Why Arts & Letters is the highbrow hit of the internet

Mark Lasswell explains why the intellectually curious can't resist the teasers on the Arts & Letters Daily.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Denis Dutton's online celebrity is based not on, say, a selection of his upskirt photos of Hollywood actresses, or a video diary of the growth of his toenails, or a showcase of his dog's ability to bark to the entire Abba oeuvre. No, he is loved by a worldwide audience of a very particular sort, because he has the ability to write the sort of pithy, intriguing summary of a newspaper or magazine article found above (only better) - and because he brings an inspired eclecticism to culling those articles for inclusion on his aggregator website Arts & Letters Daily (www.aldaily.com).

Founded in 1998, Arts & Letters Daily now claims nearly three million monthly page views from more than 333,000 unique viewers. Those visitors constitute a healthy portion of the smartypants elite - 45% of the audience holds a master's or doctoral degree. They are academics, journalists, think-tank denizens and those who are just plain intellectually curious. They have come to rely on the site as a tireless magpie of ideas, one that does the sort of brainy legwork that the visitors would do (or imagine they would do) if only they had the time. The A&LD motto, 'Veritas odit moras', taken from Seneca, translates as 'Truth hates delay'.

Part of the site's appeal is its simplicity. It is divided into three columns, under the headings 'Articles of Note', 'New Books' and 'Essays and Opinion'. In each column, updated with new links six days a week, are dozens of three- and four-line descriptions of the articles lurking behind that enticing more>>.

Here is a sample from a recent visit, complete with characteristic bold emphases:

'Asia's rise is unstoppable.' Don't bet on it. It will be a long time before India and China take over the world - if they ever do ...'

'Alexander Waugh has but a dim, distant memory of William F. Buckley. As a small angry boy, he thought Buckley was hiding his ping-pong ball ...'

'Lord Byron was mad, bad, dangerous, and a cad. But as both poet and as lover, he knew what women wanted ...'

'People think we live in an age of violence and killing. In truth, the past was far more bloodthirsty than the present age, as Steven Pinker explains ...'

'Adam Smith is usually seen as the founder of modern economics. But will Charles Darwin turn out to have been the more subtle economic thinker? ...'

These teasers link to sources that might be obscure (the Pinker article appears in Greater Good magazine); wonky (the Asia story is in Foreign Policy); doctrinaire (Waugh, reviewing a memoir by Buckley's son Christopher, is writing in The American Conservative); new-media (the Byron piece is a review of Edna O'Brien's biography of the poet in the online magazine Slate); or old-media (Darwin-as-economist comes from the New York Times). Nosing around the staggering variety of article teasers is to find oneself moaning 'more>>more>>more>>'.

Dutton, an American who moved with his family to Christchurch, New Zealand, two decades ago to teach at the University of Canterbury, compiles the A&LD articles with the help of the site's managing editor, Tran Huu Dung, an economist at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. The taste on display is contrarian with a libertarian streak - Dutton is unconvinced by either side of the global-warming argument - and this explains why the site is such intellectual catnip: received thinking is tedious even to those who gladly receive it.

As is so often the case with internet renown, though, popularity does not necessarily translate into a financial jackpot. The A&LD site is almost entirely devoid of advertising (no 'almost' about it on a recent visit). Dutton started the site in 1998, sold it in 2000 to an American magazine called Lingua Franca - a publication that, being devoted to trying to make academia seem colourful, soon folded.

But before that happened, Dutton and Lingua Franca's owner were sued by former A&LD executive editor Nancy Strickland. Writer Dennis Loy Johnson tracked the case on his MobyLives blog, reporting that Strickland's suit described Dutton as 'a highly polished con-man' and 'a cyber-predator of the most insidious sort'. She had been persuaded to work for free, the suit said, in exchange for a promise of full partnership, but was then cut out of the deal, which was 'for substantially in excess of $1m'. (Dutton's lawyer told Johnson, who said that he heard the million-dollar amount from Dutton, that the actual figure was closer to $250,000.)

Strickland, who included her e-mail exchanges with Dutton in the lawsuit, sued for $16.5m, and the case was settled out of court - with both sides barred from discussing it. Johnson speculated that the case might have played a role in Lingua Franca's demise in 2001.

A&LD limped along on its own until October 2002, then went dark - leaving much-keening fans, who faced the task of digital hunting-and-gathering on their own. Dutton admitted then that A&LD had never turned a profit. But the Washington-based Chronicle of Higher Education swooped in and A&LD was back, after just 18 days offline.

Even if the site remains as bereft of advertising as ever, it did at least provide Dutton with a long-running platform last winter to promote his book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. And thanks, no doubt, to affection for A&LD among those who recruit television chat-show guests, commission feature articles or write book reviews, Dutton received the sort of publicity for his book that countless other pudgy-faced, grey-haired philosophy professors in remote academic outposts could only dream about.

In his book, Dutton posits that the artistic impulse in humans is rooted in biological adaptation. The book was greeted rapturously in many quarters where A&LD is consulted - it 'marks out the future of the humanities', according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker (whose The Language Instinct would make a nice gift pack along with The Art Instinct for your favorite Darwinian).

But the praise has not been universal for a work that makes confident assertions, such as Dutton's observation that people's 'intense interest in artistic skill, as well as the pleasure it gives us, will not be denied: it is an extension of innate, spontaneous Pleistocene values, feelings and attitudes'. Writing in the conservative US magazine The Weekly Standard, Maureen Mullarkey attacked the book with the verve and swimming-against-the-tide scepticism that animates many of the articles corralled by A&LD. But since the site doesn't offer a teaser to her review, here goes ...

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