The Litblog Co-op is closing down, mainly because so many of its members have become so preoccupied with their own blogs, as well as other literary endeavors that in some cases their blogs helped to make possible, that they could not devote the kind of time and attention required to keep a loosely-affiliated group like the LBC functioning adequately. The LBC was formed with a specific mission to highlight books that weren't being discussed much, or at all, in mainstream book sections by putting the collective authority of the then better-known literary weblogs behind the selection of one book per quarter the group believed was worth readers' attention.
I'd like to take the LBC's dissolution as an opportunity to not only reflect on its success in highlighting such books but also on the evolution of the literary blog from the time (actually only 3-4 years ago) when "literary weblog" seemed merely a peculiar conjunction of words to the present moment, when the litblog has become sufficiently established that numerous print-based critics have attacked literary blogs for encroaching on their territory (the gates to which they apparently intend to keep).
When I discovered what I would identify as the original group of self-identified literary weblogs--Maud Newton, The Literary Saloon, Moorish Girl, Golden Rule Jones, The Elegant Variation, The Return of the Reluctant, a few others--I had for a while wondered why there was not more web-based literary discussion and criticism, since such discussion on the internet could be both more widely disseminated and more up-to-date than what was published in magazines--most of which had actually been moving away from providing their content online--or even in newspapers, only a very few of which printed literary-related commentary on a semi-regular basis, anyway. What I found on these ur-litblogs was, if not fully worked-out literary criticism, an obvious enthusiasm about books and an admirable interest in serious fiction. As a lapsed academic, I was especially pleased to find such an interest among people who, in most cases, were not academics, since living in the world of the academy can lead one to suspect there are no serious readers of serious fiction outside its insulated walls.
My alienation from academe was in part a reaction against the prevailing modes of academic criticism, which in my view had essentially abandoned "literature itself" in favor of critical approaches that were mostly just a way of doing history or sociology by other means. I had pursued a Ph.D in literary study in order to study literature, not to validate my political allegiances on the cheap, or to study something called "culture," an artifact of which literature might be considered but given no more emphasis than any other cultural "expression." I was looking to find a way to write literary criticism that continued to focus on the literary qualities of literature, and to that end had published several critical essays in publications that would still print such efforts when I happened upon the literary weblogs I have mentioned. I soon enough concluded there was no reason the literary blog could not accommodate a form of literary criticism--longer than the typical kind of post I was seeing on the extant litblogs but shorter than the conventional scholarly article or long critical essay. Trying out these possibilities has been the ongoing project of this blog over the now four years of its existence.
At a time when still print-bound critics and book reviewers seem to be handing off a rhetorical baton in their eagerness to keep ahead of the perceived threat posed by literary blogs, it is rather difficult to recall how thoroughly marginal to the established critical discourse the literary weblog was in the first months and years of its existence. Among the criticisms that were directed at literary blogs in this initial stage of audience-building was the accusation they were too insular, too preoccupied with linking to each other in a kind of in-group celebration. And indeed there was a good deal of cliquish cross-linking, but this was mostly, it seemed to me, a function of the litblog's presumed marginality, a way of creating a community of engaged readers--the early bloggers were readers first of all--who could communicate their interests, insights, and enthusiasms to like-minded others. While most of us exploring the boundaries of the new medium were surely hoping our posting might attract a wider audience, I don't think many anticipated such a dramatic increase in attention paid to litblogs as did indeed occur. (The suddenness of this increase can be illustrated by the fact that as recently as BEA 2005, efforts by the then just-created Litblog Co-op--specifically by LBC mastermind Mark Sarvas--to interest the powers that be at the BEA in a panel discussion of literary blogs were rebuffed because few people associated with the event had heard of literary blogs.)
The Litblog Co-op was created during the first wave of interest in literary weblogs from beyond the small corner of the blogosphere litbloggers and their initial audience had staked out for themselves--a few notices in newspapers, links from more established, non-literary blogs, comments from "name" authors and critics increasingly showing up on various litblogs. As I recall it, the LBC aimed to accomplish two related goals: to bring attention to small-press books and less-known writers, and, implicitly, to raise the profile of literary weblogs even higher, to make them, through the authority the LBC might acquire from its selections, more of an accepted presence in the national conversation about books and writers. These were both entirely laudable goals, one directed toward showcasing alternatives to the fiction most loudly celebrated by the "book business," one directed toward providing alternative sources of discussion and debate about current fiction.
I'd have to say that our success in accomplishing the first goal was mixed. Several books that received little or no attention in the mainstream review pages did get some exposure as LBC nominees. Some of these were books by first-time authors, while others were by more veteran authors (some in translation) whose previous work had not gotten them the recognition they might have deserved. However, I don't think the LBC was ultimately able to establish itself as an authoritative guide to small-press books and overlooked fiction, judging by the degree of notice taken of our selections by blogs not themselves part of the LBC or by the literary community more generally, as well as by the number of comments most of the postings on the LBC blog received. The LBC's Read This! selections just never seemed to achieve the status with readers of current fiction that they were originally meant to achieve.
I believe that one explanation for this failure is that the LBC never really recovered from the disappointment spawned by its very first selection, a more or less mainstream work of "literary fiction" that had already been widely reviewed and whose selection seemed to many (including me) to be inconsistent with the LBC's stated mission. This selection perhaps indicated that the LBC was going to be business as usual, choosing the same old books published by the same old publishers and reviewed in the same old high-profile book reviews. Our subsequent selections mostly demonstrated that this was not the case, but it may be that an impression was left that the LBC wasn't quite the champion of unduly neglected fiction it was claiming to be.
It may also be that, eventually at least, the Litblog Co-op was perceived as a too narrowly-constituted, "clubbish" sort of group. When the LBC was formed, it could plausibly claim to represent the "leading" literary weblogs, but the litblogosphere has so dramatically expanded, both in sheer numbers of blogs and in the quality of the posting to be found there, that it really could no longer assert itself as the collective voice of the preeminent litbloggers. The LBC did enlarge its membership, and continued to invite new members when places became available, but this only made the process of nominating titles, choosing a favorite, and posting on the ultimate selection increasingly unwieldy, and it would have only gotten worse if we'd expanded the membership once again. When the litblogosphere was a fairly self-contained space, populated by bloggers united by a desire to identify worthy books and confer a kind of "indie" credential to these books, it was still possible for the member bloggers of the LBC to consider themselves the vanguard of a new online literary movement, but by now such a claim just isn't credible.
As for the second goal of bringing more attention to literary weblogs, there is no doubt that litblogs have established themselves as part of literary culture, but I don't really think this was a direct result of the actions of the Litblog Co-op. Perhaps the existence of the LBC did contribute to the increase of weblogs dedicated to literature, both past and present, but it was only a modest factor among those that led more readers to litblogs and ultimately led some of them to become litbloggers. I think it's probable that the individual members of the LBC did more to make the litblogosphere an accepted source of information about and judgment of current fiction on their own blogs than did the LBC itself. It's likely that a given title can be exposed to a potential audience just as effectively when two or three or more individual bloggers discover it and consider its merits as when it is in effect made the winner of a competition conducted by some such organization as the Litblog Co-op.
In this way the LBC may have unwittingly performed at least one useful service. Its relatively brief existence, and the reasons for its brevity, suggests that probably there will be no online version of the National Book Critics Circle, no self-appointed arbiters of literary value on the net to rival the NBCC and other print-based critics' associations that exist mainly to bestow awards. This does not mean the litblogosphere, for example, cannot wield the authority represented by these kinds of groups, but it does mean that whatever authority literary blogs do attain will be much more widely dispersed, not concentrated in organized groups pretending to encompass the "best" available judgment about current fiction or poetry. Since there is no such "best" judgment, just as the books chosen as "best" by the NBCC, The National Book Awards, or, indeed, the Litblog Co-op are no such thing (except by accident), readers will need to find the litblogs that consistently examine the sorts of books they find they like to read. This may result in a further fracturing of the litblogosphere into zones of "niche" interest, but this will only reflect an already existing diversity of taste and preference and will hardly lead to the destruction of a "common" literary culture, the existence of which is and always was a myth.
I expect the litblogosphere to continue to grow. I especially expect an increase in blogs offering longer-form commentary and criticism, as opposed to the link-centered blog that defined the literary weblog in its first years of existence but that by now has become just one kind of litblog among others. The more that literary blogs become credible contributors to critical/literary discourse, the less will be the need of an organization like the Litblog Co-op, or for any other effort to unite bloggers on behalf of the literary blog as a medium for serious literary discussion. Considering that all signs point to a decline in literary coverage in newspapers and magazines, I still believe the time may come when blogs and other forms of online publishing will dominate the literary discussion. If so, the LBC will have played some short-term role in underscoring the potential of literary weblogs, although their long-term potential is still to be tested.