Literature 2.0

24 MB MP3

The best reading experience is to occupy your time with the worthy dead rather than the ambitious living.

Steve Wasserman

Chris’s Billboard

On the brink of Harry Potter launch weekend Number 6, you and the kids have your camp chairs ready for the bookstore line. And still we’re all supposed to be worried silly that since the dawn of the Internet, serious reading is “at risk??? and books are as good as over. Fewer than half of us engage in what’s called “literary reading,??? which is reported down 10 percent since the 1980s. Yet literary writing is up 30 percent, probably a lot of it on Internet websites, which suggests another picture entirely. What if we’re in the most promising climate for real reading, writing and talking about literature since Samuel Johnson’s London of almost 300 years ago: the links, then and now, being the coffeehouse fashion, amateur publishing (in our blogosphere today) and articulate ranks of readers, with lit-blogs now, keeping the whole game a democracy. On Open Source: your reading, your writing in a digital age.

Kevin Smokler

Author of Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times. Thinks, writes, and speaks on the role of technology in literary life. You can find him online here.

[by ISDN from Portland, OR]

From Katherine’s pre-interview notes

The web makes it easier for readers and books to find each other. Publishers are catching on to the idea of reaching the younger generation in the way they communicate (i.e., online). Literary bloggers are finding niches and reviewing books that the New York Times and other papers don’t cover. The web decreases the distance between writers (who increasingly have their own sites) and readers and allows a fan culture that didn’t exist previously in literature.

Mark Sarvas

Litblogger (The Elegant Variation), novelist, and screenwriter. Started The Litblog Coop.

[by phone from Los Angeles, CA]

From Katherine’s pre-interview notes

The internet isn’t going to make books obsolete. What it gives you that’s new is a focal point where people — sitting alone reading — can gather. He’s found that this community is hungry for literary information and connection. Litblogs can be more approachable than, say, the New York Times Book Review. What brings people to a blog is the blogger’s voice/style. Mark writes quite differently on his blog from the way he does in his novels.

Steve Wasserman

Until May 2005 the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Literary agent at Kneerim & Williams.

[by phone from Los Angeles, CA]

From Katherine’s pre-interview notes

Despite last year’s NEA study that bemoaned the decline in literary reading in America, books aren’t going to go the way of the dinosaur any time soon. Serious reading has probably always been a minority taste here. And this is an exciting moment in American fiction, with lots of interesting new authors. Although the web is perfect for those who master the short, declarative sentence, there’s no evidence that it reduces our patience for the longer-form rumination in books. Bloggers will be judged like print writers — those who have accuracy and arguments that are sustainable over time will survive.

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  • Blogs have finally realized the promise that the Internet made several years ago, when it said (or rather its boosters said) that it would allow for much cheaper and targetted forms of book promotion. The thigns that blogs rpoided though, that 10’s of 1000’s of e-mails from pubishers couldn’t is a mediating intelligence. Books thrive on word-of-mouth: the bloggers are doing precisely that, but with an amplified voice…

    As for publishers dealing with all this: it’ll vary from publisher to publisher. As an independent, I certainly hope (and to some degree believe) that small publishers (and, indeed self-published authors) wil have the most to gain and wll therefore be the nimblest. And, because the power of little communities to spread the word about something good will combine with the lower barriers-to-entry into publishing, we will see an proliferation of book-esque content that goes from writer to reader through the filters of editors/publishers/reviewers/bloggers.

    That book-esque content may not always be in print format, and it may not always be delivered through traditional or online booksellers. EBooks and downloadable audio content will increase their market penetration; more folks will sell direct to consumers (either through websites or at physical events); we could, I believe, see the revivial of the old 19th century model of books-by-subscription…

    Definitely talk to Ron Hogan at, a great blogger who worked for Amazon in the late 90’s…

    Some thoughts from an indpendent publisher.

    Richard Nash

    Soft Skull Press

  • Liz Tracey

    I have to second Ron Hogan (he interviewed me when my first book was published), and would also suggest that Richard Nash is most definitely an important source as well (I do not know him but I am a fan of his press.)

    As a writer (more former than active), I am continually left a little buzzed by the prospect of the immediacy of publishing what I write on the web, and get people reading and talking about it — but I also miss the permanence, not so much for my own work as for those who I read every day with such gusto, and then one day — lives change, babies are had — and those voices go away and leave me with silence in the form of a page without updates.

    Perhaps most relevant to this show is what Mr. Nash says re: word of mouth — whereas I used to get my reading suggestions from book reviews, friends, and bookstore/library “serendipity” (you wander around long enough, something catches your eye, or your imagination and wham! it’s a beautiful experience), I now get much of what I read via the recommendation of those whose blogs I read or from All Consuming (, which began as a way of tracking books people were talking about on their sites, but now encompasses a broader range of media.

    In sum, I do not believe books will die. In fact, I see a small renaissance in the craft of bookmaking (if not in their writing) if only to draw more clearly the line between print and digital.

  • Katherine

    RichardNash and Liz Tracey — thank you for weighing in so early on with your thoughts & helpful suggestions. We hope you’ll listen in and keep commenting.

  • Also, agreed with Mark over Kevin! I am the same type of New Yorker reader.

    Last fiction I finished in the New Yorker… I’ll bit my tongue on that, but in cleaning up my last 8 years of issues, the 1999 Debut fiction issue was a great class– Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Franzen, Matt Klam…

  • Same type of reader: cartoons first, and then the stories in order, and then the first page of fiction to see whether it’s worth reading.

    Separate question: Chris– at the end of last year, you signed off the blogosphere saying:

    “I’d like to have broken more news on BOPnews, and even more I’d love to attract more historians, philosophers and essayists who think in long paragraphs and thousand-word themes.”

    To Chris and the panelists: is that what we should be looking for online?

  • The decline of fiction? This is being batted around tonight. Chris said it was down 10%.

    I wouldn’t be surprised, given that “storytelling” increasingly comes through television and videogames (Steven Johnson’s book), and also, as Steven just said, “privileges the short form versus the long form.”

  • JamesFlynn

    The internet effect on reading? Well, previously, I think many would have chosen to read a book based on the opinion of a trusted media source – for example, the New Yorker magazine, or the London Times Literary Supplement.

    With the web, the “trusted media source” can become more focussed, more specific – instead of getting recommendations from a newspaper. with a circulation of hundreds of thousands, we get recommendations from a blogger, whose readership may be in the hundreds.

    An example? I’d periodically drop in on to see what she’s reading – it’s often books I’d like, more focussed to my specific interests than what the NYTimes would recommend. I’d trust her recommendation above most.

    And then sometimes the blog entries themselves read beautifully:

  • Is it just me or is the reading of litblogs starting to distract from the real work at hand of reading actual books? As much as I like blogs — much as I liked Survivor and the first variations of reality TV — there’s such a proliferation that I’m starting to feel way too overwhelmed and its becoming easier and preferable to just hit the off button on my monitor and open a real book.

  • Absolutely Ed. Like mark said, blogs are on ramps to books. ODing on blogs is like only watching movie trailers but not actual films.

  • I fundamentally disagree with the notion that an hour’s read is not worth one’s personal investment. This sentiment reflects an ongoing mentality that not only underestimates readers, but that suggests that anything requiring a greater attention span than a round of Day of Defeat is invalid.

    First off, with any short story or ambitious novel, you take a chance. And it is the reader’s obligation to try and find that magical conduit between himself and the author. If that conduit doesn’t exist or isn’t an easy fit with the reader’s sensibilities, this is where conversation comes into play. Because people might just want to know when something is or isn’t cutting it. I suppose this is one of the reasons why considerable debate and discussion has flourished on the Internet. I imagine that today’s readers, presented with a culture that values Paris Hilton over the Paris Review, are almost stepping out of their dingy caverns wondering if their passions, interests, and obsessions are sound and finding to their delight and surprise that they are not alone. That books DO matter. Because newspapers sure as hell aren’t cutting the mustard these days.

    Since newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times have been failing to offer the kind of qualifying, erudite coverage that was once de rigueur, since they continue to cut their coverage down to bite-sized review coverage (here in San Francisco, not even Mark Marford’s columns are safe; yesterday, it was announced by the Chronicle that they will be henceforth reduced in length with the “full version” only available online), the conversation, which shows no signs of dying, is being transposed to litblogs. Which may be the necessary and logical step forward.

    To address the preposterous comparison of litblogs to “movie trailers,” this shows a fundametal misunderstanding of litblogs. A movie trailer cuts various clips from a movie and uses these to sell a book. A litblog, by contrast, expresses one person’s opinion, culled from choice excerpts and contextual articles, and answers to no marketing forces whatsoever. From here, a conversation flourishes, whether through comments or linkage. Publishers such as Soft Skull understand this and have found ways to communicate to this medium. They realize that litblogs not explicit marketing outlets, but sanctuaries for smart literary types hoping to find and weigh in on the books that Wasserman and company would never deign to cover in a heartbeat. The big behemoths, as I discovered when I talked to several publishers at BEA, are mystified by what litblogs are and seem to have no clue that such a wide audience hungry for books exists online. They somehow believe that their ongoing flash and overhyped baubles will somehow negotiate the medium.

  • Mark Sarvas

    I’m not someone who makes a habit of rooting around for the last word, but I noticed the prominence given Steve’s quote about the “worthy dead” versus the “ambitious living” and a gentle riposte seems in order.

    I’d only point out that it’s enitrely because of their ambitious labors while living that these worthy dead merit our attention today. Some of us aren’t perhaps so keen to allow posterity to do all our handicapping.

  • I didn’t get a chance yesterday to listen to the whole stream, but I look forward to downloading the MP3 file if/when it becomes available.

    As for the “worthy dead/ambitious living” – at the time it struck me as a pre-meditated attempt at Wilde-ian quipping that didn’t really say anything.

    From what I’d heard so far, it was a lively discussion that I wish could have enjoyed a more open-ended format, without artificial breaks (for commercials, other shows, and so on). Damn time & space constraints! Which I guess is just a sign of how much I enjoyed it.

  • Diamond Dave

    The eye and the ear portal. Through the ear I can listen to interesting words 24/7

    thanks to Thanks to my library card “Im never poor and never bored.” and the internet I can read 24/7 The problem I have is trying to both at the same time. Its A dance trying to both at the same time. What to do haviing a good read while haveing a good hear. Dont think Im the only one John Lennon

  • Agree absolutely with Mr. Wasserman that fiction will not die anytime soon, though his assertion that the best reads come only from the words of the worthy dead (a subjective phrase if ever I saw one) caused some reflexive eyebrow raising on my part. This nugget coming from a critic, former book review editor and now agent. Is my assumption correct that Mr. Wasserman plans to represent only the estates of ‘worthy’ deceased authors?