A Maecenas for the Internet Age

Sam Sacks

Denis Dutton was one of the most prominent patrons of the arts of the 21st century. This fact has only become apparent in the past 10 days, as writers and editors have begun to think about his legacy in the wake of his death from prostate cancer at the age of 66.

The unexpected news of Dutton’s passing left many of us feeling stunned and guiltily remiss. The shock came in part because Dutton had kept his illness private and had never given any obvious sign of weakening powers. The guilt was due to the realization that his contributions to contemporary intellectual life had never been properly esteemed during his lifetime.

Most readers knew of Denis Dutton—if they knew of him at all—as the creator of a popular website, Arts & Letters Daily. To writers and editors, he was an influential arbiter of culture to whom we appealed to help promote our work. The reality is that he did more for serious cultural criticism than any other figure in the Internet age. Dutton’s life was rich and varied—he was, often concurrently, a professor, philosopher, writer, editor and entrepreneur. But it is for his website, launched in 1998, that he will be remembered.

At first glance, Dutton’s legacy may seem unassuming. Every day, Arts & Letters Daily (ALD to its fans) offers three or four fresh links to nonfiction writing from English-language periodicals and websites around the world, each introduced by a witty 25-word “teaser.” The links themselves—remaining on the site for weeks and thus allowing the reader, cumulatively, to choose among dozens of major pieces of writing with a single visit—appear in three columns, organized under the headings “Articles of Note,” “New Books” and “Essays and Opinions.”

The teasers are no slapdash summary but constitute Dutton’s personal rebuttal to academic obscurantism. They lure readers of diverse temperaments into subjects equally diverse. For example: “Niccolo Machiavelli was an amoebic being: imperialist, proto-libertarian, atheist, neo-pagan, Christian, lover of freedom, tutor to despots, armchair strategist.” Or: “A greener world may eliminate some risks we face, but it will create new ones. Electric cars will require lithium. And guess where the world’s lithium deposits are?” Often they provide a chuckle on their own: “For fans, Gustav Mahler was more than a composer. He was a seer who foretold Auschwitz, McCarthyism, killing JFK, Vietnam. Yeah, whatever . . .”

The appeal of Arts & Letters Daily is in its reliability and lack of fuss. The site has few ads and no bells or whistles. Bucking the Internet habit of spreading content maddeningly over numerous pages—to inflate “page views” and thus appear more attractive to advertisers—ALD is almost entirely contained on a single scrollable page, modeled, Dutton said, on the 18th-century broadsheet. His aim, first and foremost, was to make the site suitable to its purpose. He tried to instill Arts & Letters Daily with the atmosphere of a Victorian reading room or an athenaeum—a place for reading and thinking, free from distractions.

As the site grew in prestige and reach, Dutton gained leverage with the editors whose content he was posting, allowing him to insist on certain specifications. Discussing a possible link with Richard Starr, the deputy editor of the Weekly Standard, Dutton first waved the carrot: “I can promise you 15,000 readers you would not otherwise have had, plus new subscribers out of that. (Just ask The American Scholar, which has built a shrine to me with burning incense in their D.C. office, because I’ve given them so much traffic and so many subscribers. Well, they said they were going to.)” Then came the stick: “There’s a condition, however. I need a formatted single-page version of the article, just like the New Yorker, Slate, Boston Globe, NYT, etc. etc. offer. We do not inflict on our readers four or five page multi-links for a single article.” Mr. Starr notes that the Weekly Standard was happy to rejigger its online set-up to accommodate the request. (At the moment, ALD averages around 3 million visits from more than 350,000 unique visitors each month.)

Clearly Dutton was particular about design and presentation. According to Evan Goldstein, an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education (which now owns ALD), Dutton tweaked and edited a teaser until the lines broke in exactly the right manner, and he gave attention to the minute details of italic and boldface type onscreen. “All of this, he insisted many times, aided readability and added to the experience of visiting ALD,” Mr. Goldstein says.

But Dutton’s greatest service to readers was in sorting through the Internet’s infinite verbiage. The writer and editor Joseph Epstein likens Dutton’s efforts to those of corporate assistants who assiduously cull the daily wires for busy executives. “Under Denis Dutton, Arts & Letters Daily performed a similar function for those of us who are not so important but still haven’t time to read the vast amount of printed material released, avalanche fashion, on the world everyday.”

If readers benefitted, writers and critics did even more, thanks to Dutton’s unparalleled ability to bring small intellectual venues to the attention of wide audiences. Indeed, it is this amplifying effect that makes Arts & Letters Daily so culturally significant. Dutton’s judicious deployment of links amounted to a rare and extraordinary form of patronage.

Links are the Internet’s currency. Usually they are of a base metal, allowing the like-minded merely to note each other’s perspicacity. But ALD’s links are gold, attracting tens of thousands of new readers to articles whose readership might otherwise be painfully small. Of course, even big and well-known venues covet an ALD link. But the windfall is almost epochal for little magazines.

Little magazines are vital to intellectual discourse, not least for the new and iconoclastic voices they present, but in most cases they toil in short-lived obscurity. As Frederick Crews noted in 1978: “Ephemerality is the little magazine’s generic fate.” Such magazines find their audience by filling a niche, typically one based on political ideology. This can lend them a fatal air of parochialism and group think.

The same is true for various precincts of the Internet, though for slightly different reasons. Here the white noise of blogs and chat forums and automated aggregators is so deafening that new voices can make themselves heard only by sounding dog-whistles to targeted groups. Despite its vastness, much of the Internet is fiercely tribalist, with most links traded jealously among similar folks. Dutton’s approach was quite different: eclectic and rigorous, but wide-ranging and broad-minded too, without the rancor of faction or partisanship.

I was lucky enough to learn firsthand the value of Dutton’s sensibility. In 2007, two friends and I launched the online journal Open Letters Monthly. We had no connections or financial backing (total outlay: $300)—nothing but a desire to produce sparkling long-form criticism. Dutton linked to our second issue, giving us our first real readership. In a light-handed manner that contrasted with the influence he wielded, he was with us at nearly every step of our growth. He advised us to change the background to make our pieces more readable. One of his links brought in so much traffic that it crashed our server and prompted us to redesign the site. A link from July 2010 sent more than 14,000 visitors to Open Letters and led to one particular article being linked by dozens of other magazines and blogs, adding up to well over 20,000 new unique visitors in that month alone.

For a small magazine, that is an enormous number. The Paris Review, for instance, has roughly 16,000 subscribers. The New Criterion 6,000. Granta and the London Review of Books around 50,000 each. The 108-year-old Times Literary Supplement, the leading periodical of the Anglophone literary world, has only 32,000 subscribers. For all these magazines, ALD was a godsend.

Unestablished intellectual ventures caught Mr. Dutton’s eye because his criteria were almost anachronistically elemental: An article or review must be lucid, opinionated and conspicuous for the quality of its argument, the felicity of its prose and the individuality of its thought. Such criteria brought parity between little magazines and their bigger rivals. Brendan O’Neill, the editor of the online journal Spiked, notes: “Denis recognized that brilliant ideas are as likely to be found in small but serious online magazines as they are in longstanding print publications. On Arts & Letters Daily, a magazine that occupies two tiny, newspaper-strewn rooms in London with four full-time staff—like Spiked—became the equal of the New Yorker.”

The Dutton imprimatur bestowed immediate relevancy on a journal otherwise buried in the Internet’s undergrowth. According to Jason Wilson, the editor of Drexel University’s online review the Smart Set, “getting on Denis Dutton’s radar was extremely important. Certainly it meant we’d receive lots of traffic. But it was more than that. It meant, for a fledgling journal like ours, that we were being taken seriously. For cultural criticism, it was like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or a high rating in Consumer Reports.”

Just as it treats with equal seriousness large and small publications, and those in print or online, ALD links to both liberal and conservative articles or to articles with no political coloration at all. Dutton had a penchant for skeptics and debunkers, but even so there was no way to predict what he would link to and so no way for publications to ingratiate themselves with him. Editors were encouraged to publish pieces that they believed in, and readers were encouraged to read with an open mind.

Mr. O’Neill calls the result an “elite meritocracy.” Arts & Letters Daily joins old, aristocratic concepts of excellence with the Internet’s promise of globalism and connectedness. The critic Adam Kirsch likens being linked by the site to joining a republic of letters: “When you’re featured on Arts & Letters, you’ll often find references in blogs around the world. The republic of letters is an old-fashioned, 18th-century notion that Denis used a 21st-century technology to create.”

“People used to say that the great thing about the Internet was that it had no gatekeepers,” Dutton said to Virginia Postrel in 1999. “They were right, of course, except that the worst thing about the Internet is also that it has no gatekeepers.” Arts & Letters Daily shows that the Internet need not be a wilderness inhospitable to intellectual endeavors. It can be colonized under a system of Enlightenment values, and people will eagerly participate in the reborn civilization it offers.

Just weeks ago I emailed Dutton with news of another issue of Open Letters. He advised me to be sure to copy such notices to Evan Goldstein and Tran Huu Dung, an economics professor whom Dutton had invited to co-edit the site in 2000. (They are now managing the site and seamlessly continuing its work.) It was impossible to discern from his note that he was in the last stages of cancer. His response was like all the others from him: immediate, gracious and to the point. It ended: “Thank you, DD.” The thanks should all go the other way.

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