Very few details are available at the moment, but I’m a little suspicious of this venture. Certainly a nonprofit review of books is a great model that I’m glad the LARoB is testing out (although, it must be said, it’s far from the first organization to go this route), but one look at the proposed content up there makes it appear scattershot.
What we’re beginning to see up on the web are literary reviews that attempt to cover an extraordinarily broad range of titles. I’m not sure that this helps things. Newspaper book pages could conceivably try to cover everything because the space limitations of a physical product meant that–in reality–they never would get close. Necessarily they played the role of choosing which books were worthy of attention, and thus they acted as a filter for “important” books.
With the Internet things are very different. Places like The Rumpus and the LARoB can cover as many titles as they can find people willing to write about them. So they cover lots and lots of titles. I’m not sure how useful this is.
From what I’ve seen of these pages, what they give you is a whole lot of boosterism–well-intentioned book reviews that may provide a decent snapshot of what a book is but that have very little critical value. More importantly, these pages have almost no sense of overarching aesthetic. When you combine that with the sheer array of books being covered, what you get is more like an enormous catalog than a review of books. It’s the “it’s all good in different ways for different people” approach to literary criticism, which certainly will boost your pageviews but won’t do much to advance the cause of criticism.
I prefer organizations like Words Without Borders or Three Percent that define the space they want to engage with very narrowly and thus necessarily articulate a set of values. (And that’s something I try to do with The Quarterly Conversation.) The Internet has certainly changed the mode of criticism, but (fatuous “death of criticism” predictions notwithstanding) it hasn’t changed its purpose or its importance. The reviews of books that appear online that will continue to matter 10 years from now will be those that articulate a worthwhile set of aesthetic principles, and all the literary journalism will be forgotten.
This coincides with something Chad Post wrote about recently:
The kids I talked to were recent grads and kids in grad school—the same people I think would be interested in Open Letter books, in “literature.” Well. First off, they read next to no book reviews. Not one of them ever bought a book based on a Twitter recommendation. Instead they rely upon word-of-mouth and serendipity. Each of them has a handful of “book friends” whose recommendations can tip the scales and cause them to actually seek out a particular book. Aside from that, they browse . . . they find the misfiled title (the ‘G’ author mistakenly placed among the ‘T’s), they occasionally Google their favorite authors to see if there’s something new available. They return to old patterns—favorite authors—and see what those people recommend. Overarching theme: they rely on people and chance.
This totally worked in the age of cluttered small bookshops with idiosyncratic collections and more eccentric owners. I was a bookstore brat. I memorized fiction sections and talked to the guys with the cardigans and tattoos who had read way more than I had. I took recommendations. I fell in love with bookstore girls. I remember losing my innocence when I entered a Waldenbooks and had the epiphany that there’s nothing special here. I remember my first experience of Barnes & Noble’s sterility. I remember the moment when I talked to a book buyer and realized that the pattern-shifting books just weren’t viable “for a store of our size.” I remember deciding that I had to get into publishing.
That moment has passed. Never again will a small-town Midwestern kid have the opportunity to peruse a hand-picked selection of literary fiction—one that might not appeal to the masses, but is dripping in cache and the cool of smartness. This is an exaggeration, clearly, but Saginaw, Michigan kids who end up interested in strange art will rely on Amazon.com—at least for the foreseeable future.
Critics worthy of the name help these kids find their books.