This post continues a series on Critical Mass featuring websites dedicated to book reviewing online. Read previous Q&As with The Rumpus, The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation, Open Letters Monthly, Three Percent, The Critical Flame, and The Nervous Breakdown.
Since its launch in 2008, HTMLGiant has featured a host of writers commenting on contemporary literature, with a special focus on small-press and experimental authors. (Its”Live Giants” series showcases up-and-coming writers reading from their work live online.) “A literature blog that isn’t always about literature,” HTMLGiant has what's perhaps the broadest range of approaches of any site featured in this series, from one-sentence craft questions to extended considerations on particular books and authors.
“Boss Editor” Blake Butler answered questions about the site via email from NBCC board member Mark Athitakis.
What prompted the creation of HTMLGiant in 2008? What sort of need did you feel the site was filling at the time, and has the mission of the site changed since then?
HTMLGiant started when Gene Morgan, who I knew online and had done successful online projects in the past related to online lit (BearParade.com), emailed me and asked me if I was interested in collaborating on a group blog project related to online lit. It was funny timing because I'd been brainstorming ideas of how to bring more of a center to the circle of online magazines and personal writers' blogs I'd been following for a few years, and become friends with many of. There were all these sites I read daily and tracked in Google Reader and it seemed like to keep track of what was going on I had to follow so many threads. Gene and I brainstormed a lot about how to try to tie some of these things together, and to make a place where people could go and find certain kinds of info about certain kinds of lit, and whatever else came along with it. We just wanted something more central and amorphous, and maybe above all, informative and fun at the same time. So I asked a bunch of people who I was into what they were doing, having read their work and their blogs or whatever, and the site began to build from there. Since then we've expanded by adding more writers in different places and of different minds and expanded coverage from specifically online literature to just about anything compelling in a certain kind of literary or alt-art entertainment culture. We still like to have fun.
The site has a handful of editors and a large number of regular contributors. What's the process for coordinating the posts on the site? Are contributors on the masthead required to write a certain number of articles? Can freelancers pitch the site?
Mostly all the contributors are people who I'd been following online, and so trust their taste and way of speaking enough that everyone has pretty much free reign to post at will. Ryan Call, the managing editor, and I work to streamline the posts so there's not big lumps of stuff and blank spots, but for the most part everyone is really good at generating the flow. I like people having freedom to talk about what compels them without a system of tight approval. At the same time, though, there is an aesthetic that develops from the taste vision and the streamlining that comes out of being able to say anything, and that is freeing and I think exciting, to me at least, and allows a kind of content that transcends typical literary reportage, but also has a certain kind of want or need that transcends typical culture blogs. So it becomes its own beast, I think, and that's what's made it grow. Anyone can do anything they want. Freelancers can pitch anything. We like to hear from everyone. We like ideas.
In general, who writes for HTMLGiant? Do you seek out people who are fiction writers (as many of the site's writers seem to be), or do you prefer to look for a particular writing sensibility?
I don't really care for genre specifications: I think good writing is good writing, and the blur of such is where the most interesting things happen. The people who've written for us do a little of everything, and so there's no definitive sensibility except for what seems compelling, or worth spreading word of, and maybe slightly often contributing to our schizo body, and making a mess while also something else.
The reviews on the site often have a level of personal writing that might seem out of place in most traditional review outlets (and even a few literary websites). I'm thinking of (to pick some recent examples) Stephen Tully Dierks' review of Timothy Willis Sanders' Orange Juice, in which Dierks talks about Gmail chat with a friend about the book, or your own review of Christian Hawkey's Ventrakl, where you discuss your experience reading the book in the bathtub: “finding myself becoming warm through the head and in the water in such a way that at page 66 I had to stop and go underwater for a while.” What do you think makes this kind of intimate first-person reviewing successful? When doesn't it work?
It's funny, because yeah, it's very easy for those kind of insights to be just either too presumptive, or boring even, and there's kind of a fine line in when you are talking to yourself and when you are talking to yourself in a way that someone else might want to hear, or when you are talking casually, as to a friend, mixed with some hyperbole, or off center information. I like reviews to be amalgams sometimes, to tell it maybe like you'd tell someone you care about who also cares about what you are talking about, and is intelligent in a way outside of simple book reviewing. Book reviews can be so dull. I think the key is caring what you are writing about: pretty much everything at HTMLGiant is contributed because the writers have a want to spread the word, because they care, not because they were assigned or are getting paid. So that's the center, and then sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but I think even when it doesn't it tells it a different way, and if you trust the writer, it's a more interesting source than copy talk. I like to imagine the personality of the reviewer coming through somewhat in the interpretation, because ultimately who a reader is plays a huge role in how a book can feel. Maybe that's the biggest key to what we're trying to do as a whole: have personality, even if it's more rough around the edges. All the site I read most often, and which helped dictate what we wanted to with HTMLGiant, have a very definable voice or aesthetic: Pitchfork, Vice, Gawker, Bookslut, etc. You've got to be your own thing to be a thing.
The site's “About” page mentions that money received from advertising is fed back into maintaining the site. What sort of things would you like to do that are currently out of your reach financially? Do you think the current environment of advertising/donations/subscriptions could facilitate that?
We're beginning to get more ad revenue now, and plan to start paying our core contributors in 2011, we hope. Startup costs ate some of our early money, but now that our traffic is really getting bigger and we're selling more ads, money is reaching beyond simple maintenance. In the past we've put all the profit we've made into the site and things our contributors do, and we hope to do even more of that. Ultimately we have a lot of ideas too about projects we'd like to take on as more money comes in, regarding epublishing, new creative content, corollary sites, and expanding into creating more object-content, and more on. We have t-shirts coming. We're paying for our contributors to have a table at AWP this year w/ no cost to them, so they can sell their work. Many of the people who write for us are also running presses, publishing their own books, running magazines, and so forth; we want to help them do that, and do more as a whole. The trough is literally as wide as we can manage. I'd love to one day have enough income to pay people to do it more full time; I think we'd really be able to go for some throats and make it even richer. But the amount that many writers give out of the want to simply spread their word is incredible; it's a gift.
Regardless of financial concerns, what would you want to see the site do more of that it isn't now?
I guess I'd like to see the readership continue to grow, and to develop a more regular review crew, and more other kinds of events. This year we started hosting live online readings through the site and other kinds of media feeding, for instance next week Kyle Minor is going to read the totality of Barry Hannah's last collection from beginning to end live on the site. That should be fun. I'd like to do more of that. I'd like to see the word keep spreading. I'd like to pay more writers to cover more things, give them some financial support for their art. I'm happy with our rate of growth; I see it continuing.
HTMLGiant focuses almost exclusively on authors on small independent presses, and has the benefit of a fairly sizable amount of traffic (about 3,000-5,000 unique visitors daily according to an interview you gave with Thought Catalog). What influence have you seen the site have in terms of increased interest in these authors and their publishers?
According to the response we've gotten from publishers taking out ads and people we've talked about on the site, there does seem to be a palpable direct effect of something we talk about picking up sales. Our audience is so specific and focused, with a lot of students, writers, publishers, and other people who are into literature regularly reading, that it seems like that kind of turn over is working out well; other big media blogs might get more social traffic, but I feel like our average reader is smart, reads a lot, buys a lot of books, cares about words and language and image and so on. And beyond numbers, the forum seems to remain hot and steady; the discussion on the site can range from passionate to mudflingy to silly to super-social, but in general I feel like there's some wonderful discussion that is in pretty steady supply around the feed; as a writer myself, it gives me a sense of something going on, somewhere to keep my brain flowing outside of simply the work itself, which is so solitary, and often should be that way wholly, but it's nice to know there's somewhere to go and listen and enjoy.
Some of the busiest comment threads on the site seem to spin out of brief snippet posts that ask specific questions, or riffs on non-book topics. What have you learned about what works and what doesn't when it comes to generating conversations about particular books and authors?
It's funny: often it seems like the most asinine or quibbly threads are the ones that get the most attention; certainly the most comment heavy pieces are the ones that are often the most arbitrary or reductive, which makes sense, because many online people love to beam their lazer mouths at anything they can. That's not a surprise at all; that's what the internet feeds off of. But comparing comments to traffic stream, I feel like there's a core of readers who aren't interested in entering the fray, and read not for barnstorming purposes, but to just absorb. One of the major things I've learned about the internet and people from doing HTMLGiant is that the smallest % of the people often make the loudest of the noise, and that's because they are noisemakers by heart; if you tune in too hard on the noise, you're going to go crazy; sometimes you just have to sit back and trust that ultimately people don't get heavy into writing and books because of social reasons, because that's like joining the army in hopes participating in ballet; writing happens mostly because it does, because it is; it's an obsession, often without palpable logic, a mess in itself, a kind of multi-body toward a thing bigger than a word.