Arts & Cultural Vitality / 2013
Los Angeles Review of Books
We are trying to establish a major institution for cultural exchange and conversation, centered on an online review of arts and culture. Los Angeles-based and Los Angeles-focused, the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) is the communal product of many minds, including some of the best know and most established figures on the L.A. cultural scene, along with emerging L.A. writers in the fields of literature, art, music, politics, and cultural studies, enhanced and enlarged by the active conversation of readers all over the city, the county, the state, and beyond. We work hard to bring the worlds of publishing, academia, film and television, new media, art, and music together with the common reader in a fruitful, productive, and engaging conversation. --- In a feudal world, there is no criticism; only the king's taste matters. Given the cosmopolitan collection of diverse cultures here in Los Angeles, literature, the arts, and culture need a critical conversation, need to have spokespeople and champions and translators and critics to help cultural work find its audience, to build bridges among communities, and to disseminate the best that is being thought, written, and produced here in Los Angeles to the full range of local audiences and out into the larger world. --- Cultural criticism has a long and important history, and for the last 150 years it has taken place largely in a print world supported by advertising and subscription. That world is dying, as seen as the shuttering of book review supplements in almost every city in the country, and the shrinking of book and arts coverage elsewhere. LARB aims not just to replace these lost venues, which have been central to the vibrancy of American culture over the last century and more, but to rethink them, reinvent them using all of the new media tools at our disposal, making the cultural conversation more diverse, more interactive, and more wide-ranging, less hemmed in by traditional models. By merging the worlds of traditional literary publishing, academia, small presses, online writing, film and television, and the explosion of desktop production of all kinds, LARB hopes to build a big cultural tent, creating a space for very fragmented communities to interact and learn from each other. --- LARB is a daily online publication that has already, in a small way, begun this transformation. We are a largely volunteer organization that has managed to post over 1300 in-depth reviews, essays, and interviews, produced by a wide variety of contributors, from first-time writers to some of the most esteemed figures in literature, art, music, film, television, politics, and culture. We have already seen the impact on the morale of writers and readers in L.A., and we hope to increase our presence and impact, bringing our work to a larger audience, and a wider array of audiences, as described below. We also will impact the arts and culture scene through innovative public programming around the city, and through developing innovative curricula for our schools. --- In sharing culture and cultures, communities thrive. We are not interested in art for art's sake, or criticism for criticism's sake. We think that literature, art, and culture are central ways that a society understands itself, incubates its own progress, and forges its bonds across what might otherwise be divides. We hope to be a major partner in helping Los Angeles arts and culture continue to significantly enhance human development. --- We believe that all art and culture is both local and (at least potentially) global at the same time, and that a central way to ensure the continuing vitality of the L.A. arts and culture scene is to disseminate its work nationally and globally. We also believe that while the world has taken notice of L.A.'s excellence in classical music and art, as well as, of course film and television, it has been slower to recognize L.A.'s literary and critical strengths. We have started to have a real impact in that area and hope to do much more. Criticism and conversation are necessary to incubation, to nurturing, and to bringing literature, the arts, and culture to their largest possible audience, and thus to have their greatest impact, to realize their greatest potential.
What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?
We have already partially succeeded in bringing a sense of community to the cultural life of L.A. in a new way. We are training a new generation in the lost art of editing. We have built something the literary, artistic, & intellectual community is proud to be associated with, & proud to have represent them. We have received extravagant praise from the larger literary community. The New Yorker called us “an instant jewel of the internet,” Pico Iyer said we are “like 1000 angels descending,” Salman Rushdie claims ours was the best piece of criticism written about his work, & writers Jon Robin Baitz & Michael Tolkin call LARB “the best literary magazine in the country.” But more importantly the best writers in the country want to write for us, & continue to come to us not only from all over L.A. County, but also from New York, Boston, the Midwest, the West, & overseas. We have achieved the status of a major voice in the cultural conversation in a remarkably short time. We have been recognized by the publishing industry in Publisher’s Weekly, the business community in Forbes, & the academic community in Chronicle of Higher Education, & many other venues. The accolades are based on our daily achievements in bringing forth smart, dynamic, beautifully written, carefully curated, edited, & fact-checked essays, reviews and interviews and the conversations that develop about them on the website. Primarily, in other words, our site is our achievement, an ever-growing, intelligently interlinked conversation on literature, art, music, film, TV, politics, new media, & the rest of our shared culture. We have succeeded in bringing together writers from around the world, bringing together new writers with top professionals, writers from a wide variety of different cultural worlds: literary fiction, SF, fantasy, mystery, thriller & other genres; the commercial publishing world & the nonprofit & academic worlds; the big presses and the small and the self-published; artists, architects, sociologists, medical researchers, musicians, filmmakers, scientists, & TV writers; & all of these from across a broad array of the immigrant communities that define L.A. We cover a much wider range of texts, genres, media, & topics than the traditional periodicals in this field, reflective of the less hierarchical, less tradition-bound culture of Los Angeles. While the other arts have enjoyed national prominence, literature & criticism have lagged. We feel we have succeeded in making people (including the New York publishing world) understand the importance, diversity, and vibrancy of the literary culture of this, the largest book market in the world, & in making the perspective of L.A. writers we provide part of the necessary reading for publishing professionals around the world. Our pieces are reprinted by Salon, Daily Beast, & publications in Brazil, Germany & elsewhere. And we have managed to begin working toward sustainability, increasing our income significantly.
Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.
We collaborate, first and foremost, with the 100s of contributors and our 100s of contributing editors, the majority of whom are L.A.-based. We are collaborating with our readers, whose comments are an increasingly important part of the site. We collaborate with a number of local arts and culture institutions, including the L.A. Public Library, KCRW, KCET, Broad Stage, UC Riverside, UC Irvine, USC, CalArts, UCHRI, Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, LiveTalksLA, and PEN USA. We collaborate with publications, universities, and literary groups around the country, co-sponsoring events, doing cross-promotion on our sites and in social media. We have also started to work with LAUSD, a pilot program at Animo Pat Brown Charter H.S.
Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?
There are 5 central measurements we use to assess how we are doing. (1) We will measure our readership. Although our most engaged readers are in L.A., we now have readers in 150 countries and in all 50 states reading almost a half million pieces a month. We hope to double that each year for the next two years. Reaching those numbers would constitute success in this area. (2) We will measure the diversity of our contributors. We successfully attracted a wider range of writers & reviewers than any of the other most important reviews of books and culture; in the VIDA survey of women’s participation in book reviewing, for instance, our numbers are better, sometimes by a factor of two or three, than all the major outlets except the Women’s Review of Books. But we want to have much more robust representation of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, Persian, and other communities. We would measure our success by the rise in those numbers. (3) We will monitor our influence. Already we see publishers featuring our reviews on book covers and in advertisements, and see references to our pieces in NY Times, New Yorker, Slate, Salon, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites. To see that increase would be a measure of our ability to impact the national cultural conversation, as would higher Google rankings of our pieces, and mentioned in other highly-ranked pieces. (4) We will gauge our success by the support we receive. Our success so far has been made possible by people’s willingness to support the project financially (as well as by their willingness to volunteer their time as editors, & by their willingness to donate their writing or write for a very nominal sum). Our success going forward can be measured by the willingness of people to financially support our project, making the other two less necessary. We have roughly doubled our contributions from our 1st year to our 2nd, & we would like to double again this year and next. We are starting a membership program, & the level of participation in the program will be an important measure of our success, as will the total dollars raised. (5) We will measure our success in terms of the support we can give to others. We believe strongly that writers should get paid for their work, & aim to help to reverse the damage done to writers’ livelihood by the decline of print periodicals. We will consider it a major success if we raise enough through gifts, grants, & auxiliary income to pay writers the rates that print book reviews have traditionally paid. We also would measure our success by whether we can expand our outreach in community programming & educational services. We hope to produce more in the way of radio programming, for instance, to bring our curriculum project to more schools, & to bring the intensive editing workshops we provide our interns to other high school, college students & recent graduates. If we are serving a broad range of L.A. communities we will consider ourselves a success.
How will your project benefit Los Angeles?
LARB will provide, for the people of Los Angeles, a source of lifetime learning, global in scope and yet local in its perspective and in many of its concerns. Our website will be a meeting place for everyone interested in culture in all its various guises, an open forum for anyone to participate in. — Our presence in local media, as in our current collaboration with KCRW and our work with KCET in development, will help more people become engaged with the literary, artistic, and intellectual life of the city. Our public programming, like our current collaborations with The Broad Stage, LiveTalksLA, and LAPL’s ALOUD series, will continue to increase in breadth and frequency, bringing a series of newly conceived, multigenre performances to a variety of audiences, building on the work being done on our website. And, in turn, our national and global presence will help bring readers elsewhere an appreciation for L.A.’s contributions to culture; that is, we will post podcasts and video digests of these events on our website and our YouTube channel. Our public programming will enhance the offerings the city already has, and our partnerships with the arts and culture organizations listed below, along with, we hope, partnerships with many more, will help integrate our famously fragmented city. — We bring the most recondite and specialized research from our major universities, art schools, and colleges and make it accessible to anyone in the city. — By placing the writers in the worlds of film and television, the literary writers, the popular genre writers, the academic writers, and the newspaper and magazine writers, we build bridges among tribes that have long kept their distance from one another, with benefits in all directions. — Our work with high schools will help engage students with culture in many different ways. — We will be a new and vigorous and innovative partner with all of the arts and culture organizations in town in the project of bringing the world to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to the world. We will help recruit, train, and retain the writers and critics required to keep Los Angeles the most important city for arts and culture in the country.
What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?
Los Angeles would be a city with a more vibrant, a more inclusive, a more intelligently discussed and more widely, globally appreciated cultural scene. The different literary communities, from the graphic novel readers and writers, the electronic culture producers and consumers, to the TV, film, and new media writers and users, to the academic researchers in all fields of the humanities and sciences, across all races and ethnic groups, and across all of the arts, would have at their disposal a responsive, innovative, interactive forum, a “publication” that would bridge the academic and popular, the local and the global, and the traditional and the new. LARB will have kept on the cutting edge of any new technologies useful to its mission and its readers. LARB will have helped keep alive the fine arts of editing, proofreading, and fact-checking, and will continue training new generations in them. LARB will have developed multiple platforms for use in instruction from the early grades through graduate colleges. The best that is being thought and written and produced in 2050 would be finding its maximum audience. LARB will have established itself as among the very few leading forums for arts and culture in the world. And instead of losing ground, as predicted in the GOOD report, Los Angeles, through the vitality of its literature, arts, and culture, will have increased its ability to enhance human development, both in the city and county, and far beyond.