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“It’s Fun to Toss a Grenade Every Now and Again”

PUBLISHED: March 22, 2010

The Second Pass, an online literary magazine that aims to pay as much attention to the old and forgotten as to the new, recently celebrated its first anniversary. To celebrate the occasion, the site’s founder and maestro, John Williams, presented short pieces from twelve writers, including me, about their favorite out-of-print books. I’ve posted about The Second Pass before because I think it’s one of a number of sites producing interesting and creative—and generally unremunerated—work about books and literary culture. This time around, I’ve asked John to reflect on what’s he learned over the past year and where he thinks book culture is headed. His answers appear below.

1. With a year under your belt at The Second Pass, how would you judge your progress? Have you accomplished what you set out to do? What has surprised you about running a literary site?

I’m happy with the site’s progress. The truth is my only goal for the first year was to publish good work, update the site on a regular basis, and try to start building an audience. I feel like I’ve done all that. Unless you’re a name brand, have a big budget, or are doing something deliberately shocking, it’s very difficult to get people to discover and keep returning to a web site. It takes a lot of patience, which, luckily, I think I have. Having said that, my goals for the second year (and onward) are a bit different. I’d like to come up with creative ways to increase the site’s visibility, and obviously money becomes a concern at some point (more on that below).

What surprised me—pleasantly, and it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise given the shrinking market for reviews—was how many talented people came forward to write for me, eager for a new place to showcase their work.

2. What are the roles of the other people listed on your site’s masthead? Are you usually the one to work with contributors and edit their work?

There are three people on the masthead who contributed a great deal to the site’s existence: Strath Shepard, who designed it (brilliantly, I think); Jennifer Maas, who “built” it, a technical task that would mystify me; and Charles Hunt, an old friend who generously contributed the initial money needed to get the site off the ground. I occasionally run to Strath and Jennifer with a tech problem, but otherwise the site (in terms of daily operations) is a one-man store at this point. The contributors listed on the masthead are invaluable—their writing is top-notch and their reviews are what make the “Circulating” and “Backlist” sections go. But in terms of assigning and editing reviews, I do all of that, as well as the blogging.

3. Can you tell us a little bit about your professional background and how it’s affected your work on the site? (I assume it’s made getting galley copies easier.) And what, by the way, is your day job?

I worked for six years in the editorial department at HarperCollins, and have since worked on a variety of projects, including Titlepage, an online literary interview show hosted by Daniel Menaker. Those experiences did mean that I knew several publicists, but publicists I had never met reacted well from the very beginning to The Second Pass. I think there’s enough uncertainty about the present and future of books coverage that any ambitious new outlet is taken seriously. My prior experience, both professional and social, has mostly helped in terms of knowing talented writers, many of whom I’ve roped into contributing reviews. Of course, my previous editing experience has also, I hope, helped me to maintain a certain level of quality on the site. As for day jobs, I still do part-time work on a few different projects, though I’ve been more seriously looking for another full-time gig recently.

4. How do you cover costs for The Second Pass? Any plans regarding advertising?

There isn’t much cash flow (in or out) at the site. It’s a labor of love at this point, but I do hope that changes in the not-too-distant future. For now, I get a percentage of sales when readers buy things from Amazon after linking there directly from The Second Pass. This is just a trace of money, but I’m not complaining. The best thing for the site would be for readers to, say, link to a book at Amazon from The Second Pass and then navigate around the site and end up buying a 52-inch high-def TV. I think I get a slice of that, amazingly enough.

Advertising is one possible route, and I’m exploring that. I have another plan in mind that’s a bit more complicated and that I don’t want to jinx. But if it ever takes off, I’ll send you a detailed follow-up about it. In short, though, if there’s a mogul reading this who’s interested in expanding a media empire, I’ve got a good-looking books site ready to fit right into the puzzle. Let’s talk.

5. Many new critics and reviewers are now starting out online—or at least developing their presence and voices there. For example, Scott Esposito’s The Quarterly Conversation is often cited as among the best online literary mags, and he recently had a piece in the LA Times. James Wood has commented at The Millions, a place serving as an incubator for new writers while also attracting contributions from established authors. Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin and Michael Schaub review for NPR. The Complete Review’s M.A. Orthofer has worked as a judge on the Best Translated Book contest and written for The National. And Maud Newton has leveraged her popular blog into writing for mainstream outlets and had some great success publishing in Narrative. How do you see these developments changing the way books are written about and the way literary careers are made?

I fall somewhere been skeptic and proselytizer when it comes to the Internet’s possibilities. On the one hand, there are a billion things floating around out there, and it’s very difficult for any one of them to get noticed—and then to be noticed for a sustained amount of time is yet another story. And of course, a very healthy percentage of those billion things aren’t worth finding. But if you can establish a presence, keep at it, and you’re doing good work, like Scott, Jessa, Maud, Michael, and several others, then it makes perfect sense that it will lead to more “traditional” opportunity.

All that is prelude to take the question in its two parts: I think the way books are written about has been opened up in healthy ways. I like that there are more amateur (and semi-pro and pro) voices on the Internet, in the sense that it’s not just the unimaginative circle wherein writers of a certain kind of book review another example of that kind of book written by someone else. I’m not the first (or even the hundredth) to think that can lead to a lot of back-scratching or dry summation rather than forcefully argued opinion. It’s also true that the Internet has been great for, say, literature in translation, where entire sites (like Three Percent) can be devoted to a subject that gets less attention than it should in mainstream outlets. But as for how literary careers are made, I don’t think that’s changed as much as the tech apostles would like to believe. If The Second Pass and a dozen other literary blogs recommend a book, I can’t believe that has anywhere near the practical result of a rave on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. It doesn’t seem like anyone knows what things will look like in 10 years, but for now I think traditional media still has an influence that is hard to beat, though you wouldn’t know it from all the trend pieces.

6. It seems that Twitter has at once advanced literary discussion and, owing to the medium’s frenetic speed, made some aspects of it obsolete. For example, the basic link round-up doesn’t have much use when dozens of interesting articles are being passed around each day on Twitter. On the other hand, Twitter can point people to longer, more engaged discussions on blogs like Levi Asher’s Litkicks, The Rumpus, or Conversational Reading. What’s your literary reading like? What blogs and publications, print and online, do you turn to, and do you see much overlap between them?

I’m on Twitter now, for whatever small good it might do the site’s traffic, but the site frustrates me as often as it pleases me. If you spend even a few hours away from it, you come back to an overwhelming number of posts and links. And inside baseball gets repeated ad nauseum: For instance, when Lorin Stein was recently named the editor of The Paris Review (smart choice), every literary or semi-literary Twitterer posted about it, so that you ended up reading the same “news” dozens of times. This happens with most major announcements about personnel, awards, or provocative reviews. For someone who runs a web site, I’m kind of a Luddite, and I’m not at all convinced that Twitter is a positive development. I sometimes feel like the constant flow of places like Twitter will eventually make smart link round-ups more worthwhile again, but it’s possible that I’m just being passed by the times. I’m 36, after all, which these days might be the equivalent of 78.

In terms of what I read, in print it’s mostly The New Yorker, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, and Harper’s. I read almost everything else (except books) online now. I realize I’m not making a convincing case for the Luddite thing. You’ll just have to trust me. The New York Times, The Atlantic, all the other big newspaper and magazine books coverage—I read it all online. And then I make regular visits to the bloggers: Bookslut, Maud Newton, Mark Athitakis, John Self’s Asylum, Levi Stahl. And the book-blog arms of the major traditional outlets: The Book Bench (The New Yorker), Paper Cuts (The New York Times), Jacket Copy (The L.A. Times), etc. Basically, if you look at the “Links” page on The Second Pass and imagine clicking on almost each one in turn, you get a sense of what I do at least once a week.

Even though (or maybe because) I’m a generalist, I’m partial to sites that have a specific passion: To name three, Odd Books (self-explanatory); and The Casual Optimist and Caustic Cover Critic, which are both concerned primarily with design.

7. What else are you working on? Can you tell us about any long-term plans or new features coming to The Second Pass?

I’m working on getting a proper day job. And I always have a few writing projects in various states of delay or decay. As for the site, I have a few reviews assigned for the coming weeks. I like the balance on the site right now. I’d just like to have more of everything—more reviews of new books, more essays about older books. The blog is updated every weekday, with occasional exceptions, but I’d like to update the “above the fold” sections with more frequency. The need to find a way (that pays for itself) to run more reviews feels pressing.

I’m also hoping to publish a sequel to the “Fired from the Canon” feature from last summer, in which various contributors chose lauded, popular books that might be worth skipping. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the site is looking to celebrate older books (or  fairly assess new ones), but it’s fun to toss a grenade every now and again.


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