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MobyLives lives again

November 4, 2008 |  4:04 pm

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MobyLives was one of the earliest literary blogs; Dennis Loy Johnson launched it in 2001 as a kind of Web version of his syndicated book column. Soon it became a full-bodied blog, with news, interviews, sometimes-contentious discussion and even an early audio podcast. But in 2006, the blog went on hiatus and never came back -- until October of this year. Johnson's been around -- he runs Melville House Publishing with his wife -- so why, after a two-year break, is he blogging again

Jacket Copy: The big, obvious question is, why does MobyLives live again?

Dennis Loy Johnson:
Well, the simplest reason is I just missed daily journalism. And now that I've become a publisher, I've come to think even more than I did then that the book industry is a much more interesting and vital place than you'd know from most of the mainstream media, present company a notable exclusion. The Google settlement, for instance, has been widely covered, but with a universal and breathtaking lack of any real analysis as to how it might impact the culture at large -- for example, about the way that it essentially begins the process of handing over our public libraries to a for-profit corporation, to name only one of its more ominous aspects. Another story that really compelled me last year was the fact that over a period of about six months, a hedge fund named Perseus LLC took over the distribution of something like 80% of the country's independently published books -- the overwhelming majority of the houses that publish things like poetry and translated fiction and left-wing politics, in other words. Even in trade media, there’s been a stunning lack of coverage of that, let alone of the impact that it may have on the culture. So I want to do what I can to generate that kind of observation. And there are few journalists who can speak to it the way I can, because my company was one of the publishers thus taken over -- although we've taken our business elsewhere since -- so I also feel morally compelled to speak up. But that was always my "angle," from back when MobyLives was a newspaper column -- I’d been in a famous writing program, I'd published a lot of fiction, I'd been a book critic and I'd taught fiction writing, so I thought I could really write about book culture from the inside; I thought that if I just wrote about the business the way writers spoke about it behind the scenes, I could really offer some insight.

JC: What was the main reason you stopped posting on MobyLives?

Dennis Loy Johnson:
The main reason was the explosive growth of Melville House. Things moved pretty fast from the start -- our first book, "Poetry After 9/11," got an insane amount of press for a poetry book, including a New York Times profile of me and Valerie, my wife, whose idea it was to turn the blog into a publishing company. That seemed to open the floodgates, and before we knew it, we were crashing books with Bernard-Henri Levy and Howard Dean and the prime minister of France and finding ourselves without the time to sleep or eat, let alone blog.

JC: Melville House publishes many books that are liberal and left wing. Do you think that the literary blogosphere needs more strong political voices?

The answer ... after the jump.

Dennis Loy Johnson: It's an astute observation to note that while there are tons of strong political voices in the blogosphere, they aren't necessarily integrated with the literary blogosphere. Not that I think we need right- or left-wing book blogs, but I do think we could use fewer I-got-drunk-and-went-to-a-reading-last-night book blogs, and more that have a more informed idea of how art meets commerce in this political climate.

JC: How has Melville House changed since its earliest days? What have been some of your biggest sellers -- and what books have you published that you think should reach more readers?

Dennis Loy Johnson: Well, we published our first bestseller –- "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" by Bernard-Henri Levy -– from our kitchen table. Now we've got an office and an amazing staff. So life has changed considerably in the six years we've been in business. But in many ways it hasn't necessarily gotten easier –- it’s still hard to get recognition for our political investigations, for example. Bernard-Henri Levy's book was perhaps the first book to report on Pakistan's trading of nuclear technology to the so-called "axis of evil," appearing 10 months before that story "broke" on the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post. The book sold well, but the author didn't really get the credit he deserved, partly because of the Francophobia of the time, I believe. We also did "Torture Taxi" by Trevor Paglen and AC Thompson, the first book on the CIA's rendition program. We sent the authors to Kabul to take photos of the "Salt Pit" torture prison there. The [Washington] Post had reported its existence but never bothered to send a reporter. We had photos, and still the book didn't get the attention it deserved. We also published Carlo Bonini's book about the fake documents behind President Bush's excuse for going to war –- the so-called Niger-gate scandal. Carlo broke that story, he was the primary source, but still it was difficult to get him any attention here. Then there are some of the foreign novels we've published –- particularly, "Missing Soluch" by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, probably the leading Persian writer of the 20th century. It’s an important and achingly beautiful book about a culture we could do with a better understanding of, and lots of very prominent critics have thanked Valerie and me for publishing it … but it only got one review in the entire country.

JC: Melville House also publishes works in translation, and in the weeks that MobyLives has been back online, you've devoted a lot of attention to book news coming from Europe. Was the Nobel's Horace Engdahl right -- are Americans too provincial in our literary tastes?

Dennis Loy Johnson: I don't know that he was right about the culture at large, although he was certainly right about the fare coming out of the conglomerate houses. But it's no secret, it's sheer numbers: As the big houses are run more and more to the bottom line, they're going to publish less and less in translation, because somewhat logically there's always going to be a bigger audience for home-grown work. But I don't think there's any crisis going on, and there’s as much interest in books from other cultures as there ever was. It’s just not enough to support big, mainstream publishing as it's financed now. But this is good news for independent publishers like Melville House, because it just means that we've got more to choose from and champion. And when we discover new writers from anywhere, including here, they take on a certain sheen from the company they keep on our list -- I like to think Tao Lin, the wild young avant-gardist who is our biggest-selling fiction writer, gains a certain je ne sais quois from being published alongside the likes of Dowlatabadi and Nobel-winner Imre Kertesz.

JC: For a while, you had a literary podcast. Will you be doing any multimedia at MobyLives?

Dennis Loy Johnson: Yes. The podcasts were pretty popular, even though in retrospect I think they were pretty dreadful. I mean, I think I had some great guests and did some good reporting, but we just weren’t in control of technology at the time. It would have been infinitely better if I'd known simply how to edit the files. But we've got it down now, and we will be putting up lots of sound and video files, so stay tuned.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by Big Blue Ocean via Flickr.

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