Tom Lutz: Keeper of the Printed Word 

Thursday, May 20 2010

Tom Lutz writes books (four works of nonfiction so far) and he reads with a vengeance. Recently appointed chair of the Department of Creative Writing at UC Riverside, Lutz devours books, and reviews of books, and essays about books. His world is largely shaped by the written word, and consequently, he's been acutely aware of what he describes as "the continual shrinking of print media." Periodicals fold on a regular basis, as book-review sections in major newspapers threaten to vanish altogether.

It's a trend Lutz couldn't take sitting down, and his response is the online periodical The Los Angeles Review of Books, scheduled to launch this fall. Initially conceived as a conventionally formatted book-review section, LARB is evolving into something else: "The most immediately noticeable difference between LARB and other book-review sections," Lutz explains, "is that we'll run multiple reviews of the same book, and link to reviews elsewhere on the Web. There will be a lot more to it than that, though. As we've progressed with building the site, it's become clear there are loads of things you can do on the Web that you can't do anywhere else. Because there are no space constraints, a Web publication can broaden in many directions at once, and we plan to offer video and audio podcasts, interviews, and a page where people can talk to each other.

"We're building a lot of archival material into the site before we launch, too, and it's going to be a very deep site," he continues. "A viewer will be able to click on the name of a contributing editor and link to an in-depth archive of that writer's work, as well as anything anyone else has written about that writer. I'm planning to post at least two new, significant pieces every day, so the site will be constantly changing and will be able to accommodate a lot of material. We have 150 contributing editors so far, and they'll be able to write as much as they want, and do things like mount chapters of new novels before they've been published."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON

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Most of the contributing editors are from the L.A. area, but, Lutz says, the LARB won't be as locally focused as something like the Weekly; it aims to attract a national readership. He plans regular columns from contributors in Mexico and Russia. Yet LARB will focus for the most part on fiction.

"The novel is the most sophisticated instrument ever devised for human understanding, and LARB will be weighted in the direction of fiction," Lutz says. "We also plan to take a serious look at a kind of writing that's often dismissed as genre fiction — mysteries and thrillers, for instance. What's considered worthy of study in the literary world has shifted radically over the past 50 years, and it reflects the natural evolution of academic thought, which is constantly raising questions about what matters."

The nonfiction world will have a place as well, he adds. "Contributing editors include neuroscientist Antonio Damasio; architect Thomas S. Hines; globalization expert Manual Castells; designer Lorraine Wild; writers Michael Pollan and Barbara Ehrenreich; cultural historian Leo Braudy; social commentator Mike Davis; and [Weekly] food critic Jonathan Gold."

Lutz anticipates an annual operating budget of about $500,000, and is in major fund-raising mode. "How that goes will determine how many people I can hire — no decisions can be made about editors until we know what kind of money we have. LARB won't be bloglike, in that pieces won't just be thrown up on the site. The writing will go through a serious editing process, and we'll have as many staff editors as we can afford — and writers will be paid. I want to become the best-paying book-review outlet around. If all goes well, we could start printing a hard copy within a year, too, and down the road we hope to publish books.

"Publishing is changing," Lutz points out. "What used to be regarded as the establishment has less power now, and part of the reason we can go forward with this is that we don't need to be anointed by the New York publishing world. Another reason we've been able to go forward is UC Riverside — it has given me lots of support, and provided I.T. help from the engineering department, which I definitely need. This isn't a simple blog — it's a very complicated set of pages they're designing."

Lutz may be getting help from UC Riverside, but for now LARB is pretty much a one-man show. "At this point I'm the editor, publisher and main fund-raiser," he says. "Like Apple, it's growing out of my garage."

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