogging because they got bylines and a paycheck. They just found ways to successfully leverage old-line media to give their blogs more authority. And good for them.
What do you see as being the main differences between book bloggers and literary journalists?
Again, I think it’s hard to generalize about this–not all book bloggers and literary journalists are created equal. And I think both have real value in many cases: For instance, I read both Galleycat and Publishers Weekly to learn about the publishing world. There’s an instinct to say that book bloggers are focused on picayune obsessions that only their three other blogger pals care about and and that old-line book critics are stick-in-the-muds who can’t be bothered with anything that isn’t the new Updike or Roth. But there are plenty of bloggers who write about nothing but mainstream releases and lots of dailies that try to keep things surprising.
That said, I think there are a couple of important differences that are worth pointing out, especially regarding book bloggers who might aspire to eventually review for print publications. I still see great value in editing, and I don’t mean having a pal give some thing a light read-over for grammar and spelling. When I go through a piece I’m editing, I try to read it as the most demanding reader imaginable–the person who going to test every logical flaw, every misspelling, every infelicitous turn of phrase, every cliche flopping around like an ill-fitting suit. A writer can be a good self-editor, and I’ve happily worked with many writers who don’t require much editorial elbow grease. But there’s nothing like a second (or third, or fourth) set of eyes on your work with a mind to improve it. A lot of egos get bruised in the process–I’ve been both the deliver and recipient of that punishment–but the better writers survive it just fine. A blogger of any ambition should actively seek it out. It can only make you a better thinker and a better writer.
The other issue is a matter of ethics. I’m glad to see that some book blogs are getting enough attention that they’re actually starting to attract advertising, but I wonder if some of them think about the inherent problems with being both a reviewer and somebody who accepts money from a publisher. I see book giveaways on Web sites saying, “Our friends at Bloomsbury have provided us….” I don’t want to be friends with Bloomsbury. I want to know what they’re publishing, and I’m happy to look at galleys of their books. But engaging in a promotional relationship with publishers is something I wouldn’t do at my day job, because it calls my credibility into question. Can somebody trust me to be honest about a particular publisher because I accepted ad money from it? I’d love to see more of discussion about that. (I get nowhere near the amount of traffic to attract advertisers, so for me it’s happily a moot point.)
What about this argument that bloggers may be the saviours of the small press? Do you think the mainstream media does enough for the eclectic, the eccentric and the newcomers?
I don’t think the mainstream media does enough for books, period. Certainly it’s been harder for daily newspapers to make room for books coverage, and oftentimes once they’ve covered the major releases and books relevant to their locality there’s not much left. I do think mainstream publications try: Entertainment Weekly, for instance, consistently surprises me by mixing up their coverage of the week’s “big book” with notices on poetry, graphic novels, and small-press books. But they have space about the size of a postage stamp to cover ’em.
So in that regard I think that sites like Bookslut have great value, in that they make room for books that simply won’t get covered in the larger outlets, or they’ll cover it more in depth. As for whether that means they’ll be saviours of the small press, that’s hard to say. It’s something of a small world we’re in–a blockbuster small-press novel may sell about 1,000 copies, while a successful debut by first-time novelist may only move about 10,000 or so copies. Any attention helps.
How do you see arts journalism developing in the future? Do you think it will be in any way influenced by the competition with the blogs?
I think it will, and I think that alternative weeklies like City Paper will feel it more acutely.
We’re currently fighting a two-front war. For the past decade or so the daily newspapers have taken a lot of the alt-weeklies’ best ideas–edgier cartoons, sex-advice columns, covering non-mainstream music and nightlife–and run with it, to the point where most major American cities now have a youth-market tabloid run by the daily newspaper, designed to cannibalize the alt-weekly market. And on the other side are the blogs, where aspiring arts journalists can start getting their reviews and ideas out in the world without bothering with the lead times and editorial process that an alt-weekly will put you through. I pay and blogs don’t, but it’s increasingly clear to me that a lot of young writers don’t find that particularly important, at least initially–they just want to get their name out there. (This may say something about the affluence of aspiring arts critics and what that means for how coverage might be skewed in certain directions, but I haven’t really looked into it and don’t want to engage in embarrassing speculation.) So our audience is getting siphoned off by the mainstream on one end and by the blogging underground on the other.
So I wonder about the survival of publications like the one I work for ten years down the road, but that’s not to say that I’m panicking (yet!) about the future of arts journalism. For all the chatter about the death of reading, the growth of American anti-intellectualism, the short attention spans of youth, etc, every generation is clearly producing batches of writers who say thoughtful, surprising, and carefully reasoned things about culture. What’s changing is the sifting process by which you become a mainstream critic. There’s no one way to become an arts journalist, but time was, the process was usually something like this: you started out at your college paper, found an alternative weekly to write for, used those clips to get in the door at a daily, then eventually climbed the ladder into a major American daily or magazine. (Or you gave up. It’s often thankless work, and there’s very little money in it.) Now it’s wide open. I don’t doubt that the next film critic for the New Yorker is somebody who is blogging about movies as we speak.
And how do you see book blogging developing? Do you think the internet will have a significant role to play in the world of the arts?
I think we’ll see more of it, but it’ll move more slowly. A few months back the National Book Critics Circle published data from a survey of its members and some of the comments about blogs were very dispiriting–“I don’t know what a blog is,” “I’ve never blogged,” “I don’t waste my time with such things.” Luddites still roam this particular parcel of the earth, and I understand the complaints. Yes, the blog world feels like ADD theater sometimes. But I also think it does a great deal to generate interest in books in general. One thing I’ve learned as a journalist is that people enjoy articles that are either very short or very long–something they can luxuriate in for a while. This may be a little pollyannaish of me, but I think that a person who follows book blogs, quick-hit as they are, can easily be attracted to a 5,000-word essay in the New York Review of Books. They’re not separate spheres–they’re two different types of publications that can supplement and inform each other. I don’t think there’s such a person who’s only interested in book blogs. There are people who are interested in books, and they’ll happily have that interest served by a blog, a podcast, or a publication–it just as to be smart and engaging.
I enjoyed the video clip on your site of your interview with Manil Suri. Have you had any particularly memorable arts interviews?
The more time I get to spend with somebody, the more I’m enjoying the business of interviewing–I quickly lost my interest in doing a 20-minute “phoner” with a musician or writer, because after 20 minutes I feel like I haven’t even begun to get a grip on what somebody is like. So I still fondly remember spending time with the San Francisco poet Harold Norse, a one-time contemporary of Charles Bukowski who wrote a fun, bawdy autobiography, “Memoirs of a Bastard Angel.” He was in his 80s when I spoke with him, but he still had a great deal of energy and enthusiasm. More recently, I’m glad that Richard Price freed up a couple of hours of his time last summer to talk about his work; he’s one of the last of the true believers in the big American social novel, the one that goes all up and down the class ladder, and I think that makes him one of the country’s most important writers. Plus, he’s a tremendously funny conversationalist and a great storyteller, so I didn’t have to ask many questions. Interviewing is often just the fine art of shutting up.
And finally: Contemporary American fiction – what are its strengths and weaknesses right now? And which authors do you have your eye on as potential stars for the future?
I think that, for better or for worse, we’re still very deep in the McSweeney’s era, in which Dave Eggers has defined a sort of American tone for the early 21st century–boyish, mildly ironic, polite but pranksterish, very earnest about intimate human affairs, and sort of willfully disinterested in anything beyond it. I think that Eggers has done tremendous things as a supporter of literacy–his 826 National nonprofit has spread across the country, which I think is fantastic. I just wished I liked his books more–and not just Eggers’ own novels, but the ones that come out through McSweeney’s, which often feel amateurish. Still, there are some excellent satirists that are a product of the McSweeney’s era. George Saunders is the most obvious example–I’d highly recommend “Pastoralia” and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” for anybody who wants to understand how neurotic America can be about itself. I’d also put in a good word for Jack Pendarvis, who put out a similarly funny and entertaining story collection last year titled “Your Body Is Changing.”
Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I’m seeing an increasing move toward simplicity now–the sort of bone-dry but deeply affecting writing you see in Raymond Carver. The best recent example I can think of is “Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name” by Vendela Vida. (Who is, ironically enough, Eggers’ wife.) Ha Jin’s great novel about Chinese immigrants assimilating in America, “A Free Life,” had a choppy but oddly appropriate style–I know it turned off a lot of critics, but I think it did a tremendous job of explaining that the immigrant experience isn’t an outsize drama but a steady accrual of tiny victories. I loved Willy Vlautin’s “The Motel Life” for how uncomplicated it was–the writing exposed the characters’ feelings without any messy explication–so I’m very much looking forward to reading “Northline.” My platonic ideal is something that evokes the first work of American fiction I fell hard for, “Winesburg, Ohio.” I want to keep finding the book that manages to say everything that needs saying, and does it without a hint of ornament.