The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with John Williams, The Second Pass


I feel a special admiration for The Second Pass. Launched almost two years ago — shortly after first tentative posts at The Casual Optimist — and with a list of whip-smart contributors, it seemed to signify a second wave online literary journals that built on the success of groundbreaking sites like  Bookslut and ReadySteadyBlog. Well-designed and appropriately eclectic, it had wider horizons than ailing newspaper review pages, and yet Brooklyn-based founder John Williams — who previously worked in publishing — seemed less prone to the snark so commonplace among some of the more established online literary set.

I was, needless to say, surprised when I first received an email from John. The idea that he had even heard of the less-than whip-smart The Casual Optimist seemed so… unlikely. And yet, John and I have remained in touch on and off for the past year and half, and I have even contributed to The Second Pass, so I thought it was high time I talked to him about the site and its recent book party in Brooklyn.

We corresponded by email…

For those people unfamiliar with the site, could you describe The Second Pass?

The site is an online magazine devoted to books new and old. It features reviews of new books, essays about older and more obscure books, and a blog about books of all stripes. That’s the basics. It’s a place where serious readers of all kinds can enjoy themselves and, from time to time, maybe learn about a book or author they might not otherwise learn about.

What makes The Second Pass unique?

Unique is a strong word. There are other sites and publications that pay attention to obscure books, but I think the site’s regular devotion to it — including out-of-print books — is rare, if not entirely unique. I also like to think the writing is generally at a level that separates it from many other online-only enterprises.

What lessons have you learned in the first 20 months of editing the site?

Plan ahead. And have contingency plans. I’ve learned those lessons, though I’m still learning to act on them.

Appearance and readability often seem to be an afterthought for websites about books, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with The Second Pass. Did a lot of planning go into the design of the site?

Yes, my friend Strath Shepard spent time coming up with several visual ideas for the site, and I chose from among them — any one of which I would have been thrilled with. I wanted to make sure the site looked good, because I think design is as important online as anywhere else. It should be strong and inviting without being an obstruction or a distraction, in my opinion.

Is it easier or more difficult for independent online literary journals to find an audience today?

Easier than it was in the past online? I’m not sure about that. My unscientific sense is that many more people are spending time online, but that the idea of a big audience for niche blogs or journals is more or less a dead dream. Reaching a certain core number of readers is easy enough online, if you’re patient and steady in your production, but I think the audience for serious books coverage is inherently limited in a way that can be hard to admit. I would rather try to reach the maximum of that particular audience (and I have no idea what that number would be; my site’s traffic is surely a tiny sliver of it) than start throwing too many things at the wall to try to reach a more general audience. I think the pressing need for lots of traffic is reflected at a place like The Huffington Post, where the books coverage is a hodgepodge of too-frequently-published pieces that don’t feel unified in any satisfying way. But those people who work for places where increasing traffic is paramount — to paraphrase David Letterman, I wouldn’t give their troubles to a monkey on a rock. I’m happy there’s no one above me worrying about traffic.

What other book sites do you read regularly?

Maud Newton, The Book Bench, Paris Review Daily, Bookslut, The Millions, John Self, Levi Stahl’s I’ve Been Reading Lately, the Barnes & Noble Review, Mark Athitakis, Novel Readings, and yours. Those might be the ones I check most regularly, off the top of my head, but I drop in on many more, most or all of them on the links page at The Second Pass.

Where does the name of your blog, A Special Way of Being Afraid, come from?

It comes from a Philip Larkin poem called “Aubade,” which is a terrifying and beautiful confrontation of the fear of death. It begins: “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. / Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.” And a bit later: “This is a special way of being afraid / No trick dispels. Religion used to try…” It’s always been one of my favorite poems, and I thought that phrase would make a good blog name, back in 2005, when I started it. I still like the name.

How has the experience as founder and editor of The Second Pass been different from blogging?

I started the older blog while working for a big publishing house, partly as a way to maintain the habit of writing and to develop my own voice while in a job that made it difficult to find time for those things. Especially in the beginning, I felt it was important to keep the blog regularly updated, for the exercise of it and for building readership, however modest. I feel that pressure more keenly with The Second Pass, since I have more ambitions for it. Ideally, I would update it far more often than I do. I also work with other people on The Second Pass. I wear all the hats, but I rely on reviews and essays from other writers, a social part of the experience that I really enjoy but that makes it different from the more dictatorial nature of the blog.

The blog is also more wide-ranging. I’m probably a reader first and foremost, but I’m also a longtime fan of music, movies, and sports, among other things. Not to mention the more personal things I might ruminate about over there. I still consider the blog a useful outlet for those things, though I’ve been terribly neglecting it for the past several months, if not longer.

The Second Pass held its first event in November. What made you decide to throw a party?

I had been meaning to have a party ever since last March, when the site celebrated its one-year anniversary, but was stymied by various obstacles that wouldn’t have stymied someone with more resolve. I thought it would be fun to have a party, and figured it couldn’t hurt the site’s visibility. Plus, I wanted to showcase some of the fantastic people who have written for the site.

Who read at the event?

Carlene Bauer, Will Blythe, and Maud Newton read from works of fiction in progress. Jason Zinoman read from his book about horror movies in the 1960s and ’70s, which is being published here next summer. And Lauren Kaminsky read an excerpt from a terrifically weird book called Listen, Little Man by Wilhelm Reich, a screed written by an Austrian psychoanalyst who worked with Freud and later seemed to have cracked up pretty good. I’m hoping Lauren will write about the book (and him) for the site at some point.

Do you think the evening was a success? And will you be organizing more events in future?

I thought it was a big success. I’m biased, of course, but the readers couldn’t have done a better job, there was plenty of wine and food, and everyone seemed to have a good time. Melville House, an independent publisher and bookstore in Brooklyn, was a gracious host. And yes, I’m certainly hoping to do it again, perhaps in Manhattan next time, when the site turns two (which happens March 10) or soon after.

Do you think interest in live book events will see the same kind of revival that live music events have in recent years?

I think live book events, at least in New York, have been thriving in recent years. My dirty little secret is that I find many traditional readings dull. Not all, but many. Lots of good writers just aren’t good readers, which is no knock on them. It’s not their job, and they’re very different skills. Only a few lucky people have both. I think it’s also asking a lot of a text to keep people interested for a long stretch of time while it’s read aloud. (I’m not a big fan of audio books for that reason, though this is probably saying much more about my aural attention span than about the worth of audio books.)

Who are some of your other favourite authors?

William Trevor, Richard Russo (especially pre-Pulitzer), Marilynne Robinson, David James Duncan, Dostoevsky, Lorrie Moore, Wilfrid Sheed, Nabokov, William James, Martin Amis (back when), Iris Murdoch, Richard Ford (the Bascombe books, particularly), to name a few.

What were your favourite books of 2010?

I recently finished The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr, a nonfiction story set in late-19th-century France, which tells the parallel stories of a serial killer on the loose and a criminologist who was doing a lot to introduce the set of forensic techniques that we now, thanks to TV, simply refer to as “CSI.” It’s a gripping story, smartly told. I also enjoyed Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist. He’s an old-fashioned storyteller, sweeping and just the right amount of sentimental, and this novel is about a Mormon with four wives and 28 children.

What books are you looking forward to reading in 2011?

I’m glad you asked this, because it reminded me that I’m behind in figuring out what the site will cover this year. I’m a fan of Jonathan Coe’s work, and his new novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, is coming in March. Just today, I received a galley of House of Exile by Evelyn Juers, a biography of Heinrich Mann, his wife Nelly, and their circle of famous friends. I’ve been looking forward to its U.S. publication since I read a terrific review in the TLS. And of course, there’s David Foster Wallace’s novel in April. Though I’m skeptical of posthumous releases, including this one, I’m as curious as every other fan of his.

Thanks John!

Photo credit: Justin Lane

credit Justin LaneJ

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