Tom Lutz is one happy man. He has every reason to be.
This morning, Lutz watched as the online literary behemoth that he founded, the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), finally launched its new website. With more than 250 contributors, including Jonathan Lethem, T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley, Jeffrey Eugenides and Michael Pollan, LARB is the West Coast's answer to the New York-dominated literary review scene, to the folding of print book reviews across the country over the last several years and to the charge that Angelenos don't read.
Compared to its preview-mode Tumblr site, the new site is classic, clean and easy on the eyes. And it's getting a lot of attention.
“The Twitter's been blowing up,” Lutz says, sounding both dazed and relieved. “I just took a look at my Google numbers for the first time and our page numbers are through the roof. By noon we had almost a [previous] month's worth of page views.” Though he's quick to demur: “It's partly that we've been kind of like the town crier running through the streets, so it shouldn't be a surprise.”
Anyone who was following LARB's Twitter yesterday witnessed the frenzied retweeting of giddily expectant readers. For all the excellent in-depth, long-form writing the review publishes, it knows how to juggle the 140-character Twitterverse.
Though Lutz is founder, editor-in-chief and publisher, he uses the pronoun “we” more than “I” when he talks about the site's creation. One hundred fifty people helped get the site ready for its full launch, which was initially supposed to happen last fall, and then in January. Over the months, there were “some dark nights” where Lutz doubted if LARB would ever take off. But the April 18 start date makes the wait both circular and poetic, as the preview mode launched exactly a year ago today.
Beneath the sparkling veneer of LARB's new site is a carefully curated, complex network of links intended to make the reader's experience as rewarding as possible. Its design is wonderfully conducive to the curiosity — the urge to click and explore — that the Internet seems to bring out in people.
“I come from an academic background, so I'm really interested in the way knowledge is put together,” says Lutz, who is also a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside. “The fun of the project is not just collecting nice pieces of writing, but figuring out how they bounce off each other. … We might link a book about vegetarianism to a book about cannibalism to a book about tigers eating people … to follow threads of ways of looking at the world that aren't immediately apparent, but that we put together editorially.”
Still, it's not like Wikipedia, where “every possible link is linked, and everywhere takes you everywhere else,” Lutz says. The site's creators wanted it to be “an intellectual tour, not an encyclopedia tour.”
Two years ago, L.A. Weekly wrote a piece on Lutz called “Tom Lutz: Keeper of the Printed Word,” and in many ways, the title is appropriate. “As somebody who's spent the first half of my life reading used books, when the book fell apart in your hands, it was so good,” he says. “I think the physical book is a fantastic technology that doesn't get replaced by these new forms of reading.”
Still, Lutz is obviously no Luddite, and he is of the firm belief that “the genius of the word” can make the medium vanish. “When you have your first Kindle, or iPad and you're reading a book, you're like a kitten with a fly, you just love to watch the pages go by, but after a while you get sucked into the novel and the device disappears,” Lutz says.
When it comes to the future of the book review, Lutz is an optimist for the potential of the Internet. “Two years ago, we'd get asked about a print edition by half the people we talked to. Now we get asked by 5 percent we talk to,” he says. “A print edition of what we're doing online is not possible.” The idea of somehow replicating the system of links, the site's images and the embedded video and audio players is unthinkable.
Though the Google analytics for today might have made Lutz a little wide-eyed, they're far from his primary concern. When the review first went online, the LARB team paid a lot more attention to the ups and downs of page views, partly in the same spirit of innocent fascination that initially comes with having a website. And they noticed trends. “On a day when we ran a poetry piece, we would see a dip. And that would happen every time, but does that mean you stop running poetry?”
Now, on the bigger site, nuances such as these recede into the background.”We're trying not to follow the SEO gods,” says Lutz. “We're not in the business of building numbers, you know. We're building literary communities.”
Lutz will be at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. to speak at the panel “California Literature: The Big Picture,” in the Seeley G. Mudd building.