Dispatches | March 12, 2012

As part of our continuing series of interviews with various literary blogs, we were lucky enough to score an interview with Jessa Crispin head honcho, founder, and general General of the nearly decade-old book review website, Bookslut. In the internet-world that’s the rough equivalent of having been around when Methuselah was still waiting for his voice to break.

For those of you not familiar with Bookslut, we encourage you to check out the website. It’s got oodles of reviews covering every genre, features, columns, a regularly updated blog, and a very well-tended archive. It’s free. And it covers a lot more literature than most traditional outlets. It’s also one of the original lit-blogs, hitting the airwaves back before everybody with an MFA, a job in publishing, or a love of good writing had their own versions. In the 9+ years since it went live it has gone from strength to strength, continually adding both to the quality and quantity of available content.

Here’s our interview with Ms. Crispin, in which he ask her the tough questions, get lightly scolded for suggesting she’s more interested in number of hits than literature itself, and find out how to make it in the cut-throat world of covering literature on the World Wide Web;

Ari Sen: As one of the older and more established literary blogs, what reasons do you feel have been instrumental in your popularity and longevity? Especially given the impression that there is something impermanent about the e-world, the fact that your blog has detailed archives would make it appear more capable of looking at the larger picture than, say, a single book.

Jessa Crispin: You know, I have no idea how to answer this question. Other than, I just keep doing what I do. I haven’t stopped writing, and for some reason people have not stopped reading. I honestly do not have any greater insight than that.

How do you feel the development of Web 2.0 had affected the popularity of the website and/or its reach? You guys have a Twitter account and a Facebook page–how are those managed? What do you use them for? What sort of traffic does it generate, or is that besides the point? In other words, are they being used as marketing tools, or has the literary industry still not “commodified” enough to view the use of social media as a commercial aspect of the business?

My managing editor runs the Facebook page, and I stay out of the daily running of it. Neither one of us is sure what to do with the Facebook page, so we tend to put things there that do not fit elsewhere. As for the Twitter account, that’s kind of just a friendlier version of the blog, I think. I do not allow comments on the blog, so if someone wants to say something to me, it’s generally done over Twitter. We’ve never really paid attention to how much traffic Facebook or Twitter generates, because traffic is my least pressing concern. After ten years of running the blog and the website, I’m more concerned with keeping personally interested.

Continuing the theme of social media, do you feel the current model (friends, followers, fan etc.) increases inter-connectivity between writers/critics/artists/thinkers/commentators or does the nature of these “connections” make that point moot? How could this interaction be improved to create a more vibrant and connected community?

I’ve never been one to be too concerned about the idea of community. Like I said above, I do not allow comments on my blog, I do not participate in any forums, etc etc. That probably sounds curmudgeonly of me, I’m sure. Many of my writers feel very differently, and use Twitter and so on to connect to the readers of what they write for Bookslut. I mean, if you read the comments sections of blogs and the websites of more traditional media like NPR or the New York Times, you still have to wade through so much self-promotion (“this book sounds good, but my book is better, and here’s the link”), hate speech, sexist nonsense, etc etc. It negates, for me, any greater form of conversation going on. I give up usually within seconds of dipping into comments sections and twitter conversations.

That said, I think the Internet forced the more traditional forms of criticism to take seriously things they would rather have not: graphic novels, fantasy, science fiction, women’s writing etc. Not because of the interaction between critic and audience, though — because suddenly they had competition from blogs and online forums. When you’re the only game in town, you can write the rules. But when you’re not, you do have to adjust yourself a little bit.

This one might be a little cliche, but I’ve always wondered how Bookslut figures out what books to review, what issues to feature, what topics to discuss, especially given the plethora of information that is out there? Do personal tastes play into the matter? Some sort of aggregator ideal such as the one Huffington Post employs–articles that will register more hits are tackled more often?

Oh please. We have never had a conversation that started, “Oh, I bet if we run this personal essay about reading Gertrude Stein that will really get the readers running over here.” We publish writers we trust, and part of that trust is to allow the writers to choose what they want to write about. Obviously we will say yes or no to certain ideas, but I’d rather have an engaged, passionate writer than someone writing 600 word reviews of mediocre books they have no connection to.

Bookslut focuses not just on book reviews, but also blogs, and has longer features and regular columns. How does the layout affect content? What do you focus on, or how? How does the issue come together? What editorial decisions play into that? How do you achieve the balance of opinion, coverage, and community-building that you do?

It shifts from month to month, based on what our writers want to write. I try to push certain writers into doing other things, of course, like nudging a regular reviewer into coming up with a column or a monthly feature. I mostly just try to find writers who write interesting work and have an interesting take on things. And then see what they want to do. Everything flows from that, really. Except for the blog, which is the result of me goofing off for a few hours every day.

Perhaps a personal question, but how did the name come about? Has it led to uncomfortable discussions at Thanksgiving? The last time I was home I looked at the site, and then had an awkward 45 minute conversation with my grandmother who was convinced I was using her computer to watch pornography. Have there been other reports on this? What should I tell my grandmother?

I do not really remember. I needed a name when I started the blog. That’s what came out of my head.

How do you feel the rise of the internet has affected publishing–books, magazines, literary journals–and what steps do you think (as a successful and popular Web presence) would help those aspects of the larger industry manage to keep up and evolve given the changing dynamics of our marketplace and readership?

I think it’s flattened things a bit. I think it’s harder to build a bestseller out of hype alone, and it’s maybe easier to get coverage for your small press books now that there are venues other than the newspaper review sections out there, but the result is that it’s a pretty massive midlist. There are still the obvious blockbusters that everyone reads — the Franzens, the Egans, whatever — but then between those, the selection is so diverse, it’s hard to have a discussion, because no one is reading the same books.

But frankly, no one knows what works at the moment. I think the only useful piece of information I have is that right now no one is in the position to dictate. The only option is to participate.

What have been some of your favorite columns or features that Bookslut has put up in the last few years?

I’m really happy that Lightsey Darst has recently decided to become a regular columnist. And Kevin Frazier’s Star-Crossed features and Elizabeth Bachner’s reader diary features are always some of my favorite things I read in the month. But then it’s impossible to choose. I think we have an amazingly strong batch of columnists, from Jenny McPhee to Martyn Pedler — and people who have been writing for us for so long they have become family, like Colleen Mondor.

Good Golf, Y'All

Tune in, next week, when we’ll be interviewing William Faulkner about his popular “Top 10 Golf Courses in Yoknapatawpha” along with Hemingway’s “Backpacking Across Europe in 12 Easy Cocktails.” Well, probably not.