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  • The Studio of Literature:An Interview with Tom Lutz
  • Jeffrey J. Williams (bio)

Tom Lutz started with a simple idea: newspapers were shrinking their review pages and there was no West coast version of the New York book reviews, so, a longtime resident of Los Angeles, he founded the LA Review of Books (LARB). Since its first appearance as a Tumblr account in 2011, it has quickly grown to a major site, now publishing more than 1500 new pieces per year, sponsoring several channels (such as Avidly, which covers television), a book club, a print quarterly, a radio show, and a blog, and enlisting an extensive network of donors and members.

Lutz has crossed between academic and public spheres throughout his career, with two university press books and two trade books. His first book, American Nervousness: An Anecdotal History (Cornell UP, 1991), traces the motif of nerves that runs through a wide range of American literature and culture circa 1903, in figures such as Teddy Roosevelt and Hamlin Garland. He continued to look at the realm of feeling in the trade book, Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears (Norton, 1999), which covers a capacious range, this time from the ancients to the contemporary U.S. In his third book, Cosmopolitan Vistas: American Regionalism and Literary Value (Cornell UP, 2004), he returned to academic precincts, showing that American literature has long been caught in the tension between inclusiveness and selectivity. Moving back to a wider public, Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), examines the idea of slacking—and work—in a tour through American figures from Ben Franklin to the Beats, along with likeminded writers such as Samuel Johnson.

Born in Connecticut in 1953, Lutz had a fitful academic start, working jobs from cook to contractor to musician before he went to college. He attended the University of Dubuque and University of Massachusetts, from which he received his BA in 1980. He went on to do his PhD in Modern Thought at Stanford University (1988), from there taking a position at the University of Iowa, where he was a professor from 1988-2006. After a year visiting at CalArts, he moved to UC-Riverside in 2006 to chair the creative writing program, although he resigned the chairmanship in the face of massive budget cuts to the California system in 2011 (see [End Page 543] While still teaching at Riverside, he has devoted a good deal of work since then to editing LARB.

This interview took place on 7 February 2015 at the offices of LARB in Atwater Village, Los Angeles, CA. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams, Professor of English and of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, and transcribed by Souri Somphanith, an MA student at Carnegie Mellon.

Jeffrey J. Williams:

You founded LARB three or four years ago and it has become a major clearinghouse reviewing literature. How did you come to start LARB?

Tom Lutz:

LARB started somewhat accidentally. Howard Junker, who ran ZYZZYVA, which is a Bay Area literary magazine that was very hip in the 90s, asked me if I would be interested in taking over for him because he was getting ready to retire. “Zyzzyva” is the last word in the dictionary—it’s a beetle—and the journal is a classic literary quarterly, publishing fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. He had published a fun piece of mine on academic interviews. I wrote it when I was at CalArts for a talk I wanted to give on experimentalism.


What year was this?


It was around 2008 or 2009. Anyway, Junker liked that piece and he was reading Doing Nothing, and he asked if I was interested in taking over the journal. I thought it would be a great thing to have a literary journal—one that has some reputation already—for our creative writing department and for our graduate students, so I said to my colleagues, “What do you think about us doing this as a collective?” There were about a dozen of us...


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