Interview with Terry Teachout and Laura Demanski from About Last Night

“About Last Night”, founded in 2003, was the first of the 13 artblogs hosted by artsjournal.com. It is jointly written by Terry Teachout of New York City and Laura Demanski of Chicago (who blogs as “Our Girl in Chicago”). Terry is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, the music critic of Commentary, and the author of A Terry Teachout Reader and The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. He is writing Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which will be published by Harcourt. Laura is a writer and critic who lives in Chicago. Her work appears in the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere.

Simon Owens: As someone who both blogs and writes columns for mainstream news publications, what are some of the key differences between the blogging world and the regular journalism world? Do you get a high crossover of readers between the two?

Terry Teachout: “About Last Night” offers me total editorial freedom. I can write about whatever I like at whatever length suits me, then publish it whenever I please. The Wall Street Journal and Commentary obviously can’t give me that kind of freedom, though they give me far more than you might expect, and as much as I require. On the other hand, they pay me. (See Sascha in Casablanca: “Yvonne, I love you, but he pays me.”) I find that the two media complement one another quite nicely. The overlap in readership is surprisingly modest, no doubt in part because you have to pay to read most of my Journal pieces, whether on paper or online.

Simon Owens: Since New York has an abundance of good art, how do you go about filtering out what you highlight on your blog?

Terry Teachout: I simply write about what interests me at any given moment, though I always try to keep in mind that most of our readers live outside Manhattan. Between the two of us, Laura and I do our best to touch on all the arts with reasonable regularity. She writes about books far more often than I do, and she also participates in the Litblog Co-Op. I tend to stick to the performing and visual arts, though I also pick and post our daily “Almanac” entry, which is often but not always of literary interest.

Simon Owens: What are some of the key differences between the Chicago arts scene and the New York arts scene?

Terry Teachout: New York has an advantage over Chicago when it comes to dance, jazz, and publishing, and Chicago has an advantage over New York when it comes to architecture, hot dogs, and general livability. Otherwise, I don’t know that the differences between the two cities are especially significant. Chicago is home to the Chicago Symphony, the Lyric Opera, and the Art Institute of Chicago, three of the most important arts organizations in the world. You can see as much live theater there as you can in New York, and it’s more or less identical in quality. Much the same is true of the local newspapers and public-radio stations. If I had to live somewhere other than New York, I’d pick Chicago, unhesitatingly.

Simon Owens: As one of the blogs that participated in the Lit-blog Co-op, how successful do you think the group has been in promoting unknown titles?

Laura Demanski: Without having the benefit of any actual sales data, I think the Litblog Co-op has helped both books selected as “Read This” titles and books that have been nominated. I think this is true because of the enthusiasm we see among publishers and authors when we nominate their books, and what I hear from readers of the LBC site. I think, too, that the group, which is only a little more than a year old, is a work in progress and will become only more influential as it becomes more established.

Simon Owens: You guys got a lot of criticism when you had your first “Read This” selection because a lot of people said that the work you picked wasn’t very unknown. How do you go about deciding what work has been overlooked and which work is too well-known for you guys to pick?

Laura Demanski: In terms of process, nominations are made by individual members of the LBC, and the group has implicitly agreed ahead of time to trust their judgment. Both books I’ve nominated, Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers and Edie Meidav’s Crawl Space, were published by major New York houses and reviewed in the New York Times Book Review and the like, so I’m as vulnerable to this criticism as anyone in the group. For me, the test of sufficient obscurity goes roughly like this: out of my extended circle of book-addicted friends, how many are aware of the book in question? In the case of Aslam’s and Meidav’s books, the answer was none. That’s just wrong, and I love having both the twin powers of the LBC and “About Last Night” to help right it. But, as your question suggests, “unknown” is a relative term. There are no doubt bloggers in the LBC who consider a book reviewed in the Times to be by definition too well known for us. But one of the strengths of this group of bloggers is the wide spectrum of reading tastes and habits represented.

Simon Owens: Do you think it possible for book blogs to cause news trends in publishing?

Laura Demanski: I think it is not only possible, but happening. To name one obvious such trend, blogs have already provided editors and agents with their most fertile new field ever from which to pluck writers and book projects–almost, it sometimes seems, by the bushel. But trends are transitory. I also think there must be lasting changes being made to the way publishers decide what to publish and how to publish it. Book blogs help many books reach a wider audience, but I hope they also demonstrate to publishers that these audiences exist for, say, a literary novel that might be on the cusp of being signed. Unlike the NYTBR, the blogosphere has unlimited space to cover unlimited books. So compared to ten years ago, publishers have a lot more information about who is reading what and why.

Simon Owens: What are the five blogs you’d recommend to supplement your own?

Terry Teachout: I’ll leave the litblogs and screenblogs to Laura, since they’re more her turf than mine. That said, here are five frequently updated artblogs that I currently visit each day without fail:

* The Bad Plus’ “Do the Math”

* Tyler Green’s “Modern Art Notes”

* Doug Ramsey’s “Rifftides”

* Lee Rosenbaum’s “Culturegrrl”

* Jaime J. Weinman’s “Something Old, Nothing New”

Laura Demanski: Ooh, my favorite question. I have the answer to this one memorized.

* For books and a lot of them, Jenny Davidson’s “Light Reading”

* For movies, the group blog “The House Next Door”

* For all of culture, M.S. Smith’s “CultureSpace”

* For all of culture and sometimes hot sauce, “Quiet Bubble”

* For inner life, “Outer Life”

2 Comments

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