Tom Lutz of Los Angeles Review of Books on Criticism in the 21st Century
On a Decade of Supporting “Long, Intellectually Challenging Work”
As the Los Angeles Review of Books marks ten years since its founding, Tom Lutz—the publication’s publisher and co-founder who led the magazine through the past decade as editor-in-chief—answered questions about building a literary magazine from the ground up, what makes a good book review, and creating a community of readers and critics.
As the founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, you’ve seen it through many changes and expansions over the last decade. What were some of the early challenges you experienced and how did you address them?
We started in Amish barn-raising mode, all volunteers, and few of us with any experience putting together a magazine, the blind leading the blind, and now that I’ve mixed the metaphor, think of the disastrous possibilities of a blind barn-raising. We had to learn how to put out a magazine, how to build and maintain a complexly interrelated website, how to get the work in and the word out. We rose from the ashes of the Sunday newspaper book supplement, and we wanted to be able to pay the writers who used to get paid by those outlets, and I wanted to pay all the editors who didn’t have cushy academic jobs like mine, and that meant raising money.
And so while we were teaching ourselves how to run an online magazine, we also had to teach ourselves how to build and sustain a nonprofit organization to pay for it all. We realized early on that we needed as many different revenue streams as possible, and that meant learning each of them as went along. As we started hiring staff we needed to learn labor law and the rest of the regulatory world, and the attorneys and business people on our board were very helpful. We had to learn how to run events, how to enter the book publishing business, how to enter the podcast world, and so on.
LARB’s lifespan has, so far, coincided with the fastest-changing period of media technology in history; back in 2011, the internet was already a primary source for news and culture, but the decade since then has seen multiple pivots to video, the escalation of social media dominance, and many other changes. What strategies has LARB used to adapt and grow in such a volatile media landscape?
Lots of parts to that question. We had to learn to insert ourselves into social media conversations, and that has been and I assume will continue to be a series of moving goalposts. Facebook, for instance, was still free when we started, but they now actively shut down any attempts to spread word if you aren’t paying for it. (Just in case you didn’t already hate Facebook enough, they have made life progressively harder each year for all nonprofits.)
We have had periods when we were producing a fair amount of video. We still use that medium, but it turns out our audience are readers, and the numbers on our video pieces are much lower than on text. We started the Radio Hour a few years in, and that has developed its own audience, both as a radio show and a podcast, with much better numbers, too, than our videos—again, a primarily verbal medium, which is what our audience comes for. So we are doing less rather than more video as time goes on.
We needed a couple redesigns, in order to make the site more phone-readable, for instance, since half our visits are now phone hits, for instance, while only a few percent were when we started. It’s all a constant learning process.
According to your mission statement, the LARB “seeks to revive and reinvent the book review for the internet age.” In your opinion, how has the internet age changed book reviewing? (What do you think makes a good book review?)
The internet de-professionalized the book review—the majority of book reviews online are by amateurs on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. There are many super-readers on those sites that work for free books and associate fees, and who have interesting things to say, but these are not professional critics working with professional editors. When we started, we were told that what we wanted to do was impossible. Nobody—the prevailing wisdom was in 2011—but nobody read longform online. I don’t think, in the end, we reinvented anything, but we did show that there was an appetite for long, intellectually challenging work for the screen.
The past few years have brought a flood of conversation about, and increased awareness of, the effects of structural inequities in publishing and media. What is the responsibility of a single publication in addressing this dynamic? How do individual editors play a role in industry-wide discussions about race, class, and efforts for inclusion?
Individual editors and single publications are the only ones who can make a serious difference, because they are making the decisions.
Industry-wide discussions are important, but there are many basic incentives that reinforce the status quo. For instance, it helps a magazine, or a book publisher, to sign up a famous author. The famous author has readers waiting, and magazines and publishers need readers. “Famous American authors” have not historically been a very diverse group of humans, and so this survival instinct—to pounce on any famous author one can in order to stay open for business—works against diversity, inclusion and equity.
I have found that the best-intentioned people sometimes are very bad at expanding the conversation, too, because we are so sure we have all the right understandings and attitudes and desires that of course we will make the right decision. In our second year, after trying to get VIDA to include us in their annual accounting of gender disparity, I decided to do it myself, and I counted. Before the count I was very proud of our gender balance. It seemed to me that we had a much higher percentage of women than any of the legacy places, and I knew I was accepting more pitches from women than for men.
When I counted, I was shocked to see that we were hovering, week by week, around two-thirds men and only one-third women, and that my own numbers were not much better, despite what I “knew.” And also surprising was the fact that the male editors as a group had a marginally better count then the women—again, women know their hearts and minds are in the right place, and that they are pro-women, and so they are sometimes less proactive, and less vigilant. Nonwhite editors often had accepted higher percentages of white authors than the white editors, and I assume for similar reasons. I tried to encourage editors to do statistical analyses of their own records, as best they could, because the numbers don’t lie.
Another incentive is to be on the search for “great writing,” because that often means writing we recognize as fitting a preexisting template—and that template is itself inadequately diverse. If you only publish what you already like because it is just as great as the other stuff you recognize as great, you are setting an exclusionary trap. This is a tricky business, because if you have standards, which most people in publishing like to think they have—and why have a review if you have no standards?—those standards are based on recognized excellence, and that recognition is again going to tend to recreate what already exists.
Those two incentives are not the result of people being racist, but they very often have racist results—it is, in a word, systemic.
I think the most important thing we are doing along these lines is the LARB Publishing Workshop, a summer publishing institute with the express purpose of diversifying the industry. The industry has embraced it, which is great, and we’re heading into our sixth year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, and communicate, and in the literary world (as in other professions), the pandemic has made it much more difficult to foster in-person connections. How have you cultivated a sense of community as editor-in-chief at LARB? How can community play a role in the career trajectory and creative evolution of beginning and seasoned writers?
COVID-19 pushed many of what used to be face-to-face interactions online, but we were primarily online to begin with. Our community of readers live all across the country, forty percent of them in a hundred and fifty other countries, and only six or seven percent in Los Angeles. So although our Los Angeles community is important to LARB, we are a small part of the LARB community of readers. The Los Angeles literary community provides the majority of our revenue. We are reader-supported, but our Los Angeles readers are our most generous supporters, though, and since our events are important to maintaining that community involvement, our fundraising operations are taking a hit. We’ve been planning on big 10th anniversary events, and thought of throwing one in New York as well, but of course that was all COVIDded. Instead we had an online celebration, with Margaret Atwood and many other writers.
I’m glad you asked about being part of writers’ creative evolution. What we (we editors but also all the writers) created was a discourse community, and that has had very clear trajectories for quite a few young writers, especially academics. We were among the first to publish Roxane Gay, Leslie Jamison, Merve Emre, Anne Helen Peterson, Hua Hsu, Lili Loofborouw, Amanda Gorman, Ismail Muhammad, K. Austin Collins, Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Kate Wolf, Steph Cha, Morten Høi Jensen, Sarah Mesle, Nathan Jefferson, Aaron Bady, Daniel Olivas, Anna Schechtman, Sarah Chihaya, and many, many others who have gone on to great things. And the Publishing Workshop has placed people throughout the literary landscape and incubated quite a few magazines and publishing houses. A literary community, for writers, is a place where you feel welcomed and supported, your work feels welcomed and supported, and you are given a platform in the process. For readers, it is a place where you are engaged and feel enriched by the conversation. That has always been and always will be true, I assume.
I have stepped down as editor in chief (more than ably replaced by Boris Dralyuk) and stopped acting as de facto executive director (more than ably replaced by our first actual ED, Irene Yoon), on the assumption that as I get older, like my hearing and vision, my sense of the community and its needs is getting less acute, and it is necessary to ensure that LARB is guided by that community. Our average reader is almost thirty years younger than me, and doesn’t need to hear about how I trudged miles through the snow to school, so I’m very happy to become a less directive part of the community. I hope to pitch them with an idea or two soon…