Criticism & Features


Conversations With Literary Websites: Open Letters Monthly

By Mark Athitakis

Since 2007 Open Letters Monthly has been home to reviews of new and old books, as well as long-form ruminations on book culture such as Nathan Schneider's “In Defense of the Memory Theater” in its most recent issue. OLM managing editor Steve Donoghue answered questions via email from NBCC board member Mark Athitakis about the history of the site, what it looks for in contributors, and why perfume reviews fit its sensibility.

How did the site come together to launch in 2007? What did you feel was missing in books coverage, either online or in print, that Open Letters Monthly could address?

I’m not sure any of us thought there was anything in particular missing (although we’d always noticed the smug inanity of a great many published book reviews, we’d also always noticed – and handed around to each other – the many glorious exceptions) – it was more a case of fervently believing you can never have too much of a good thing. We all know the experience of reading a piece of literary journalism that just crackles with fun and intelligence; we wanted to provide readers with even more of those pieces than they were already finding elsewhere.

You recently published an anthology through Lulu of the site’s best work. What kind of pieces are included of the collection, and what makes them the best of what OLM does?

To avert a nuclear conflagration, let’s make something clear up front: our debut anthology wasn’t intended to single out X number of pieces as our ‘best work’! There were a great many first-rate pieces that weren’t included. John Cotter, who drew the short straw to edit the volume, strove for balance and a representative quality, even if that meant bypassing many essays we all love. He went for an Open Letters ‘snapshot’ rather than any idea of Open Letters ‘contest winners.’ The anthology’s been popular, so we’re hoping he succeeded.

With so many sites designed to be up-to-the-hour, if not up-to-the-minute, what advantages are there to the monthly-magazine format for the website?

The first advantage is to be prized far, far ahead of all the rest: with Open Letters, you can RELAX. In this respect we are and always will be steadfastly anachronistic – we want readers to take their time, savor each of our delightfully long, detailed pieces, let the thoughts and arguments settle in (perhaps over the course of some re-readings). Great, important, or even flawed works of art take time to create; they take time to read; it’s our contention – it’s our joy! – that they also take time to CONSIDER properly. More and more readers are finding the up-to-the-minute frenzy of the Internet pointlessly wearying, and the Internet is starting to reflect that. The more serious, thoughtful, engaged readers migrate to the Web, the more people will realize that we’ve been preaching that gospel all along.

As a group, who are your writers and what generally inspires them to contribute? Are they looking to become regular book reviewers, or are they looking to write about a particular book or writer? Over the past four years, has the kind of contributors or style of article changed?

While we’ve always been pleased and honored to publish the work of recognized literary figures, and while we do sometimes get all-but-finished pieces from specialists who have one particular book or topic in mind, our writers generally tend to be new to the game, freelancers who’d like to break into the world of literary journalism and are willing to try their hand at pretty much anything. Open Letters provides an extraordinarily welcoming atmosphere for such writers; our editorial process often amounts to a multi-voiced mini-seminar on the art of writing, with each editor bringing their own strengths (nuts and bolts line-by-line practicalities, beauty of language, deeper perspective, etc.). And while over the last four years our roster of contributors has changed innumerable times, the style of our articles remains the same: we need writers to THINK about their pieces, and we need those pieces to be able to withstand as severe a critical hammering as we can dish out before they ever see print. Most of our contributors have been only too happy to write to their absolute best; some of them have been surprised by just how good that best could be – which is always immensely gratifying.

The “contact” page on the site notes that the site currently can’t pay contributors. What do you think needs to happen for OLM and sites like it to pay writers? What can and can’t the site do because contributors are unpaid?

From a business standpoint, what needs to happen for OLM to pay writers is for OLM to generate sufficient ad revenue to make that possible, and the reason OLM and sites like it have trouble doing that is twofold: first, the Internet is vast and always changing – advertisers are naturally chary of sinking funds into a venture if they think it might not be around in six months. And second, although it’s growing, the audience for serious, thoughtful online literary criticism is in its relative infancy, navigating a largely uncharted wilderness without a guide or a map. Open Letters is a perfect illustration: we’ve been publishing world-class in-depth and downright tasty book-and-arts criticism for years now, and yet Sam Sacks or John Cotter can scarcely go to a literary party or book-launch without encountering serious book-and-arts lovers who’ve never heard of us. The Web is still so decentralized that sites can do great work for years and still not reach their target audience, which is frustrating. We do what we can to spread the word, and it’s gradually working. Obviously, if we had two million readers a month, we could generate sufficient ad revenue to pay all our contributors – but when you ask what sorts of things we CAN’T do without that kind of operating budget … well, the answer is, ‘not that much.’ True, we can’t pay a Nobel laureate to dash off 1500 words on Calvino before jetting to the Rotterdam Book Festival, but you can bet those words will be dashed off for SOMEBODY, and readers will still get to read them. The pieces we publish now, unpaid, are full of the passionate new voices readers might otherwise not hear at all. That’s something to be proud of, even on a shoestring budget.

What prompted Open Letters Monthly to bring four blogs—Like Fire, Novel Readings, stevereads, and Whitman's Blog—into its mix early this year?

It occurred to us that if we were going to embrace our nature as an online literary magazine, we’d need to embrace the Internet’s most salient feature: blogs! And talk about profusion: for every thoughtful, energetic, entirely worthwhile website on the Web, there are HUNDREDS of equally good blogs, on every subject imaginable, the greatest profusion of creative public voices in the history of mankind. We have four excellent blogs on the site right now (although that Walt Whitman character can be a little dodgy…), and you can look for that number to increase. These are marvelous, spirited voices who won’t necessarily contribute to the long-form essays our readers enjoy on the main site every month – it’s the best of both worlds.

The site includes regular series dedicated to short novels, reading the books on the bestseller list, aggregating how critics respond to major new books, and so forth. Do these series tend to be generated more by editors or contributors? What makes for a successful regular series?

The editors dream up our regular series, and the pieces are lots of fun because a) readers grow attached to the familiarity of the format, and b) the separate installments can generate a wonderful momentum that a single stand-alone piece can’t. And what makes a successful regular series is its ability to slowly, regularly chip away at your preconceptions about a subject, chapter-by-chapter showing you that subject in a succession of different lights. Two perfect cases in point: this year Ingrid Norton is giving us a Year with Short Novels – including many of the standard canon-pieces we all had to read in high school and college, only here re-examined in a lively new perspective, and Elisa Gabbert is giving us ongoing chapters in her On the Scent series about perfume – a choice of subject that raised more than a few eyebrows among the editors when it was first proposed, but the passionate, intelligent way she’s going about it is mind-opening. That’s what we look for in all our pieces, but the regular series really highlight it.