John Williams on The Second Pass

The Second Pass

I love books and I greatly admire people that write effectively about one’s love of good books.  The Second Pass (“an exclusively online publication devoted to reviews, essays, and blog posts about books new and old“) is the kind of concept I wish I had developed and that is overflowing with people that write effectively about books. After visiting the publication for awhile, I contacted the site’s founder and editor, John Williams, to garner a better understanding of what he’s trying to achieve. The site just celebrated its sixth month of existence and Williams entertained a series of questions from me. Williams’ career path to The Second Pass includes the following details: “From 2001-2007, he worked in the editorial department at HarperCollins. Before that, he spent time as a journalist in Texas and an editorial intern at Harper’s Magazine. His work as a freelance writer has appeared in Slate, McSweeney’s, Stop Smiling, the Austin American-Statesman, the Dallas Morning News, the New York Sun, and other publications.” My thanks to Williams for his time and for shepherding a site worthy of my jealousy.

Tim O’Shea: With six months of the site under your belt, what do you consider to be some of the successes and missteps of the site to date?

John Williams: I feel like the site overall has been a success. I’m proudest of the way people have responded to it, both general readers and people in the publishing business. The vast majority of the feedback I’ve received has been positive. I guess the most specific success was the “Fired from the Canon” feature, which hit a nerve with people and spread far and wide.

The missteps have been mercifully small (in terms of how public they are). For instance, I started the site with confidence that I could get material rolling in as I went, and that was a mistake. I should have had more “inventory” at the start. I feel like I’ve been playing catch-up in order to keep the site refreshed on a regular basis, though that’s finally starting to change. I guess another misstep would be my desire to have a “Letters” page, as a way of nodding to the tradition of letters to the editor. That’s been a bust, and I put a comments function up on the blog instead. I’m still trying to figure out what to replace “Letters” with, so the heading remains up on the nav bar for now — useless, like an appendix.

O’Shea: How much research did you do in developing the online publication before its launch and how did you settle upon the name? In terms of (Site Design) Strath Shepard and (Site Development) Jennifer Maas did you defer to their design expertise or did you give them an idea of what you wanted in a design?

Williams: I wouldn’t say I did a lot of research in any traditional sense. I was familiar with the more popular personal book blogs (Maud Newton, Mark Sarvas, etc.) and I did a bit of searching to see what existed in terms of more traditional reviews and essays online. I knew that the one area where I wanted the site to immediately stand out was design, and I was lucky to know Strath, who’s a supremely talented guy. I sent him to some sites I liked (visually) and gave him a very general idea of what I was looking for — something uncrowded and elegant — and then, yes, I deferred to him. Or, more accurately, I just got out of the way. I’m not the most objective judge, but I think he knocked it out of the park.

O’Shea: How many contributors does The Second Pass have at present?

Williams: It’s a growing list. Thirty-seven different writers have contributed to the site so far, and several new ones are slated to write something in the fall. The list of “Contributors” on the home page is more of an initial group of “friends of the site,” people who were scheduled to contribute when it launched. Most of them have already written something, and I hope they will again. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of writers I’ve met through other channels. They’ve really kept the site going.

O’Shea: Stop Smiling’s praise of the site (The “site is an example of how innovative bookworms can use the Web to counterbalance all those vanishing newspaper book sections in a way that might even improve upon the dying breed’s model.”) makes me wonder, do you expect that TSP will gain more readers as newspapers trim back their literature coverage?

Williams: In an editor’s note I wrote when the site first went up, I wrote, “The extinction of book pages are just another sign of the extinction of newspapers themselves, which are likely to keep folding at a healthy pace in years to come. This is not something I celebrate.” And that still holds true. I think it’s terrible that stand-alone book sections have disappeared at the pace they have, and I wish the New York Times Book Review many more centuries of health. I don’t believe that it’s an inevitable or a good thing that book coverage will disappear everywhere but online. That said, like most other people at this point, I spend a lot of time online and I don’t see why there shouldn’t be literary coverage of high quality there. If it serves to offset the decreased coverage in newspapers, that’s a (sadly necessary) bonus.

O’Shea: I really appreciate one feature of The Second Pass–The Shelf–where you solicit books suggestions/reviews from the readership. Out of the many recommendations TSP’s Shelf has received, have there been any that have struck you as great finds and/or really obscure?

Williams: I’m glad you enjoy the Shelf. I’ve had several other people say that as well. Frustratingly, though, even as the site has gained visibility it’s been very rare that someone writes in with a recommendation. I’m sure this is through some fault of my own. I’m hoping the section turns around and becomes more lively. Lots of great suggestions have been made. If I had to single one out, I’d say Disappearances by William Wiser, a novel that was recommended by a reader from Arkansas. This is the kind of obscure but interesting book that the feature was made for. Soon after, I picked up a copy at the Strand, and it currenly resides in my teetering “to read” tower.

O’Shea: In an essay about David Foster Wallace, you wrote: “I don’t think I’ve ever read a single thing by Wallace that, stripped of a byline, I wouldn’t be able to identify, within 50 words, as his.” What is it about his writing that made him so recognizable to you? Are you able to recognize other writers’ work so easily?

Williams: I think with Wallace, the quick recognition is certainly more about him than about me. The particular humor and density in his voice are so unique. And the way he addresses the reader — not directly, necessarily, but just in tone. As for other writers, I guess Cormac McCarthy might be the easiest of all to spot. Take this sentence from Blood Meridian: “The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun whitehot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were the ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning.”

O’Shea: Can you give a tip of what you have planned for the remainder of 2009?

Williams: The fall promises to be a great time for the site. It’s always a busy stretch in the publishing world, lots of new books by accomplished authors. The site should be busier, in terms of sheer volume, for one thing. I’ve already assigned several reviews for the next couple of months and I’m hoping to get closer to my temporary goal, which is to run at least two reviews of new books (in the “Circulating” section) and one essay about an older book (in “Backlist”) every week. As for a more specific tip, I’m working on putting together a kind of reverse answer to “Fired from the Canon,” a list of books that contributors to the site believe will still be read many years from now.

O’Shea: Were you surprised at the level of response generated by Fired from the Canon?

Williams: I was, pleasantly. I figured it would attract more attention than the average piece, but I was suprised by how many places linked to it and commented on it. I think people simply like a heated argument, and that’s what the piece offered. Whether people said “right on” or “you’re crazy,” they felt compelled to respond. I craved the negative responses just as much (if not more) than the right-ons, because there’s no fun in consensus, but I was tickled by the lack of self-awareness in some of the disapprovals. There were a lot of comments along the lines of: “You must be an illiterate fool to even attempt something like this. Who are you to judge the great works of literature? Plus, how could you not list The Catcher in the Rye? That book is awful.”

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