November 5, 2010

John Williams and The Second Pass…


On Wednesday (11/10) Melville House is pleased to be hosting the first public party for The Second Pass, the literary website founded by John WIlliams in 2009. Despite its youth, The Second Pass features some of the sharpest and most serious literary criticism to be found on the web. Blake Wilson, writing at The New York Times lit blog Papercuts describes the site as “[A] proud outpost of serious thinking in a wilderness of cant.”

TSP approaches literary criticism from an appealing variety of angles. The “Circulating” section offers traditional reviews, “The Blog” features literary musings and mini-essays, “The Shelf” curates and aggregates other reviews from around the web, and “The Backlist” pays refreshing attention to books that have fallen out of the media’s fleeting attention span. In anticipation of his site’s coming-out party, MobyLives asked John Williams a few questions about his project:

John Williams + books

John Williams... with Burgess, Batuman, Bernhard, and others.

The genesis questions. How did The Second Pass come about? You were working as a journalist, and then an editor at HarperCollins… and then? What was the inspiration? What was the dream? Did you quit your day job? If so, where did the money come from?

I had been gone from HarperCollins for more than a year when I started planning the site. I had been working (and continued to work) on various publishing-related freelance jobs. I was also trying to do some of my own writing. Now I have another full-time job. In short, no real money comes from the site yet. It’s been something like a full-time hobby for its existence to this point.

I found after leaving publishing that I was reading a lot of older books, some classics and some that I had just happened upon foraging at the Strand and other places. I thought there was room online to treat reading the way a lot of big readers actually do it, which is not to simply go straight through all the new releases but to haphazardly combine some new books with some old ones, some very popular books with some that have been out of print for decades. Plus, I was hearing a lot of moaning about the fate of books coverage in the age of the dying newspaper, and I thought trying to do something about it would be much more fun than talking about it (and much, much more fun than listening to other people talk about it). And it has been.

Stop Smiling has described your site as “[A]n example of how innovative bookworms can use the Web to counterbalance all those vanishing newspaper book sections in a way that might even improve upon the dying breed’s model.” I feel like many websites want to be completely new, innovative, contemporary, different, etc. I feel like The Second Pass, while still being all those things, is also seeking to preserve certain traditional qualities. Thoughts on that?

In many ways, I think the site is more traditional than innovative – unless you want to be clever and say it’s innovative to try to be traditional online. I’ve always been more interested in content than delivery. Sometimes I’ll see an ad for a new phone – one that much faster, with that many more apps, than the one released three months ago; those ads when you’re made to feel like it can’t possibly be enough to be able to simultaneously watch sports, talk to your friends, book a hotel room, and remote-control your laundry on your phone – and I’m bewildered by why those gadgets appeal to people. Emerson famously wrote, “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.” Well, I think that needs updating. Technology has taken off the saddle, dragged us behind the barn, and is flogging us to within an inch of our life. It lacks Emerson’s touch, sure, but it feels true. That’s a long way of saying that I hope people enjoy reading what’s on the site. If this was 1965, it might be a bound journal; 1985,a stapled zine. I consider the technology an accident of timing more than anything else.

Writing for The Paris Review‘s “Culture Diary,” you mentioned some of the literary blogs you often read (“Maud Newton, Levi Stahl, Mark Athitakis, Dan Wagstaff, Scott Pack, John Self, Levi Asher, The New Yorker’s Book Bench, Jacket Copy, Paper Cuts, and Bookslut“). In my mind, these blogs break down into two categories: 1. blogs started by individuals in a very humble way that have grown into something significant, and 2. blogs started by major literary institutions attempting to expand into the web. The Second Pass seems like a completely different animal. What niche do you see it providing for the literary online world? Is “blog” even the right word for what you’re doing?

I’d say it’s somewhere in between on the animal chart. In many important ways, the site is driven by me, but in equally important ways it depends on the contributions of many talented people. I like having the control of an individual with some of the group benefits of an institution.

I’m not averse to the word blog, but it only accurately describes part of what the site does. A talented writer named Andy Miller has contributed a couple of pieces to the site, one of which was about the novel Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes. That piece ended up running to nearly 4,500 words, covering the film career of Gene Kelly, the pitfalls of book-to-movie adaptation, trips to Scotland with his parents, and how and when books can change your life. I don’t think that would fit within the traditional definition of a blog, so I like to call the site an online magazine. But if people want to call it a blog, I won’t stop them.

I thought your commentary on Twitter for The Paris Review was interesting because it showed someone considering technology from a reasonable critical perspective rather than embracing or fearing it. How does your engagement with YouTube, Twitter, blogs, etc. change or relate to your love of literature? Is there a happy co-existence or are these things somewhat at war with each other?

I wouldn’t say they’re at war with each other. For one thing, I’m not a very confrontational person, even internally, for better or worse. For another, they fulfill completely different needs. My engagement with YouTube, and the Internet generally, feels different than reading, often more shallow. But still fun and addictive, of course. The other day, a friend of mine wrote on Facebook that she was obsessively listening to a certain REO Speedwagon song. That led me to listen to a few of their songs on YouTube while I worked. I check in on my make-believe sports teams. And real sports teams. Like most people, I semi-obsessively check my e-mail, as if the next message that arrives will somehow change my life. I look at Andrew Sullivan‘s site. I search in disjointed, jittery ways for things to link to on The Second Pass. I play Scrabble against strangers in far-flung places. Those things, to me, are the Internet.

There is a happy co-existence between that and reading because I make it that way. I like sitting on a park bench or on my couch with a book, my computer out of sight. It still feels like a distinct experience to me from being online, which is one reason that I’m not eager to get an e-reader of any kind. I think it would blur a line I don’t want blurred.

Fiction Writers Review has written “The site’s stylish design makes its first-rate content even more inviting.” One of the things that’s notable about The Second Pass is how much more stylish it is than other blogs. Not meaning to give offense (ahem, The Complete Review), but some lit blogs seem to be fossils from a prehistoric age of the computer. Can you talk a little about the role of design on The Second Pass?

If my skills were the only factor, the site would look pretty prehistoric, believe me — maybe late-prehistoric, like after the beginnings of agriculture, but still prehistoric. I wanted the site to look really good from the start, and I have strong opinions about design, but I’m not a designer. Luckily, I have a friend named Strath Shepard who is a designer, and a brilliant one. I sent him sites I enjoy visually to give him some initial direction, and then I chose from among sample logos and home pages he sent me.

That’s the genesis story of the design. As far as the role it plays, I like to think it’s eye-catching but inviting (not assaultive) and makes people want to revisit the site. And that while they’re reading, it’s clean and minimal enough not to interfere with or distract from the rest of the content.

How you would describe your personal literary aesthetic? In The Paris Review‘s “Culture Diary” you write, “As for [David] Mitchell, I want to read him in theory, but I’ve yet to feel inspired to actually pick up the books. I’m most interested in Black Swan Green, his semi-autobiographical novel, and by consensus his least formally inventive.” This seemed fairly revelatory.

I guess it’s true that I haven’t been drawn to consciously experimental or nesting-doll fiction in a while, and fairly or not, I associate Mitchell with that. I don’t have anything against it, philosophically, but all readers have their built-in biases. I’ll read Cloud Atlas eventually — too many people I trust have told me I should. My tastes are pretty broad, and I haven’t given much thought to a personal aesthetic. I never went through any kind of fantasy or sci-fi phase when I was younger, unlike many of my male friends. No Tolkien, no Dune, not even Narnia. I like William Trevor and Marilynne Robinson. I like American traditionalists, for lack of a better term: Richard Russo, Brady Udall, David James Duncan. Collections of letters. The Paris Review‘s interview collections. Lorrie Moore, Cormac McCarthy (though I think The Road is maybe the most overrated book of the past 10 years). I’m on a true crime kick lately, which is out of character. I like books about gambling, about religion and science, about homesickness.

You seem to have a fairly level-headed snark-free approach to criticism. You also claim moderate politics. Are there certain writers, critics, companies, people, practices, etc. in the publishing/journalism world that you view as mortal enemies or utterly wrongheaded?

Here’s my chance to start an attention-grabbing feud. I’m not skilled at making mortal enemies, though I’m sure they would make life more entertaining. Maybe even clearer.

I think there’s plenty wrong in publishing – far too many books are published, for one thing, and publishers worry too much about competing with and co-opting other media, for another. In terms of journalism, or book coverage, I wish prominent places would spend more time trying to cultivate sharp and interesting critics rather than engaging in the usual cycle in which an author of a certain type of book assesses another book of roughly that type by another author.

You have already attracted some marvelous critics and reviewers. Where did you get them? If you could add five critics to your contributor list, who would they be?

I got them at a great, really specialized bodega in my neighborhood. There are actually two ways: at first, I had access to terrific people because I had already lived in New York for more than eight years, had worked in publishing, and asked people – some of them close friends, some of them colleagues – who I thought might be amenable to contributing, people like Daniel Menaker, Jon Fasman, Maud Newton, Andy Miller. Once the site was up and running for a bit, several people came to me. Smart writers like Alexander Nazaryan, Emma Garman, John Davidson. I could list them all; they’re on the site for people to find. I’m grateful they were interested in contributing, because the site exists in the way it does because of people like that.

If I had the resources and/or luck to add regular contributors, I would add Tim Parks, Ben Metcalf, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Elif Batuman. Lastly, I would lure Anthony Lane away from The New Yorker and the horrors of Hollywood, and make him a full-time book critic and literary essayist. Might as well dream big.

As you know I’m a fan of your Backlist section since I feel new books receive undue attention in the press. Do you see The Second Pass, and the Backlist in particular, as an antidote to certain elements in our media-saturated reality? (Perhaps a leading question…)

Maybe not an antidote, but that was certainly an inspiration for the site’s existence. This is true of any art form, whether it’s books, music, movies . . . there’s a hell of a lot more to choose from in the past than there is today. It’s just math. And while the classics endure, a lot of good things virtually disappear. Given the avalanche of new books published every year, and the exceedingly small percentage of them that are of the highest quality, it can be a thrill to discover something worthwhile in the dusty stacks. I try to pay attention to older and more obscure books on the blog as well, and would like to do even more of that, but the Backlist is the most prominent section for that purpose.

The media-saturation is a funny issue. On the one hand, there’s always desire for books in general to be discussed more in the culture. On the other, how many articles about Freedom do we really need to read?

What TSP review/blog/article are you most proud of?

Deborah Shapiro‘s piece in the site’s very early days about a memoir by Eve Babitz is terrific. It’s indicative of a certain kind of Backlist piece I love and want more of, a celebration of a book that may not be a lost classic but is distinct and eminently quotable and fun to write about. Jason Zinoman‘s piece about an obscure Stephen King book (the only obscure Stephen King book?) is another good example of what the Backlist is about. I love both of Andy Miller‘s contributions: the piece about Absolute Beginners I mentioned and an earlier one about cult movies. I’m proud of my review of Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Eating Animals – there’s snark in it, but I like to think it’s good snark, and that it sits alongside serious engagement with the book and its arguments. I’m proud of everything the site has done, but I think a few reviews in particular are just beautiful examples of the form through and through: Carlene Bauer on a recent biography of Flannery O’Connor, Will Blythe on Thomas Pynchon‘s last novel, and Jennifer Szalai on Zoe Heller‘s The Believers.