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Episode L: "In the Normal Mailer Stabs His Wife kind of way, in the big dicks swinging around kind of way"

Published 2/3/16
In this installment, I speak with Jessa CrispinTopics include Important Books That Speak To Our Age, aesthetics and political correctness, the dominant cynical remove of culture, anger today, MFA heroes, underappreciated writers & more.

Today I’m talking to Jessa Crispin. She’s a writer, and the editor of Bookslut (as well as its sister publication, Spolia). Your website says you currently live “nowhere in particular”. I took that to mean you’ve been uploaded to the cloud, but you said you’re snowed in. Where are you?

I'm at a friend's house in Brooklyn, with the snow all piled up. I accidentally got stranded, but we're coping.

You started Bookslut in 2002. What was the impetus back then? Has it changed?

There were a cluster of impeti? Whatever. First off, and probably the most important one, was that I was very bored at my day job and they let me have internet access. Then, it was just those crazy early days, when nothing really existed yet, and so you felt like you could do whatever you wanted and it did not matter. And then there was just the fact that I tended to read writers who, when I typed their names into a search engine, had very few results, and I wanted to have a conversation about them somehow. So I created the space for that. 

My motivation has changed somewhat, except for that the writers we write about still are under represented in the larger conversation. That is maybe the only reason I still do this after so many years.

Bookslut is named with an apologist mindset toward sluts: “The philosophy behind Boookslut is one of pleasure and one of expansion…we devote ourselves to omnivorous reading…But being a slut has never meant having no standards. Our coverage is selective, but that is based on excellence other than what is traditionally thought of being important.” Do you think today it’s too often the other way: either readers only reading a sliver of what’s out there, or just completely indiscriminately?

I think we all find ways of trying to cope with the absolute flood of things to read out there. And yeah, being super clique-y is one way of doing that. Only reading one thing, only reading one genre. You even see it now with all these declarations, "I am only going to read women this year!" etc. You have to find a way to filter it down somehow.

What's the right way to filter?

I think not to filter. Serendipity has been a great way for me to find things that are important but hidden. You allow one book to lead you to this unexpected place, and that takes you somewhere even further off track. Not to be a dick, but there's that kind of Nietzschean idea of living without goals, living without a clear idea of where you want to go or what you want to do or experience and allowing for accidents and serendipity and so on to guide you. I know I just talked about Nietzsche, but it happens sometimes.

You’re pardoned. What are examples, trends of contemporary lit that’s thought of as important, but isn’t excellent? If that’s too vague, what are traits of books that get them wrongfully labeled “important”?

I am kind of the wrong person to talk about "trends." I have no idea, particularly in American lit, we—and I—try very hard not to pay attention to that kind of stuff. But let me give you a different example. There was that book, "A Little Life," that got phenomenal reviews, award nominations, etc. I have yet to meet someone who actually read that book who did not hate it. Violently, violently hate it. So I think there is a real disconnect between what people who are looking for "importance" in a book will see as important and what anybody actually wants to read.

I swear to god, and now it's my turn to be a dick, my sixth sense told me you were going to Yanagihara. Literally everyone I speak to also has, um, strong feelings for it. What explains the public image of it?

I think because its themes line up with the current conversation? Trauma, redemption, recovery, sexual violence. And yet so, so badly done. But someone who is looking for an Important Book That Speaks To Our Age might just be like, well... it's hitting all the right themes, must be great. Also, sorry to be even more of a dick. Look at her career, look at where she works and who she knows. That counts for a lot, when it shouldn't.

I'll be a dick twice-over back, and bring up Bret Easton Ellis, who has a pretty phenomenal hard-on for the public's current propensity to trump aesthetics with politics. Disagree with what he says or the way he says it, but every time I hear that I nod like the little lamb I am. Is this a product of our times, of corporate culture, both, or a third party?

Well, except for that viewpoint assumes that there was a time when aesthetics were king? And there wasn't. It's always something. And I don't know, obviously there is a kind of particular culture that we are living in. And it has to do somewhat with "political correctness" even though I hate that term. And I've certainly written a series of pieces on the danger of that. But to me, the culture is always going to be led by something, there's always going to be a kind of quality that people think of as being the most important quality, and that quality is never going to be merit, because it can't be. Not that it's not important to criticize the dominant force, but I'm not going to choose to follow someone who is obviously criticizing the culture for not still being as crazy misogynist as he would seem to like it to be.

I’ll take it. Perhaps the politics/aesthetic breakdown isn’t anything new. Let’s talk artistic judgment. I just read Masscult and Midcult by Dwight Macdonald. It’s not a book I’d recommend to everyone, but the ideas are both a) even more relevant today than it was written, b) harder to talk about. Today it's not possible to pass judgment on anything without being labeled pretentious, a bigot, snobbish, whatever. Is this inability (why not label it "political correctness"?) to blame for the rise of a certain sort of book?

I think political correctness is absolutely something else. I do think that yes, if you are critical of what is popular, what is mainstream, you are instantly labeled pretentious. If you quote Nietzsche, you are automatically an asshole. This is tied in, I think, with the dominant cynical remove of our culture, sincerity is absolutely distrusted. I was talking about this with a professor I was interviewing this week, that stepping away from the dominant culture is, now, seen as almost an act of aggression. And you have to step away to position yourself as a critic in any way. But stepping away, stepping above, even if only to get a better view, is seen as being a rejection, and then it becomes, who the hell do you think you are? You see it with the weird death threats movie critics got when they gave a bad review to the Avengers film.

I have a lot to say on this subject, but probably right now is not the best time. But I will just point out that this is not necessarily new, although it's still pretty strong. I'm thinking of when you know, Salinger fucked off. And all anyone wanted to do was to penetrate his hermitage. They wanted to break his silence, break his remove. There's something about how personally we take this kind of thing, and so if you step outside of the culture, people really do get incredibly angry at you.

Have you ever felt like people (in the general plural) were angry at you, in particular?

Oh my god, yes, of course. I've written a series of critical pieces about feminism, and as a result I got the nastiest emails. From feminists! Calling me a traitor to my gender. We're all supposed to be "in it together." And that means you're not allowed to be critical, even if there is a segment of that culture that needs to be criticized.

Also, this happens if you're critical of the MFA culture, if you say you don't like certain writers who are beloved, that kind of thing. 

I'll take a "pass" if need be, but would you name some of these MFA demigods?

One good example is Lorrie Moore, you're supposed to love her. Or Joan Didion, unrelated to the MFA thing, but so unquestioningly loved.

Yes, though Moore is put on a pedestal for a small set of people, and Didion has been pulped and middlebrowed and commercialized until nothing's left but the waifish silhouette. Back to anger. On the Spolia “Manifesto”, you list eight “unhappy literary trends”. In them I found indirect mentions of pride, greed, sloth, gluttony, lust and envy. The only sin missing is wrath. Anger obviously exists, but it’s not tangible; at best, it’s calmed and cooled and turned into the Great Personal Essay. Do you think there should be more showing of passion or fury, or does this go back to stepping outside of the culture?

I think this is part of the cynical remove, part of not taking anything too seriously. Even in feminism, you see outrage, but you don't necessarily see anger. And those are two hugely different modes. In literature, everything seems to have been tamed by the MFA culture, the workshopping and the managing, there if very little anymore that is truly wild.

And yet we live in a sick world that should absolutely make us angry. I don't really get it.

There's that line from the Vidal-Buckley debates, where Buckley snaps: "Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered." If he said that today, he'd probably be (very publicly) dropped from his publisher, and come back in two years letting us know how well he's 'worked through his anger'. Of course we can wax nostalgic about this loss of honest emotion, but I'm curious what you think this removes from the actual artistic production of today's writers?

Anger = engagement, don't you think? Obviously there was a time when anger went unchecked in that kind of way, in the Norman Mailer Stabs His Wife kind of way, in the big dicks swinging around kind of way. And this is just an overcorrection. But at the same time, there's a way to do anger in a productive, interesting way. Um, you know, punk music? It doesn't just have to be in the male ego mode. And yet it went to an ugly place, we're trying to step back from it as a result, but we took it too far.

But I think it absolutely makes us internal instead of external, this shying away from anger. We're all dealing with our parents' divorces and how that made us feel rather than actual societal engagement. Instead of getting angry at Wall Street, at Obama for his drone program, at whatever, we make jokes about these things and write about our own traumatic past instead.

I think "overcorrection" is one of the most apt terms for this phenomenon, as well as many others—but it's never used. Speaking of. We're getting negative aren't we? Let's overcorrect to the utterly positive. Who are today's most underappreciated writers?

In America, Kathryn Davis, hands down. Internationally, Gail Hareven is a fucking genius and I keep waiting for her Ferrante moment, but for that to happen male critics have to anoint her and so far they're taking a pass on her. In the younger generation, Guadalupe Nettel is very good, older: Enzensberger and Kluge in Germany don't get enough love in the States.

Is there a thread between these writers, stylistically or semantically?

Not really, they're all pretty different. Hareven, Enzensberger and Kluge all work with some of the darkest moments of history, of really engaging with the past in a way I really, really don't see current American writers doing. 

I feel like I didn't name enough, so I'll also say Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Daphne Gottlieb, Anne Boyer, Toni Sala, A Igoni Barrett, Rebecca Brown.

We're nearly out of time. Let's be general again. What's the future for Bookslut, and for you?

No idea. And that is fine with me.

Fair. What mundane activity do you hope the Jessa Crispin of 2026 will be doing right now?

God, I hope she's copyediting a book with a cup of tea somewhere in Romania. That would be nice.

Thanks for your time, Jessa, and your words.

Thanks for having me.