You don’t usually expect self-deprecation from a media mogul, but Michael Kinsley is not just any kind of media mogul, and his Slate is not just any kind of publication. Backed by the institutional largesse of Bill Gates, slate.com may have the best chance of any online magazine to prosper in a dotcom world that has seen the recent foundering of APBNews and the layoff of 13 critics and editors at Salon.
And Kinsley, as past editor of The New Republic and a revered lion of highbrow journalism, may have the best chance to keep meaningful writing about literature, art, music, and film alive on the Web. But even he’s not kidding himself.
“Should we be devoting our energies and money to publishing, on balance, very good book reviews?” he asks. “Is that adding to human happiness in any way? It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. I could hold my head up high and feel I was performing a useful service. But instead, I’ve decided that because criticism is the place where the Web has the most potential to develop new forms, and because, frankly, I don’t think another good review of the latest Updike is the most vital goal, we’re just not going to do it.”
Kinsley hasn’t always thought that way. When he launched Slate in 1995, it became the first online magazine to draw on the kind of intelligentsia that usually holds court in the pages of The New York Review of Books or The New Republic. Initially, Slate seemed to replicate The New Republic‘s venerated strategy for reviewing culture, albeit in shorter form. Considering the paucity of learned, stylish, nuanced 1500-word pieces on books and the arts, it was not necessarily a bad thing to log on and read Louis Menand’s quick take on Samuel Beckett or Gerald Early on Ralph Ellison.
But after a failed bid to sell subscriptions at $19.95 a year and a lack of hits for the arts reviews, Kinsley jettisoned traditional book reviews for e-mail exchanges and so-called “Summary Judgments.” If a magazine backed by mighty Microsoft can’t make a go of top-notch criticism online, who can?
The answer may be no one. While other Web magazines have either contented themselves with getting attention through sensationalism (witness Salon‘s boost after breaking the Henry Hyde story), gossip (Kurt Andersen’s pay-for-dish Inside.com), or webby insularity (Feed, Suck, Ain’t-It-Cool News, et al.), Slate strove for a place at the grown-ups’ table— and ended up starving for readers.
Former Slate culture editor and current Culturebox columnist Judith Shulevitz found that online attention spans weren’t equal to the patience of readers at Lingua Franca, where she’d been an editor before arriving at Slate. “You cannot ask people to read long essays on the Web,” Shulevitz explains. “My husband, Nicholas Lemann, had a piece responding to The Bell Curve. It was 3000 words—a really important piece. It just didn’t get read. People couldn’t stomach that much copy on the Web.”
Shulevitz says Kinsley asked her to reinvent the magazine’s arts coverage, emphasizing interactive exchanges over extended explications. “I must admit, I was resistant at first, but I think you have to work appropriately to your own medium,” she says. “Here was my argument at the time: I said, Mike, you’re against running 5000-word pieces on American Pastoral. Why, then, are we going to run 5000-word dialogues on American Pastoral?
“What changed my mind was when I brought my husband in as the only outsider to this meeting,” Shulevitz adds, “and they asked him how he read Slate, and he said he read it at work, and I think that’s how most readers read Slate. They might look at it as a form of distraction during the day. So it occurred to me that we could give it to readers with a reason to come back. If you could make it work, I thought it would be a good model for the Web. Have we made it work? I’d say yes and no.”
Slate‘s Book Club does indeed feel clubby, sometimes seeming more like a wine-and-cheese salon than a considered forum. It’s a place where a thinker like Jacob Weisberg posts this to Esther Fuchs: “In your terrific book Mayors and Money, which I commend to anyone who wants to understand the fiscal problems of cities . . . ” Yet there are benefits to eavesdropping on that kind of discussion. Our culture is less book-driven than it was 30 years ago, when people were much more likely to have dinner-table discussions of Portnoy’s Complaint. Shulevitz’s exchange with Brent Staples on Roth’s new novel, The Human Stain, demonstrated the kind of vibrant debates a book of such monumental importance should produce.
A.O. Scott, who was hired as a New York Times film critic partly on the strength of his Slate essay on Martin Scorsese, pragmatically weighs the advantages and disadvantages of the new medium. Scott is an advocate for reinvigorating literary conversations, but he’s also an essay preservationist. “You have polish and consideredness in a book review, and the format of the Book Club may undermine that,” says Scott. “Then again, there are plenty of serious and sober-minded book reviews of important books that are boring as hell, or take a predictable party line. If you have two people over the course of three days really going at it, and really discussing a book, that may actually be a better service to the reading public than a thousand-word book review. The Internet is part of the speeding-up of a culture and the shortening of attention spans. There are new features to this landscape, but in every generation, culture is this kind of struggle between intelligence and stupidity, and if you’re lucky, it ends in a draw.”
Has this struggle ended in a draw? With technology, must you always lose a little in order to gain a lot? Many of the barriers to longer reviews on the Web will surely be eviscerated in time: When rocket books become as widespread as desktops, it will be easier to download essays, poems, perhaps even novels, and read them on the train. No one wants the essay to go the way of Windows 3.1, and hopefully the forms taught from the Emerson and Wilde canon will never be outmoded.
Still, lamenting the death of criticism is as old as criticism itself, and someone is always ready to identify the culprit. Übercritic Harold Bloom, who casts himself as a Paleolithic, endangered reader in his new book, How to Read and Why, scans the horizon for any sign of that old, familiar apocalypse. “To me, the Internet is like the conga line,” he says. “I know what it is, but I do not know how to do it. But it cannot be good, my dear. Surely, it will reduce everything to this vast grayness.”