For all the dark mutterings of the intelligentsia about the decline of serious literary journalism in the digital age, it seems the long form review essay is doing just fine. It's a genre that would have been entirely familiar to 19th century readers, but it did well in the 20th century and it looks like doing even better in the 21st. At the London Review of Books (about to celebrate 30 years as a fully independent publication, with a series of events in New York) we've found print circulation has risen steadily during the last decade and we have more readers now than any literary magazine in the UK has ever had. The digital landscape opening up before us can, in our most optimistic moods, look like a promised land, though there will certainly be some tricky areas to negotiate as we move into it.
The digital revolution is radically changing the conditions under which books and ideas reach readers. The explosive growth of the Internet has produced a bewildering multiplication of voices speaking about books. Everyone now has a platform from which to give a view, and in this cacophony we more than ever need to know where to go for opinions that we can trust and writing which will expand the vocabulary of our own critical conversations. In this situation, magazines like the London Review of Books have large and exciting opportunities.
It has become a cliché of the web that 'content is king.' To the extent that this is true, the leading book review magazines start with a big advantage over most other purveyors of literary opinion on the net: they have the writers and the editors to produce new work of the highest caliber and they have rich back archives of material that is as interesting today as it was when it was first written. Moreover, the digital media (web, e-readers, tablets and phones) offer the chance to reach much bigger readerships than these magazines could access through traditional marketing methods, inefficient and expensive, such as off-the-page advertising or direct mail. And the uniqueness and quality of their work promises to make the transition from free to paid content relatively smooth.
So far so good, but the new media also pose serious challenges for magazines like the LRB that publish long form literary journalism. For a start, the new electronic formats subtly alter the way we perceive text. The web is an isomorphic universe in which everything is equidistant from everything else. In this flat, undifferentiated world, the careful arrangement of content within an edition (leading the reader from one essay to another in a predetermined order) becomes disorganised. When readers can enter a magazine website through any page, the notion of an issue or an edition ceases to have much force, while the demand of web users for fast changing content makes the weekly or fortnightly publishing cycle seem clunky and obsolete.
At the same time, the new media elicit very different modes of attention. Context is everything. An LRB essay that seems long in magazine format can seem rather short reprinted in a book, and we are likely to give it more patient attention in a book than in the magazine we read over breakfast. On an e-reader, a page of text strikes us very differently from the way it strikes us in print for the simple reason that on the e-reader what precedes and follows that page is not present to us and might as well not exist. On a computer screen we tend to read with a more impatient and restless attention.
Will we change? Will habit teach us to read a six thousand word book review on screen with the same ease and equanimity with which we now read it in print? Or will magazines like the London Review of Books -- its writers and editors -- have to adapt to the new conditions by developing new forms of writing? Either way, the LRB, as it enters its 31st year, is well up for the challenge.