Arts and Letters Goes Under

(posted to on Oct. 7, 2002)


I usually check in on Denis Dutton's "Arts and Letters Daily" website each morning at: to find links to online articles in places like the Chronicles of Higher Education, New Republic, Spiked-Online, etc. Except for some nominal representation of the left like an occasional Terry Eagleton piece, the website was one of the most determined disseminators of an eclectic ideology mixing Scientistic skepticism, a Frank Furedi kind of libertarianism and a rather stuffy belief in high culture of the sort found in Hilton Kramer's New Criterion.


Dutton, a New Zealand professor hailing originally from the USA, first attracted attention for handing out "Bad Writing" awards each year to people like Judith Butler. At the time, I was a big fan of Alan Sokal and greeted these awards with great relish just as I reacted to Alan's spoof in Social Text. Subsequently I learned that not every swipe at postmodernism is a sign that you are on the side of the angels. The animosity directed against postmodernist relativism can often drift into a kind of reactionary belief in Absolute Values such as the supremacy of the capitalist system, the right to smoke cigarettes in restaurants and to take bribes from multinational corporations for publishing apologia on behalf of the right to plunder the 3rd world in the name of "progress".


Today I learned that "Arts and Letters" went belly-up:


The magazine Lingua Franca and its parent company University Business LLC filed for bankruptcy earlier this year (Trustee, Robert L. Geltzer, of Tendler, Biggins & Geltzer, 1556 Third Avenue, Suite 505, New York, NY 101128). We understand that the assets of University Business, including this Website, are to be auctioned in New York City on October 24, 2002. For further information, we suggest contacting the Trustee.


Since the filing, Arts & Letters Daily has been kept afloat by the goodwill of its editors, Tran Huu Dung and Denis Dutton, and it is now time for them to move on. They will continue to supply content on other similar sites with which they are associated: SciTech Daily Review; Denis Dutton’s Philosophy & Literature site; Business Daily Review. Human Nature Review has fine science reporting, Arts Journal is our favorite for arts news, and Google News is invaluable for newspapers and magazines.




This is an interesting sign of the cultural drift of late capitalism mixed with the saga.


Dutton launched his website during the height of the mania.


The Guardian (London), August 31, 1999


What's the great idea?;

Dreamed up by academic Denis Dutton (right), a new website for intellectuals has even Bill Gates waving a large cheque. David Cohen logs on


The website Arts & Letters Daily (www.cyber editions. com/aldaily/) sounded like a sure-fire commercial loser when it first went online last September. It had no brand recognition, contained no material original to the site, had no registered list of users, and was aimed at the kind of egghead ad agencies usually don't fall over themselves to entice.


Worse, almost, was the fact the venture represented no more than a spare-time occupation for the American-born academic, Denis Dutton, a professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Dutton is better known abroad as editor of the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature, published by John Hopkins University Press, and for his cheeky annual awards for the world's worst academic writing. 'It was simply an experiment when I started,' he recalls, noting that the initial cost for this bare-bones venture came to just pounds 110. 'But the instant I got my first glimpse of it on screen, I knew it would be successful.'


In fact, the possibility of making money was hardly Dutton's motivation in the early days. His concept - simple yet until last year untried - was to create a thinking person's guide, by way of 80 or so regularly updated annotated links, to interesting, stylish and original writing on the web, or 'the one place people would like to look at every day, just to see what was new in the world of the arts or ideas'. The site is divided into features, book reviews and essays, drawn from a stable of online journals and newspapers, including the Guardian, with Dutton writing pithy blurbs for each link.


The current work grew out of an email list, Phil Lit, that Dutton founded as an outgrowth of his work on the Johns Hopkins journal. It was an attempt, among his 800 subscribers, to have a continuous Internet symposium based on articles and reviews he found on the web that dealt with literature, philosophy, fiction and the like. Then he thought that putting the articles together on just one page might be a good idea. While a website consisting entirely of links to other websites - 'third party content directories' - was hardly original or new (porn sites have done it for years), its use in an academic or relatively highbrow fashion certainly is.


As one critic noted early on, Arts & Letters Daily might be the only place on the web where one can easily, and in one swoop, find Living Marxism, Forbes and The Jerusalem Report. Over the past year he has been helped by just two online employees, one of them a long-term resident of a trailer park in California's Mojave Desert whom Dutton 'pays' by sending over the occasional carton of cigarettes.


Modest stuff, to be sure. Not so the reaction. In addition to a current readership of some 250,000 monthly readers, the site has subsequently gathered enthusiastic notices from across the international news media.


US Today called it one of the best innovations on the web. The magazine Wired, presumably as a compliment, described Arts & Letters Daily as a 'lusciously fat, slobbering intellectual's site'.


In January, the Observer ranked Arts & Letters Daily as the world's top site, ahead of The New York Times and the book retailer


Gushed writer John Naughton, who has made the site into his Home Page: 'Arts & Letters Daily is proof that there is intellectual life on the web beyond the inanities of Wall Street's favourite portals with their imbecilic 'Cool Stuff!' and 'Hot Picks!!!' '


More recently, the site offers proof that there is financial life on the web by becoming the object of an unlikely low-level bidding war in the American publishing business.


Four US publications are currently vying to buy the site, including North America's premier tertiary education newspaper, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Lingua Franca, and two electronic-only journals, Feed and Microsoft's Slate magazine.


All the periodicals are from the high end of the US market, as are the prices under discussion - running to about pounds 500,000, according to a recent issue of New York magazine.


The philosophy professor won't discuss figures - 'I am discussing no speculations this week other than those by Aristotle and Spinoza' - except to confirm that the negotiations are taking place.


He describes them as a once-in-a- lifetime business opportunity: 'It's been quite extraordinary, and I can't help but be flattered. While I'm not yet exactly sure where the site is going to be in six months, I know that it will be going from its current strong position to one that can only be much stronger.'




Eventually Dutton's website was bought by the corporation that published Lingua Franca, which--by no small coincidence--was also the first publication to reveal Alan Sokal's spoof. Clearly there was an affinity at work here.


Eventually--to the consternation of many readers including me--Lingua Franca went under. For an interesting take on the role of Denis Dutton in the collapse of Lingua Franca, I refer you to an article on the MobyLives website at:


It opens:




by Dennis Loy Johnson


November 5, 2001 — The death, two weeks ago, of Lingua Franca, the great magazine about intellectual and literary life in the academy, was not only sad news for the magazine's followers and admirers — it was a shock.


The "apparent demise," noted David. D. Kirkpatrick in a New York Times report on October 18, "elicited exclamations of dismay in the world of letters." ("Eggheads are anguished," began the lead in the Chicago Tribune's story four days later.) Adding to the surprise was the odd way the news first broke — not in a company announcement or a press release or even in reported rumors but in a hurried, three­sentence letter (scroll down) written by the magazine's managing editor, Andrew Hearst, and sent the day before the New York Times story to Jim Romensko's MediaNews website. It read like something being filed from a battlefront: "I'm writing to let you know that as of today, Wednesday [October 17], Lingua Franca has suspended operations," Hearst wrote. There had been, before that, no indication the eleven­year­old magazine was in trouble.




In a flurry of lawsuits in the aftermath of the collapse, one female editor sued Dutton for "bamboozling" her by asking her to work gratis in return for being a full partner and receiving a significant share when he sold the site. (Another Lingua Franca editor wrote a letter describing Dutton "a highly polished con­man" and "a cyber­predator of the most insidious sort.") He then cut her out of the deal when he sold ALD to Kittay's Academic Partners for an amount "substantially in excess of $1 million." I guess this kind of maneuver falls into the category of bad faith rather than bad writing.