CRITICAL HIT AWARDS: Winners Picked by Tom Lutz of the Los Angeles Review of Books
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Welcome back to the Critical Hit Awards for book reviews. This is a round-up, a recommended reading list, and — why not? — a terribly prestigious and coveted prize. Winners receive a bang-up gift from Field Notes, our beloved sponsor. Nominate your favorite review of the month by tweeting it at @electriclit with the hashtag #criticalhit, or cast your vote in the comments section below.
Our guest judge is Tom Lutz, founder and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Electric Literature: You literally wrote the book on regionalism in American literature. And you founded a publication with an almost defiantly regional name. What do you see as the geography of LARB?
Tom Lutz: We knew when we chose the name that Los Angeles Review of Books was a bit steampunk — a traditionalist name signifying a commitment to the future. Most of the editors are here, but some are scattered around, and the contributors include people living in Istanbul, Cairo, Japan, Poland. At one level we are happy to represent a local way of thinking: we have a West Coast relation to cultural hierarchy, for instance, and we are a bit more Pacific, a bit less Atlantic. But from day one, we were international, with readers in 140, 150 countries, all 50 states, and since our early months we have had more readers overseas than we have in California.
My book on regionalism argued that all regionalist literature, at least all of it that people considered and still consider significant, was fundamentally cosmopolitan. When Hamlin Garland argued in the 1890s that the literary center of the country was and should be moving west, it wasn’t simply to replace one kind of provincialism with another, as Boston’s sense of cultural superiority had been displaced by New York’s in the late 19th century. He wanted representative literature, in the same way some people are now attuned to world literature. In short, we live in L.A., a lot of us, but we are not for L.A. It’s a world-wide web we live in, too.
The web gives you an accidental geography too, pushing your work into places you didn’t even seek out. You recently launched a print edition, right? That’s a huge milestone. How far has LARB come, exactly, from when it didn’t exist to where you want it to be? Over halfway?
We are launching a membership program this week, like an NPR station, and knew we needed some premiums to offer people. I thought maybe the world had enough tote bags and coffee mugs for the moment, and we hit on the idea of a print journal — one thing we know about our prospective members is that they like to read — as a premium, a free subscription for members. We will be launching a book line as well. The books will also be offered as premiums at a certain level of membership, and both the books and journal will be available in books stores, physical and online.
How far have we come? In some ways we’ve already come farther than we first imagined. I didn’t expect to have thousands of readers in India, thousands in Germany, France, Turkey, Brazil, and China — over 30% of our readers are outside the US. And in some ways we haven’t come as far as I expected — I though publishers would step up faster to support us, as they did for the New York Review of Books when it started. We are not halfway to the budget we need to thrive.
It is a communal, living project, and so it continues to evolve in ways that I wouldn’t have predicted, and I wouldn’t necessarily want to be able to predict where else we are headed. We have dreams of doing much more, we hatch new conspiracies every day….
I’m definitely signing up for that membership program. It sounds web content has been your grains and proteins, and now the print journal is dessert.
We’re gonna hit you with a tough question at the end. What makes a good book review? And what makes something a good LARB book review?
That’s both a tough and an easy question, the same as ‘what makes a good novel a good novel?’ — and it has the same set of answers: great writing, of course, engaging voice, wit, intelligence, insight, the ability to take readers into new worlds. It has to hit the intellect and the emotions (if we analytically separate the two). And in formulating this answer, I realized that there is something more personal, as well: I always find that the novels and book reviews I respond to remind me — not explicitly, of course, or obnoxiously — that the writer is smarter, or more adroit, or more knowledgeable, or more skillful (or all of those things) than I am. That’s part of the pleasure of reading, feeling like one is in extremely capable hands.
I was reading the New York Review of Books this morning, and piece after piece was great — Bob Silvers knows exactly what makes a good book review. At LARB we aspire to that excellence, but we also want to cast a much wider net, include a wider swath of writers, conceive of significant culture more broadly, and allow for a greater diversity of diction and style. So a great LARB review is one that surprises me with its reach.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Reviewed by Kathryn Schulz in New York Magazine
I’m not sure there is another case of a piece of criticism that I have enjoyed so much, respected as well, and so thoroughly disagreed with.
Black Against Empire by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr.
Reviewed by Steve Wasserman in The Nation
Wasserman, who once edited my hometown book review and is now at Yale University Press, begins this as a smart, longform book-based essay, in which the book itself takes a back seat to history, but then, 1500 words in, it becomes personal, Wasserman having been a teenage radical in Berkeley at the time (and, we find later, having reason to spend time with Bobby Seale later). He avoids the temptations of nostalgia and righteousness, though, even if the authors of the book he is reviewing didn’t manage to do so. He gives them their due, and their due criticism, and in the end, like a great essayist, he lets narrative make his argument.
Taipei by Tao Lin
Reviewed by Lydia Kiesling in The Millions
I can offer no better introduction than her own opening: “When I began to read Taipei on my morning commute, I wondered if I had been lobotomized in the night. On the way back home, I wondered why someone who hates words would take the trouble to arrange so many of them in a row. The following morning, I wondered, Why does he hate me?”
Congratulations to our winners! You may contact Brian Hurley to claim your Field Notes prize. And thanks to Mark Molloy for nominating book reviews this month!
Read a good review lately? Nominate it for a Critical Hit Award by tweeting it at @electriclit with the hashtag #criticalhit or cast your vote in the comments section below.
– Tom Lutz is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is also the author of Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears; Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America; Cosmopolitan Vistas, and American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History.